How (not) to Run Worlds: Advice from two people who needed it

Harish Natarajan and Michael Baer
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When we agreed to serve as the chief adjudicators for the 34th World Universities Debating Championships (WUDC or Worlds) in Chennai, we expected to confront a wide variety of challenges – missing teams, significant delays, and even adverse dietary reactions were all within the realm of what we considered possible. The prospect that the tournaments judges would go on strike, however, was not a scenario we had entertained. Yet on the second day of the competition, we awoke to an email informing us that if independent adjudicators did not receive the travel subsidies they had been promised by the end of the day, they would refuse to judge the last three preliminary rounds and the elimination rounds of the tournament. Although the strike was averted, Worlds came dangerously close to grinding to a halt. When participants left Chennai on 4 January, the threatened judging strike and the numerous other problems meant that almost everyone saw the event as an organizational failure.

While it is comforting to treat Chennai as an aberration, its organizational difficulties were just an extreme case of a general problem. Many WUDCs have been marred by organizational shortcomings and failed to live up to their promises. The frequency of these organizational missteps is equalled by the frequency of the pledges by both WUDC hosts and the broader global debating community not to repeat the mistakes of the past. We should know: when we became the chief adjudicators for Chennais bid to host Worlds, we made many such pledges. During the bidding process and in the months leading up to the tournament, we vowed to improve the registration process, secure more reliable funding from sponsors, and house participants in a lavish hotel. We were aware that chief adjudicators and tournament organizers before us had frequently over-promised and under-delivered, but we were confident in our ability to oversee one of the most successful Worlds in recent memory. We were wrong.

So what happened? Why did Chennai Worlds fall so short of the goals we set? And why is Worlds often characterized by raised hopes at the outset and frustration during and after the tournament? This article attempts to answer these questions. Drawing on our own experiences, we reflect on some of the lessons we learned and attempt to shed light on how future hosts and the international debating community can avoid the problems that have plagued WUDCs.

What Went Wrong in Chennai?

Chennai Worlds contended with more than its fair share of organizational setbacks from tracking registration payments, to issues with getting participants visas, allocating hotel rooms, picking participants safely up from the airport, toilet paper disappearing, insufficient food provision, and dangerous dirt bike socials there are simply too many to discuss in a single article. Rather than present an exhaustive narrative of how the tournament unfolded, we have chosen to highlight a couple of incidents that illustrate some of the most serious difficulties. Unfortunately, describing some of the problems that occurred implies criticism of the institutions and individuals who organized the tournament (ourselves included). Many of these individuals worked incredibly hard and, despite the many challenges, contributed enormously to the successful elements of the tournament. Our purpose is not to disparage these individuals or otherwise point fingers nearly a year after the competition. Instead, our hope is that others will learn from our perspective and our mistakes.

Adjudicators Threaten to Go on Strike

The threatened judging strike was probably the most memorable organizational incident from Chennai. Those who were there likely remember the facts all too well. Briefly, however, here is what happened. Like all recent WUDCs, Chennai made a substantial amount of money available to help pay for experienced judges to attend Worlds as independent adjudicators.  The amount in the budget for independent adjudicator travel (and for travel alone) was 40,000 euros. 1 The adjudication core made most of the decisions about which independent adjudicators to fund, and the travel subsidies we offered were quoted in euros. Aside from the figures in the budgeting documents, we never discussed the currency of reimbursement with the administration of Rajalakshmi Engineering College (REC the institution that hosted Chennai Worlds).

At the tournament, RECs administration indicated that they wanted to pay judges in rupees, rather than euros. Their rationale was that they received income in rupees and it did not make sense to pay subsidies in a different currency. The administration also wanted to use the exchange rate that was prevalent in December 2012, rather than the one in December 2013. The rupee had depreciated during the intervening year, and so REC argued that the cost (in rupees) of providing 40,000 euros in subsidies had increased. While this was true, there had been no communication about this concern leading up to the tournament. Judges were understandably frustrated by these developments, and that frustration was made worse because the other organizational failures had already created an atmosphere of mistrust. Faced with the prospect of being underpaid in the wrong currency, and amidst a growing fear that they would not be reimbursed at all, the judges rightly, in our view, leveraged their role in the competition to force the College to pay the amount promised in euros. On day three of the competition, REC was able to pay the judges in full.

Although many participants correctly perceived that we, as chief adjudicators, supported the actions of the judges, we also bear some of the responsibility for what transpired. Confirming the precise details of the reimbursements with the administration should have been a priority, especially given that there were some early warning signs that judge funding could be an issue. In particular, the College seemed to encounter significant hurdles in trying to book flights for independent adjudicators. When we extended offers of travel subsidies to independent adjudicators, we gave them a choice: they could be reimbursed at the tournament, or in exceptional cases we could wire them the money or book a ticket on their behalf. Several adjudicators understandably opted for one of these latter options, and we began trying to facilitate the travel arrangements with REC. But despite months of back-and-forth emails between us, the adjudicators, and the organizers at REC, not a single independent adjudicator actually received a wire transfer or had a flight purchased on their behalf.

These difficulties should have been red flags. At a minimum, we should have been more transparent about our lack of control over the funding process, instead of continuing to pass on revised deadlines for when travel arrangements would be made. In one egregious case, we sent emails on five different occasions assuring an independent adjudicator that his flights would be taken care of that week or within a few days. Although transparency might have jeopardized the willingness of some excellent judges to attend, it would also have facilitated increased pressure. By the time of the threatened strike, we had come to realize that outside pressure can be necessary to catalyse action.

From One Hotel to Three (and then Four)

A centrepiece of the Chennai bid to host Worlds was the hotel we had promised to secure for participants. The hotel, the ITC Grand Chola, was close to brand new at the time of the competition, and it is probably more over-the-top than any accommodation at a previous WUDC. Yet rather than accommodate participants at the Chola, REC assigned them to one of three hotels run by the still-luxurious, though certainly less so, Taj brand spread across several kilometers. Worse, more than one hundred participants were told there were not enough rooms at any of the three hotels for them. Tournament organizers had to scramble to find a fourth hotel that could accommodate these participants.

On one level, the administrations decision to change the hotel was understandable. REC did not raise as much sponsorship as they had intended, and the Taj Hotels cost less than 50% of what the college had budgeted for the ITC. But regardless of the financial wisdom of the decision, the change in hotel needed to be communicated to participants earlier, with an explanation as to why the ITC was no longer a viable option. The College, however, did not appear to appreciate that changing a key detail of the bid would cause participants frustration.

There certainly would have been less frustration if changing hotels had not been compounded with the failure to book enough rooms for participants. Candidly, we still do not know exactly how so many participants ended up without a room upon registration. Given that the College was in control of the finances, and it was RECs solvency on the line, we had very little insight into negotiations with the Taj hotels. We did not see how many rooms the college had booked, nor did we (the CAs and the student organisation committee) see the contract or have the opportunity to talk to the hotel before they signed.

Our experience suggests that hotels are an aspect of the bidding process where it is especially easy to over-promise and under-deliver. When participants arrive at Worlds, they will go where theyre assigned, regardless of whether the hotel meets the promised specifications. Oversight is difficult because bidding institutions can claim that they are negotiating or have an agreement with a hotel which is hard to verify yet can also genuinely state that they will not (and should not) sign a contract with a hotel until after a bid is won and ratified. After ratification, little can be done to change a hosts decision about hotels.

Sources of Organizational Failures

From our perspective, two causes lie at the heart of the organizational problems at Chennai and other WUDCs: first, the host institutions lack of experience at putting on large debating competitions, and second, a misplaced belief that an experienced adjudication core can compensate for the hosts inexperience.
Institutional Inexperience

Within the past fifteen years, no institution has hosted Worlds more than once. And even if they had, the organizational team would likely have been vastly different the second time. To at least some degree then, each WUDC host has been unprepared for the responsibility. Worlds is too large an undertaking an institution has to be responsible for more than 1,000 participants for eight days to master every detail the first time around. But experience hosting large debating competitions matters. No matter how well-intentioned a host institution may be, overcoming a lack of familiarity with large debating competitions will prove daunting.

Prior to Chennai Worlds, neither the REC administration nor the key members of the local organisation committee had run a competition of any meaningful size.  In fact, the debate program at REC was recently formed and participants had not attended many WUDCs. That kind of inexperience manifests itself in several ways in preparing to host Worlds. On a practical level, there is a tendency to underestimate the time and resources it takes to successfully run a competition like Worlds if an institution has not gone through a similar ordeal. For instance, the REC administration (although not the student organisation committee) believed that they needed no more than 40 volunteers to run the event. Similarly, the administration undervalued, in our view, the importance of conducting extensive practice runs in the days leading up to the competition.

On a less tangible, but perhaps more consequential level, an inexperienced host institution lacks the kind of intuitive familiarity with debating competitions that only comes with years of participating in the community. There is a certain rhythm to debating competitions, and a set of expectations, that can be difficult to explain to individuals who have not spent many of their weekends during university traveling to IVs. For instance, anyone who had attended multiple WUDCs would probably have understood the value of housing participants in one hotel; the time participants spend interacting with debaters from across the globe back at the hotel is one of the highlights of Worlds. But from the perspective of an inexperienced institution, the downsides of using three hotels might seem worth the financial savings.

Relatedly, a familiarity with debating competitions can help host institutions understand and anticipate the kinds of sore spots that will most antagonize participants. Readers who attended Worlds in Botswana will remember the difficulties that the organisation committee had procuring meals that complied with some participants dietary needs. One preliminary round had to be delayed nearly two hours so that vegetarian attendees would not have to debate or judge on an empty stomach. Yet even more frustrating to some at the time was what many perceived as the organisation committees nonchalant attitude toward this failure; the committee seemed genuinely caught off guard by the participants strong reaction. Similarly, the REC administration appeared to us to be taken aback by the level of outrage over judging subsidies. While on the one hand these kinds of frustrations are relatively easy to anticipate not feeding participants in accordance with their dietary restrictions and failing to pay judges the full amount they were promised would strike most people as unacceptable we think a host institutions slow reaction time often reflects a gap in understanding that experience hosting competitions and greater exposure to the global debating community would fix.

To be fair, REC recognized that their lack of experience could be problematic, and they made a sincere effort to guard against the mistakes inexperienced hosts are prone to make. For instance, REC brought a large delegation to Worlds in Berlin.  Senior administration officials, as well as 10 members of the organizing committee came to Berlin and made a genuine effort to understand the logistics of hosting Worlds. The organizers also put on what was largely considered to be a successful social, giving us and many participants confidence in how the tournament would be run. While the trip to Berlin was valuable – and something we would recommend for all future organising committees – in hindsight it just was not enough.  And in some ways, the large College presence at Berlin and the relative success of Chennai Night were actually counterproductive. These experiences gave the REC administration confidence that they understood Worlds and would be able to run the competition without much trouble. This confidence made the administration less willing to heed the advice and wishes of the student organization committee, external organizers, and the adjudication team.

Additionally, REC took the significant step of funding an external organisation committee to help handle logistics at Worlds. This committee consisted largely of experienced European tournament organizers, several of whom held senior positions in the Berlin Worlds organizing committee. Without this external organisation committee, it is questionable whether Worlds would have been run at all. However, as the College had never worked with the external committee before, the College was reluctant to trust them or allow them to make independent decisions. Meetings between the external committee and the administration often descended into shouting matches. While external experience is valuable, it cannot replace institutional knowledge unless external organizers have independent authority to make decisions. But host institutions will be understandably reluctant to hand over that kind of authority when it is their money and their reputation on the line.

Misplaced Faith in the Adjudication Core

When we were campaigning for Chennais worlds bid, several country representatives we spoke with expressed concern about whether REC could handle the organizational responsibilities. Our response was generally to sing our own praises even if REC was an inexperienced institution, we argued, the two of us would be actively involved in overseeing the preparations for Worlds. With our collective experience, the competition would run smoothly. We were wrong. Although we dedicated significant time and effort to following through on the promises we made about Chennai Worlds, we found ourselves far less capable of influencing the preparations than we had thought. Based on the conversations we have had with previous Worlds adjudication core members, this is a common mistake.

It is not just the adjudication core members themselves who over-estimate their influence on Worlds; the global debating community similarly places too much faith in a bids adjudication core. To some degree this is understandable the members of the adjudication core are often the most well-known and experienced individuals associated with a bid, and so they end up being the metric that participants use to calibrate expectations. But we hope this article can help debunk the myth for future adjudication core members and participants alike that the adjudication core has control over the logistics of Worlds.

The principal reason this myth is unfounded is because final decision-making authority almost always rests with the host institution (or the organization committee). This was particularly true in Chennai, where the Colleges administration was actively involved in the organisation process, and therefore wanted its administrators to have the final say on all decisions. While the administration was occasionally happy to listen to our advice, we had limited ability to implement changes on our own.

For the influence we did have, we felt a need to marshal carefully. As the adjudication teams organizational influence is derived from the colleges willingness to listen, our tendency was to be diplomatic rather than confrontational. We felt there was a risk of poisoning the well with the administration if we attempted to micromanage from abroad, jeopardizing our working relationship before we arrived in Chennai. Avoiding that outcome meant relying on the representations from the organization committee and the administration, pushing back only when we felt it was necessary. In hindsight, we erred too far on the side caution. For example, we should have placed substantially more pressure on the college when it came to choice of hotels in the lead up to the competition. We should have pushed to see signed contracts, rather than accepting it will be signed soon as a sufficient explanation.

At some point, however, criticism and scepticism do more harm than good. Every adjudication core needs to be able to rely on the organisation committees representations and visa versa in order for meaningful collaboration to take place. Chief adjudicators should not, in our view, set themselves in opposition to the host institution. However, this further reduces the ability of a CA team to influence the running of the event.

Suggestions

The World Debating Community has a strong interest in not repeating the organisational problems that Chennai encountered. That is much easier to say than to do it is hard to completely eliminate the risk of an organisational catastrophe. We hope that some of the suggestions below can reduce that risk.

Improve the Bidding Process

In a perfect world, the best way to avoid the challenges that plague Worlds would be to more reliably select hosts that will put on excellent competitions. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to know two years out which of the promises in a bid will be fulfilled and which ones will not. Compounding the problem, institutions bidding to host Worlds have every incentive to promise the moon to secure the bid because, once theyve been selected, the debating community is locked into that bid. The costs of transitioning to another host or, in the worst-case scenario, cancelling Worlds, are simply too high to constitute a credible alternative. While we believe most promises during the bidding process are made in good faith, we also suspect that institutions would be far more conservative about what they promise if there were a mechanism to hold them accountable.

Without such a mechanism, our best advice to anyone who has a say in selecting a Worlds host is to decide on a bid based on the individuals who put it together, not on what those individuals promise to deliver. As best we can tell, this is the opposite of how most institutions and countries currently make decisions about which host to select. Cost, understandably, tends to be the first factor, but the lavishness of the hotel, the amount of free alcohol, and other similar perks are also high on the list.

To the extent that the individuals associated with the bid receive any scrutiny, that attention tends to fall on the named members of the adjudication core. This too is understandable as we have explained, members of an adjudication core usually have deep ties to the debating community, and they of course have a vital role to play in the tournament itself. But when deciding between bids, the quality of an adjudication core cannot meaningfully counterbalance a lack of institutional organizational strength.

The debating community should therefore focus on who the members of the organization committee are and why their institution is bidding to host Worlds. Key organizers should be prepared to discuss their prior experience putting on large events, how they plan to divide up responsibilities for the competition, and how they will interact with each other, their universitys administration, and the adjudication core. Members of the debating community should also ask tough questions about why an institution wants to host Worlds, what it stands to gain, and how it has demonstrated a commitment to debating. If an institution seems like it is prematurely vying for the chance to host Worlds, a healthy dose of scepticism is warranted.

In some cases there is only so much that you can find out through questioning prospective hosts directly. It may be useful to allow other institutions on the prospective hosts national (or regional) debating circuit to comment on their perception over the hosts suitability – even if only privately. While that information may be biased and coloured by inter-personal relations, their comments may still be valuable.

Strengthen the Audit of Host Institutions

Arguably, the single worst mistake we made as chief adjudicators was failing to travel to Chennai in the months leading up to the competition. A visit to the campus, and in-person conversations with RECs administration and the organization committee, would likely have allowed us to spot several of the areas that would later become trouble spots. We could then have spent the months before Worlds trying to strengthen some of the key interpersonal relationships and focusing our efforts on the logistical hurdles that would prove to be the most problematic, such as increasing the number of volunteers. Yet even if we had made such a visit, and we had spotted problems in the making, our ability to correct them would have been limited by the need to preserve a good working relationship with REC.

The complicated relationship between an adjudication core and a host institution is one of the many reasons why we support the decision of Worlds Council to send a small team of independent auditors to evaluate a host institutions preparedness three to six months before Worlds. These auditors Councils resolution requires two or three must publish a report on their visit within two weeks of returning. In theory, this new requirement should provide the debating community with much-needed transparency. A hosts preparations for Worlds have generally been a black box, and attendees often do not know what to expect until they arrive. And unlike the adjudication core, institutional constraints should not limit the auditors ability to be critical.

We were pleased to see that the audit report for the Malaysia bid was candid about the deficit Worlds will likely run this year. But we were disappointed that the report came out more than a month later than the deadline set in the Council resolution (our understanding is that this was not due to any fault of the auditor). Conducting such an audit within the timeframe set by Council is critical because that maximizes the leverage attendees can exert. Ideally, the audit report for future years will be published before attendees have submitted their last round of payments. As we saw first-hand in Chennai, sometimes outside pressure is necessary to catalyse action. We would also like to see the audit report cover more ground. Auditors should describe conversations with the host universitys administration, meetings with key third parties especially hotels and the status of important contracts. That kind of detail would empower attendees to apply pressure to the host on the issues that are most likely to flare up at the competition.

Pass on Organizational Knowledge

Many of the challenges we have discussed in this article could be avoided if hosting Worlds was something other than a one-shot game. If the debating community professionalized and monetized the responsibility of putting together the WUDC every year, we are confident that there would be a dramatic rise in the quality of the competitions organization. For now, that goal is unrealistic. As an alternative, hosts should look for ways to avoid re-inventing the wheel every year.

One way to do a better job of passing on organizational knowledge and experience is to treat organizational documents the way Worlds adjudication cores have come to treat adjudicator and debater briefings. Each year, an adjudication core starts with the previous years adjudicator and debater briefings and then makes the edits they see fit. Such a system provides for significant continuity the majority of the briefing remains unchanged while allowing for flexibility to add clarity to contentious issues or respond to changing norms on the international debating circuit.

Given that each host will face a unique set of organizational challenges (different numbers of attendees, different hotels, different costs, etc), there is clearly less room for continuity on the organizational side than there is on the adjudication side. That being said, there is no reason not to try to standardize certain aspects of running Worlds. Registration, both before and at the tournament, would be a strong candidate. The website and spreadsheets organizers use to keep track of which institutions have registered for Worlds should be passed down from organisation committee to organisation committee. The same goes for the spreadsheets organizers use to assign participants to particular hotel rooms and the process for checking in participants at the start of each morning.

Worlds Council should require hosts to make these and similar documents available to future hosts. Admittedly, every host wants to put in place their own new system for improving how Worlds is run; that is how we felt, and we have talked with future hosts who have similar ambitions. But there is value in continuity Worlds will run more smoothly if repeat attendees are familiar with past systems, and participants will be well served if hosts avoid the temptation to test-run their ideas, like a brand-new check-in system, at Worlds. If future hosts can more easily implement a procedure that previous hosts have successfully used, the variance in the organizational quality of Worlds from year to year will decrease.

Conclusion

Deciding which institution gets to host Worlds will always involve a significant degree of uncertainty. A hosts motivations for bidding may be opaque, and the international debating community will never have perfect information about a hosts ability to live up to the promises in its bid. Athere is a risk that If so,

The experience of Chennai, coming so soon after Botswana, should ideally catalyse the international debating community to avoid this outcome. Although we have not discussed the challenge of drumming up more bids, we hope this article will help those tasked with voting on bids scrutinise bids more carefully. At a minimum, there should be an expectation that a Worlds bid prove itself by virtue of past organizational success, even if such a norm may be unrealistic in the immediate future. In the long run, even more is required. It is vital that the debating community find effective ways of monitoring the preparations that hosts are making and create mechanism to pressure organization committees to live up to their promises. Without such reforms, the frustrations participants experienced in Chennai, Botswana, and elsewhere will recur.

  1. As a practical matter, this depreciation was offset by the fact that the adjudication core had only allocated 32,000 euros of our travel budget, rather than the 40,000 euros that was promised at ratification