Or Why Doesn't Bob/Sue have their Knighthood/Laurel/Pelican/MoD/etc.
In my continuing series of articles pontificating on the SCA awards process, this article tries to address how a polling order and polls actually work.
All of the SCA Peerages and many of the midlevel awards are "polling orders." This means that the current members of an order are consulted by the Crowns before new members are added. My experience with polling orders is entirely within Atlantia across five polling orders covering service, A&S, teaching, and two for fencing. Other Kingdoms' processes will likely vary somewhat.
In Atlantia, all of the Peerages (PoA) and Orders of High Merit (GoA) awards are polling orders. The GoA orders are the Orders of the White Scarf (fencing), Gold Dolphin (service), Pearl (A&S), Sea Stag (martial teaching), Kraken (armored fighting), Yew Bow (archery), and Golden Lance (equestrian).
There are a lot of other awards that are not polling orders that are given solely at the discretion of the Crown (or Baronage for Baronial awards). These include all of the AoA/Orders of Merit awards plus things like the Queen's Order of Courtesy, the King's Award of Excellence, and the Nonpareil. These are all in the Non-armigerous sections of the Atlantian Award Chart. These awards are all prestigious but since they are not polling awards, the following discussion does not apply to them.
The Polling Process Itself
Recently I had a very nice private chat with a friend who is frustrated with the transparency of the SCA awards process. I tried to explain that the process is at least semi-opaque to everyone. No one in the process has a complete view of where a candidate stands. One explanation I made to them is something I want to try to flesh out a bit in this article.
The explanation was to break someone's path to a possible award into phases. Most people's candidacy will move through these phases but sometimes phases will get skipped or someone will stall out (sometimes permanently, alas) at some point.
Phase 0: Candidate not on the order's radar at all.
Phase 1: Watchlist - Someone (inside or outside the Order) has said, by writing a recommendation, the candidate is doing good things that this Order recognizes. The person becomes a candidate, is put on the formal watchlist, and comments on their work start to be collected as award recommendations come in and Order members make comments.
Phase 2: Supported - The candidate has at least a small number of Order members who think they are ready. This is reflected in either a straw polling or the "support" button on the watchlist site. The most supported candidates are given as a list to the Crowns at their request.
Phase 3: Polling - The Crown requests the input of the Order on some number of people. Typically this is a subset of the "supported" list, but other people may be added as the Crown chooses. Order members secretly indicate approval, disapproval, or an abstention and, hopefully, provide some commentary to help the Crown understand their polling choice. Only the Crown, and perhaps the Royal Secretary, see the polling responses; the Order itself does not.
Phase 4: Crown Decision - The Crown will review the polling feedback and decide to recognize some fraction (0-100%) of those polled sometime in the next 6 months (most pollings happen at the beginning of a 6 month reign, but are considered valid for the following reign as well). Depending on the preferences of a particular Crown, the Order may or may not be notified in advance. It is very unusual to get feedback on why someone is not selected.
Phase 5: Awarded - The candidate joins the Order.
With this breakdown, perhaps you can see why no one has a perfect view of where a candidate stands. Particular Crowns may or may not be members of any given order so may have no real insight into the early stages of a particular candidacy. Order members have very limited insight into where someone is sitting at the later stages. And candidates have even less insight and get frustrated when Order members say "I don't know."
This process inherently takes time. Six to twenty-four months is typical but it sometimes take longer even for excellent candidates depending on timing and the number of other excellent candidates. Candidates with issues can take much longer. People can sit in a phase 3-4 limbo for a lengthy period. Some people never escape it. And it can be difficult for anyone to provide constructive feedback on what the hold up is. I really don't want to tell a friend something like "You've been on the watchlist for 3 years, we've polled you 4 times, I have supported you twice including this reign, so it could happen, or not". That's not helpful and it breaks Order confidentiality. To me the most helpful thing is to acknowledge their their frustration is legitimate, tell them they are there in your estimation, and continue to help them and the Order get on the same page.
So why doesn't X have award Y?
There are lots of possible reasons that someone doesn't have a particular award. Let's take care of some of easier ones first and gradually move into the trickier possibilities.
Possibility 1: They're not at the right events
If the Crown wants to present someone with an award, generally that person needs to be at the same event as a Crown and the Crown needs to know that they are there. Only rarely (and almost never for a polling order) will a Crown present an award in absentia. Typically the Crown will contact a candidate's designated point of contact (their Peer if they have one, or other senior person who knows them) to try to identify a suitable event. Leaving before court is also an excellent way to not get awards.
Of course, there are many valid reasons for not attending events including work, family, financial and religious constraints. While valid and reasonable, these issues can delay recognition.
Possibility 2: They're not doing the thing the award recognizes.
Take a look at the list of Atlantian Awards. There sure are a lot of them! They cover just about everything the SCA does and at multiple levels (beginner, advanced, expert). Take a look at the description and make sure that the award covers the area that you think it does. Sometimes the distinction can be subtle. For instance, the Order of the Sea Stag is for excellence (see the next topic) in teaching of rapier or armored combat. We from time to time get recommendations for people who have run a fighter practice for many years - which is a related, but different thing. Running lots of practices is service and is worthy of being recognized with a service award, but it does not indicate one way or the other if the person is a high quality teacher. If they are responsible for teaching lots of high quality fighters at that practice, then they are a good Sea Stag candidate. A good award recommendation will describe the things the candidate has done in the area of the award.
Possibility 3: "Excellence" or Quantity and Quality are different
Note that almost every award in the Atlantian list is described as recognizing excellence. They are intended to be awarded based on the quality of a candidate's work in the topic area. Someone doing an awful lot of something is not necessarily doing it well. The orders are really looking at the quality of the work. To get a feel for the level of excellence that an order is seeking look at the last several recipients of that award - not current skill of the people who have had it for 20 years.
Possibility 4: "Hidden" Requirements
Many awards have "hidden" requirements that are not listed in the one sentence description on the linked chart. For instance, all of the Peerages have requirements listed in the SCA governing documents (called "corpora"). See section VIII-A on page 30 at https://www.sca.org/docs/pdf/govdocs.pdf. These are sometimes referred to as Peer-like Qualities, or PLQs. Even non-peerages may be reluctant to endorse someone for recognition that isn't making a good effort to improve in their PLQs. Most of the higher level awards also expect teaching and leadership in the topic area.
Feel free to ask someone who is already in an order what the requirements are. There are also multiple Facebook groups dedicated to these topics (Ask the White Scarves, The Circle - Chivalric Discussions, Aspirants seeking Peer guidance, etc.) that you can ask questions on. And many people have written articles on what they expect from a good candidate for a particular order. I have written ones for the Order of the Sea Stag and for the fencing polling Orders (White Scarf and Master of Defense). Fire up a google search and see what you can find.
Possibility 5: Enough of the Right People haven't noticed
In order to be recognized, a fair number of people have to have noticed the excellent work of the candidate. Referring back to the list of phases above, at least one person has to notice and write a recommendation about the candidate in order to reach Phase 1/Watchlist. Then, multiple current members of the Order have to notice in order to reach Phase 2/Supported. And finally, a significant portion of the Order have to notice in order to succeed at the Phase 3/Polling stage.
One common cause of not being noticed by enough people is making frequent moves from Kingdom to Kingdom or even to a new region within one Kingdom. This happens a lot to our military folks as well as to college students. I know I moved around the country in my early career before getting married, buying a house, and staying in one place for the last 20-ish years. This sort of moving makes people have to mostly start over in the SCA awards process each time they move. It just takes time for people in the new location to get to know you and what your skills are. This has improved a little with the expansion of social media as Order members have friends around the world and try to alert them when a promising person is moving into their area.
The members of the Orders are actively out looking for new people to recognize. It is our job and most people take it seriously. But we are not omniscient or omnipresent. We need other people to write recommendations. We need candidates to travel outside of their local area to get seen by more people. Having a website or Atlantian wiki page that describes your work helps distant people to evaluate what you are doing (see our classes on setting up a website, taking photos for your website, and using the Atlantian wiki for ideas.) Teach classes at University and post your handouts, slides, or photos where people can see them.
Let me emphasize again that we need people to write recommendations. As I told a friend "more eyes make it harder not to see." For Atlantian candidates use the recommendation site at http://award.atlantia.sca.org/. Please be sure to research that you are recommending for the appropriate award and describe the candidate's excellence in that award's area of interest. Why recommend someone for an award without being specific about why they deserve it? When appropriate, include a link to their website or other ways to document their efforts. Award recommendations are sent by the system to the Crown, the Order's mailing list, and added to the saved discussion about each candidate on the order's watchlist. Please also sign your recommendation.
I personally do several things. First, I regularly review a roster of my local group as well as reviewing all of the good things that I saw at each event and try to find a few outstanding people to recommend for an award. Second, I actively go to competitions, presentations, and classes to watch for and evaluate candidates. Third, I take and share lots of pictures of competitions (both A&S and fencing) to help other people see the great work that is being done. Finally, I am diligent at reading all of the saved comments about a candidate when I am responding to a poll so that I can say "yes" to people who I don't personally know when there is evidence of their excellence.
Possibility 6: They're really close and it just needs more time
The SCA awards process can be frustratingly slow and imperfect. Once a person reaches the (very squishy) standard for an award, it typically takes at least 6 months for the process to catch up with them. If they do something great just after a polling has been completed, that can add time before they can get polled in the next cycle. And there's a chance for other new people to do something else great right before the next polling and have the urgency of that first person be diminished. I call this the "squirrel" problem in reference to the dogs in "Up" who are easily distracted. Excellent candidates with no issues can sometimes take much longer than 6 months.
Possibility 7: There is an Issue
Sometimes there is a real or perceived flaw that is causing the lack of an award. These generally won't be obvious to most outside people. Often, the Order will assign a point of contact (the person's Peer if they have one or other local friend) to try to communicate the concern and work with the candidate on how to address the issue. The problem could be with the quality of the work or could be in the PLQ related realm.
Candidates can certainly ask members of an Order for feedback. While this is fine to do, it will generally result in multiple, often contradictory, pieces of advice. These differences are due to variations in points of view or experience rather than an intent to confuse, but it can take some effort to identify a path to retiring the issue sufficiently to pass a polling.
Possibility 8: They're being blocked for some invalid reason
I have heard people complain about this happening a lot but have only actually seen it very rarely and not very effectively. I know that a Crown in another Kingdom that I briefly lived in removed my name from an award list because they were mad at me (I didn't like them much either). And, frankly, I'm mostly ok with that. Awards are at the discretion of the Crown and a new Crown will be along in a few months who perhaps I haven't pissed off. And if I've pissed off a lot of Crowns then perhaps the issue is not with them. (In my case, I moved before another Crown had a chance to address the issue.)
Individual order members have a much smaller chance of blackballing someone since polling responses are secret and SCA members generally have a strong sense of fairness. I know that I have said "yes" on pollings for people that I was not fond of but who had demonstrated their excellence and "no" on friends who I did not feel had done so. Perhaps it happens more in other Kingdoms or in Orders that I am not a member of. I do know that some people can hold a grudge for a very long time, but that in my experience they will get called on that sort of thing and their opinion discounted if they persist in harping on old news.
Please give me feedback on this article. At this point I suspect that I haven't captured everything that should go here and am interested in expanding with other possibilities or clarifying the ones that I have already listed. I am "Llwyd Aldrydd" on Facebook and my email is BaronLlwyd at gmail dot com.
In the Facebook discussion of this article, one of the commenters linked to a similar article that I then read and liked called The Worst Question You’re Likely to Ask. Give it a read if you're interested in someone else's take on this topic.