Friday, June 22, 2007

Wikimedia Board candidates: Eloquence

The next candidate in the ongoing series is current Board member Erik Möller, also known as Eloquence. Erik has been around about as long as Danny, and has been on the Board since last fall. Erik's statement talks mostly about the Board's accomplishments, and relatively little about his own or the details of his role in those accomplishment; his personal accomplishments are mainly things related to but not part of the Foundation's work. Erik's campaign platform is explicitly a repeat of his platform from the last election, which is in itself interesting; it begs the question as to why he has not accomplished what he set out to do nine months ago.

Erik has perhaps the most extensive answers to questions of any candidate, other than perhaps Danny. Given that he is a current board member, I would certainly expect more and more germane questions. There is more to be found in Erik's answers about his personal accomplishments as a Board member.

One thing that really struck me was Erik's statement that he spends about 20 hours per week on Board activity. This is highly dysfunctional; in a more properly run organization this would be 20 hours a month at most, and more likely 20 hours a quarter. Statements from Florence indicate that this is not unusual. That the members of the Board have to work this hard is, ultimately, an indictment of the Board and its inability, or mere unwillingness, to delegate. Erik, as a member of that Board, ultimately shares in the responsibility for that state of affairs. He's been a Board member for nine months; surely he could have done something about it in that time, or at least described what efforts he's made toward resolving it and why those efforts have not been successful.

Another thing I notice in Erik's answers is his tendency to take credit for other people's work. For example, Erik claims to have "worked closely with Philipp Birken on the coordination of the FlaggedRevs development project". However, VoiceOfAll, the primary implementer, states that Erik's contribution to the project amounted only to "a few comments", and that Erik's main involvement was to suggest that someone coordinate the project using a mailing list. For Erik to claim this as a significant accomplishment is disingenuous at best, and (for me, at least) it seriously calls into question the credibility of his other claims. This is consistent with my past experience: Erik is very willing to take full credit for anyone else's accomplishments, based on even the most tangential contact.

There are seven members of the Board of Trustees at present. In my mind, they are divided into three groups. The first group, consisting of Anthere, Jan-Bart, and Oscar, are trustees who I consider untrustworthy, incompetent, or otherwise useless. The second group, consisting of Jimmy and Erik, are people who seem generally interested in the basic principles of the project, but whom I also do not trust because their personal need to advance their own egos interferes with their commitment to the project. (The remaining group, consisting of Michael and Kat, are the only people on the Board who I believe are actually acting responsibly as trustees.) In Jimmy's case, this takes the form of celebrity appearances, speaking engagements, and so forth (who didn't wince all the way through his painful appearance on The Colbert Show?). In Erik's case, it consists of getting his fingers into as many pies as he can so as to be able to claim credit for any one of them should it develop into something important. Erik is a power broker, and a rather good one at that. Power brokers, however, rarely make good leaders, and Erik fails quite miserably in that regard. They are also notorious for putting personal interest first and foremost, and Erik does a lot of that too. Erik's failure at establishing appropriate institutional controls within the Foundation during his nine months as a Board member is telling; I do not believe that Erik actually intends to push for a more open Foundation (even as he promises to do so during this campaign) as that would interfere with his multifaceted approach to power manipulation. Power brokers want information to be controlled tightly, because (as we know) information is power, and those with access to the information will therefore have more power. This is reinforced by Erik's passionate defense of the so-called "secret minutes", and his excuse-making for the failure of the Board to maintain the records required of it by Florida corporations law. (What neither Erik nor anyone else will actually say, but which is hinted at by Erik's response to my question, is that the Foundation changed to a nonmember structure to avoid being sued by a member for failure to comply with Florida law. It's still possible that the Attorney General might sue them, but the AG probably won't do so unless given a really good reason, which at present it does not.)

One of the disquieting things I've noticed in the Foundation in recent months have been the expansion of staff positions without corresponding oversight of those positions. The Foundation has, in recent months, hired both Cary Bass as a volunteer coordinator and Vishal Patal as a business developer. As far as I can tell, both positions are sinecures. Neither person has any managed expectations on what they do, measured performance goals, or really any of the things that I normally associate with employment. These jobs appears to be "gimmies" to people who ingratiated themselves with the right people. Please note that Erik takes credit for both positions.

Erik waxes eloquent (double meaning intended) on the role of chapters in his response to Arne's question about chapters. Another questioner asked about Erik's attitude toward a US chapter. Erik is very supportive of the existing chapters, but not very much of a US chapter. This is not surprising. There is a significant element in the WMF community that exhibits strong anti-American attitudes. Also, the current governance of the WMF gives a great deal of power to the chapters, and especially to the German and French chapters, whose relationship to the Foundation is, in some areas, closer to superior than to the subordinate position one would expect. Unsurprisingly much of the anti-American attitude is aligned with the French and, to a lesser degree, German chapters. Erik's ambivalence to a US chapter is political fence-riding; he is telling his European friends that he won't devolve power to the dirty Americans while at the same time trying to paint a hopeful picture to the Americans who still comprise the largest segment of the Wikimedia community.

And while we're on the topic of chapters: does anyone really know what the chapters do? As far as I can tell, their main function is to hold parties. They seem to be little more than social clubs, with no real function otherwise, and as power centers. Erik talks a lot about how the chapters could do more, but I don't believe he actually expects them to. Their current incarnation serves his powerbrokering interests quite well. (There are other structural reasons why I think a US chapter has foundered when the European chapters have "succeeded", but I'll save that for a post after this series completes.)

I'll be quite honest; I don't like Erik and I think he's a poor choice for the Board of a functioning organization. (But seriously, if you've actually read this far you already know this.) However, the simple fact is that most of the voters in this election aren't voting for people to exercise oversight over the operations of the Wikimedia Foundation; instead, they are voting for the Grand Poobahs of the Wikimedia Foundation Social Club. As Erik is admirably suited for that role, he should win reelection easily.