Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Of WikiCouncils

My gnomes have mentioned to me that there has been, since the October board retreat, some discussion about some sort of "WikiCouncil", consisting of respected members of the various communities, brought together to discuss issues and advise the Board. The exact details of the proposal vary depending on who makes it, and from moment to moment, but in general there seems to be some significant support for this amongst most of the vested parties at the Foundation level, with one notable exception: the Board's newest member, Erik.

I have long supported having a council of this sort. A council of Wikimedians, chosen by the communities to represent them, and wielding at least some influence over Foundation matters, would go a long way to restoring the sense that the community has real input into the operation of the Foundation—something which has, of late, been largely lacking. In the long term and in the ideal case, I actually think that an assembly of delegates elected from the various project communities (with the number of delegates from each community being decided by some fair and agreeable method and the method of election left largely up to each community) actually replacing the Board as the ultimate controlling authority would be the best model for long-term governance of the Foundation. (This assembly would meet once a year, immediately before, during, or immediately after Wikimania, and elect a Board, which would then govern between these annual meetings.) The Foundation is probably not ready at this point in its existence to move to such a governance model, however, and I do not today advocate it. However, efforts to establish a possible precursors to such an entity would be a good thing, in my eyes, not only for the potential it would offer for a long-term move toward true community governance of the Foundation, but also the shorter-term value of better community input into the strategic vision of the Foundation with today's governance (which quite frankly has almost no obligation to the community at all).

I freely admit that I have not read any of the discussion surrounding this concept on the Wikimedia public mailing lists; those lists are full of sound and fury, signifying almost entirely nothing. In almost every discussion on a public Wikimedia mailing list, the discussion is dominated by the noisy fringe, and in general the reasonable people bow out of the discussion because they do not wish to argue pointlessly with these fringe elements, who in many cases border on trolls. Nor have I read any of the private discussions—even when I was still involved in Wikimedia activities I only had access to the ComCom's mailing list, and certainly never to the vaunted internal-l or private-l, which is supposedly where all the real dirty business takes place. The Wikimedia Foundation has long been the home to some very ugly turf games and internal politicking, and I see no reason why that would have gotten any better with Erik's election; in fact, I would expect that it has gotten much worse. (I cannot begin to imagine how ugly the politics of the executive search and the discussion regarding Tim Shell's replacement must be.)

What I find interesting, though, is Erik's strident opposition (and I characterize it as "strident" based on what my gnomes are telling me; I have no direct experience with it myself, as I generally avoid talking to Erik, for reasons I may share at a later date, and as mentioned I have not read the mailing lists). I can only assume that this is because Erik feels that such a council would diminish his own importance. Sadly, this should not be a factor that a responsible member of the Board of Trustees of a nonprofit organization would use in decisionmaking for that organization, but I have seen decisions made for the Foundation in the past with equally questionable motives, as well, so I shall not waste too much time applying the tar and feathers to the Board's newest member. But I most definitely do call into question his motives for opposing what is quite clearly a very sensible means of establishing a viable channel for community feedback into the Foundation, something which both the Foundation and the communities need, in order to ensure that the Foundation is actually serving the communities' interests and that the communities feel that they have some real stake in the operation of the Foundation. It is my understanding that virtually everyone at the board retreat—save Erik—supported some sort of council. And yet, now that the retreat is over, Erik is building a grassroots campaign against what would normally appear to be the sort of thing the grassroots would want. (Is this grassroots, or astroturf? Hm.....)

Anyway, very curious situation. Makes me glad that I'm just an observer, not a stakeholder.