[Foundation-l] wikicouncil

Erik Moeller erik at wikimedia.org
Sun Dec 30 12:34:32 UTC 2007

On 12/30/07, Florence Devouard <Anthere9 at yahoo.com> wrote:
> So... I take it you support board members having the right to comment
> and debate publicly on every issue under the sun.

As I said, my preference is to contextualize open debates as such:
Implicitly, by asking for opinions on foundation-l and other public
lists, and/or explicitly, by labeling them as such. And an open debate
should be just that.

Outside the scope of an open debate, we should be more careful and
judicious when commenting: because we are agents of the Foundation,
whether as Board or Staff members, and because constant public
dissonance would make it more difficult to execute decisions.

So, to me there is a difference between an open discussion about a
Wikicouncil, or about the fundraiser, or about offline reader
technology, and an announcement of a decision that is contradicted by
individual Board members, or the people who are supposed to implement
it; there is a difference between an open discussion about hiring
policies, and sticking to an established communications framework for
something like the Carolyn Doran incident.

Obviously there will be borderline cases, but I'd much rather at least
have some basic structure to start with.

> There is an inconsistency here: how do you suggest that we have open
> debates, whilst at the same time presenting a shared vision ?

For this, too, we need to establish structures and processes. What is
the Board's role in defining the strategy of the Foundation? Different
non-profits have answered this very differently: The scope ranges from
non-profits with huge volunteer Boards that want to get involved in
every operational detail, to those with small hands-off Boards that
merely give their ED a thumbs up 2-4 times per year.

The best practice for us is probably somewhere in the middle. For the
organization with strong Board involvement, it typically becomes a
problem to find competent staff members. The kind of ED who can make
the trains runs on time is also the kind of ED who wants a certain
amount of influence over the vision, and a certain amount of freedom
to implement it: if you want skills, you also have to grant freedoms.
And of course, the more people are involved in strategy-making, the
more likely it becomes that a consistent strategy cannot form at all,
and that there is a constant back and forth between several internal

Our situation is complicated by the fact that the Board doesn't just
exist in the Board room: It's a permanent presence on mailing lists,
IRC, and so on, to some extent even more so than the staff. And of
course the Board is the ED's boss, and by extension, positioned higher
than any single staff member.

In a worst case scenario, we end up with confused staff receiving
direction from multiple places, with mixed messaging, with a strategy
that is constantly being called into question. In a best case
scenario, everyone knows and understands their role, and conflicts and
tensions arise only infrequently and, preferably, privately.

Here are some parameters that could be the basis of an alternative
framework. I'm not saying these exact parameters are the ones we
should use, but they could be a starting point:

* The Board meets, online or in person, four times a year. Beyond
emergency decisions and unusual situations like the absence of an ED,
it is within the scope of these meetings that the Board should
exercise its high-level decision-making power.
* The Board can define high-level goals such as
http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/4_wishes_for_year_2007 ; these
could also include more specific high level goals such as "achieve
greater licensing compatibility" or "ensure that our projects are in
compliance with the principles of free content". This would be my
preference based on the experience e.g. with the licensing reform.
* The ED and staff will typically be responsible for preparing a more
detailed roadmap which will be approved by the Board, with some
feedback and refinements during the Board meetings.
* Outside the scope of Board meetings, the Board and Staff would be
permitted to begin open debates on a topic, if clearly contextualized
as such. The Chair and ED would typically initiate higher level
debates ("Should we have a Wikicouncil", "What is the role of the
Board", "How should we allocate our resources"), while staff members
would do so within their domain expertise.

Staff and Board members are equally free to comment in such debates,
keeping in mind the obvious constraints such as previous agreements of
confidentiality, no personal attacks, etc. Comments are understood to
be personal opinions, not policy.

Beyond open debates, both Board & Staff members have to be more
judicious when commenting, and should generally try to follow agreed
upon lines of communication or comment within their area of expertise
(e.g. to answer a community question).

This is under the assumption that there is no Wikicouncil. In my
opinion, a Wikicouncil - if it is to make matters better, not worse -
needs to literally assume some responsibilities currently handled by
the Board, rather than merely being an extension to the Board's
community members. That is, to the extent that the Board currently
makes decisions which have a high community impact, the Wikicouncil
could make at least some of them in the future.

Where significant domain expertise is required, my preference is for
the council or its committees (if it does create committees) to
function in a consultative, rather than a policymaking role: simply
because an elected body is not going to accumulate through processes
of candidate election all the expertise necessary to actually make
fully informed decisions, and because it lacks the agility (quickness)
to acquire that expertise externally.

So, in a three-body system, a process like the licensing reform could
have worked as follows:

* The Board defines greater compatibility between free content
repositories as a goal.
* The ED creates a workgroup of staff & volunteers to implement this
goal. It consults with Wikicouncil, Board, Advisory Board & wider
community members as it deems useful.
* The final decision to implement a particular license on Wikimedia
projects is approved by the Wikicouncil.

Erik Möller

More information about the foundation-l mailing list