In January and February 2019, members of the Roles and Responsibilities Working Group conducted around 25 interviews with participants in the Wikimedia movement.
The objective of these interviews was to document perspectives on the current governance and decision-making of the movement, highlighting both strengths and weaknesses. While structure and process are natural frames through which to view this conversation, the conversation also included culture and behavior.
This page is a descriptive summary of issues raised in the interviews. The Working Group has not assigned a weight or level of importance to any issue raised, nor have we prioritised which issues might be most important to resolve. Naturally, this document is not intended to be comprehensive, just to be good enough to establish a shared understanding of issues around the present movement structures.
Your comments and reflections on the contents are welcome on the Talk page. We are particularly keen to hear thoughts or viewpoints not already included.
Interviews were conducted by members of the Working Group (usually in pairs), following a structured interview script and following up on any particularly interesting or unexpected points made by the interviewee. Each interview lasted 60-90 minutes. The people interviewed included a majority of the members of the Working Group itself (a small number of members were not interviewed, either because of scheduling problems or because they felt they had not been in the movement long enough to have a perspective to share). We also approached other people who we felt would have thoughtful and diverse perspectives. Other than Working Group members, interviews were conducted with WMF and Chapter staff, former members of the WMF Board, volunteers involved in small and large affiliates, and individuals who contribute on-wiki but do not regard themselves as part of the ‘organised part’ of the movement.
There is presently no body tasked with making decisions that involve several, or all, parts of the movement. Further, there is no clear venue for such decisions to take place, and few good places for discussions around them. This applies between almost all kinds of movement entities – for instance it is unclear how to handle a conversation that might need to happen between two project communities, or between a project community and the Wikimedia Foundation or an affiliate, or a chapter and the Wikimedia Foundation, or between two affiliates of overlapping scope.
The Wikimedia Foundation has sometimes acted to fill this gap. At present the Wikimedia Foundation Board are the only body with in any sense a ‘movement-wide’ mandate, because of the presence of community and affiliate selected board members, and because many things in the movement cannot happen without the funds, trademarks, or technical access held by the WMF. However, the WMF Board has little desire or capacity to act in this role, because it is very aware of the limits of its mandate and also because the WMF in its own right is a large and complex organisation and the governance of the WMF itself as an organisation takes up the Board's time.
There is also a language issue to consider. Most strategically significant discussions and communications happen mainly or even solely in English. This goes beyond being an issue of comprehension to one of engagement, about making non-English-speakers feel welcomed and at home in largely English-dominated conversations.
One key and recurring issue in decision making is about how much influence volunteers on current Wikimedia projects do, or should, have. Often, volunteer contributors feel they have little power or influence and that others (particularly WMF staff) take decisions without considering the impact on the volunteer communities, or without considering the perspective or values of community members. The WMF sometimes formally shares power by constituting committees and appointing volunteers to them, but perceptions of the performance, accountability and transparency of these committees varied.
We heard other voices saying that decision-making is sometimes excessively cautious because people are worried about the reaction of community members. We also heard observations that most volunteers are happy to focus on working on Wikimedia projects, and are less interested in taking part in ‘movement-wide’ decisions. Are the views of people who ‘self-select’ into movement-wide conversations as being representative of those volunteers who don’t, and do biases get introduced into decision making because of the backgrounds and assumptions of existing volunteers, and the wikiculture of existing projects?
Going beyond the relationship with the existing community, we heard questions about how the WMF thought about ‘community engagement’ more broadly and whether, for instance, the WMF could do more to make engaging with communities a more consistent part of its planning process.
Scope and governance of the Wikimedia Foundation
The Wikimedia Foundation plays a crucial role in the movement. There are many positive examples of the WMF working effectively with partners both inside and outside the movement, and of WMF staff actively working to collaborate with communities and affiliates.
Nonetheless, the scope of the WMF is ill-defined and relationships with other parts of the movement often still feel unclear. The scope of the Wikimedia Foundation is not formally specified. A statement of scope was made in 2012, defining the WMF as essentially a technology and grantmaking body. While it is clear this definition is no longer in force, there has been no replacement. We heard concerns that the lack of clarity about the WMF’s scope could mean others held back from things, either because people felt the WMF should do something or because they might start to do it in future.
The governance of the Wikimedia Foundation itself has changed little since it was first constituted in the mid-2000s. The Board contains 3 members elected by project volunteers, two selected by affiliates, one founder seat reserved for Jimmy Wales, and five appointed members. We heard questions as to whether the community and affiliate seats could be selected in a way that would result in more diversity of background and approach. We also heard discussion of the challenges of finding appointed members who bring broad and deep expertise and can also learn the context of the Wikimedia movement quickly.
An often unspoken aspect to this relationship is WMF’s ability to ‘keep the lights on’ - maintain a remarkably high level of ability for people to read and edit. However, the relationship around developing features (rather than sustaining them) can be a point of tension. We heard that this relationship had improved in recent years and there were now significant positive examples of WMF seeking and responding to input. Nonetheless, it was felt that it was not consistently clear in what venues these discussions would happen or what weight the WMF would put on the comments they received. There was also a sense that development work focused on large projects, e.g. the English Wikipedia, with smaller projects receiving less attention.
From the WMF’s perspective, the challenge is finding ways to communicate with hundreds of projects in hundreds of languages, all with subtly different norms of behavior and decision-making processes.
Decision-making between projects Project communities largely operate independently, and there are few structures or cultural norms supporting joint decision-making. For instance, there are differences of opinion regarding the use of Wikidata records on Wikipedias, which are dealt with by projects making independent decisions about how to proceed with no consensus discussion across projects.
Conflict resolution with projects A number of interviews also highlighted the issue of who should intervene in situations where a Wikimedia project breaks global norms, e.g. by containing politically biased content or allowing users to behave in a bullying or discriminatory manner. It was felt that at present it’s often no-one’s job to handle these situations.
Projects and affiliates We heard that some affiliates felt they helped represent project communities, e.g. by facilitating conversations in the right language and serve as a point of contact. We also heard there was often a lack of clarity about what the role of an affiliate was meant to be regarding a project, and concerns from some about the professionalisation of affiliates and whether affiliates led by non-Wikimedians would have a strong enough commitment to community values.
Sustainability of the volunteer model We heard some questions about whether the volunteer model of participation on the Wikimedia projects would scale further, particularly into communities which lack wealth, education and leisure time.
Wikimedia affiliates (e.g. chapters and user groups) are independent bodies within the Wikimedia movement. They receive official recognition and often financial support from the Wikimedia Foundation.
In spite of this, the role of affiliates in the movement is mainly not well-defined. One main point of definition is the affiliate agreements signed when an affiliate is recognized, which sets out minimum compliance and reporting requirements and authorizes the use of the Wikimedia trademarks. Another is the grantmaking process, where affiliates request funds from the WMF and supply reports on progress. The Wikimedia movement has never gone beyond this to create a statement of hopes, goals and aspirations for affiliates, nor to create systems to support and develop affiliates beyond grantmaking.
Views of the overall relationship between WMF and affiliates depended on the size of the affiliates involved. Larger chapters generally felt that they had a positive relationship with the WMF on a strategic level, which was an improvement on the situation some years ago. Nonetheless, they had a number of frustrations at a more operational level. This happened when the WMF acted without consultation (e.g. approaching a donor or partner in the chapter’s area without any prior discussion or notification), and also when the chapter tried to ask queries of the WMF but then no-one replied, the emails seeming to vanish.
Smaller affiliates tended to principally view their relationship with WMF through the lenses of AffCom and grantmaking, and not to engage with the WMF as a broader institution, in part because they didn’t know who to speak to. They sometimes felt that developing relationships in-person (e.g. at Wikimedia Conference or Wikimania) was a necessary step - without having met people it was less clear who did what and whether queries would be answered.
There is a mixed picture of accountability for affiliates. Affiliates are often membership organisations which are formally accountable to their members. They are also accountable to the WMF for funds received, and the grantmaking process often includes very detailed review of governance programme work. However, if an affiliate has no members and receives no grants there are very few expectations of how it will act in an accountable manner.
Affiliations model. Affiliates presently include chapters, thematic organisations, user groups, and movement partners. These categories of affiliation map poorly to the differences among affiliates that exist in practice (e.g. incorporated/unincorporated, geographical/thematic, staffed/non-staffed) and this poses a challenge to the existing model. It is considered useful that the affiliations model includes a very lightweight method of affiliation, as a formally incorporated nonprofit entity is not the right answer to every question. However we also heard concerns about whether the increasing participation of informally organised user groups in movement governance created risks.
Affiliations Committee (AffCom) Affcom was widely perceived as body where there is a gap between expectations and its ability to execute. AffCom manages the recognition and where necessary de-recognition of affiliates, but its charter includes broader responsibilities including the support and development of affiliates and resolution of conflict between affiliates. However, it was not usually felt that Affcom had the ability, training or support to manage these areas.
Funding. A significant number of (but not all) affiliates receive a significant amount of funding from the Wikimedia Foundation, via grants programmes including FDC, SimpleAPG, rapid grants, and project grants. The FDC was highlighted as a success in a number of interviews, being seen as effective in making funds available to larger chapters while also ensuring a high level of scrutiny and accountability. Nonetheless, there were questions about the amount of work involved in creating and presenting FDC bids, as well as whether the budgets of larger chapters were justified by their impact. There were also questions about salary costs, which can vary widely between different movement entities (even after considering international variations in cost of living), meaning that the Wikimedia movement does not offer “equal pay for equal work.”
Smaller affiliates did not give such detailed feedback on the grants processes, though did highlight that project/conference grants are a year-round need, and temporary restriction or changes of focus to grant programmes seemed arbitrary and held back planning. It also felt odd (and non-equitable) to some that the WMF only funds shared accommodation for scholarship recipients, but individual accommodation for its own staff members.
Support, development, and conflict resolution. Non-financial support for affiliates such as training, guidance and mentorship was widely seen as ‘no-one’s job’. Some interviewees from smaller affiliates expressed disappointment that recognition as an affiliate seemed to be the end of the process, not a door opening to access resources and support. Some resources were available from previous activities by the WMF or by informal collaborations and networks. There was a perception from some affiliate voices from outside Europe that these informal networks were more present between European entities and hard to access elsewhere. Similarly, resolving disagreements within or between affiliates was seen as a challenge which received insufficient attention and resourcing. Indeed, one common response was simply to set up a new affiliate to work around the problem.
Readers, future audiences, and partners
While our interviews mainly focused on inside the Wikimedia movement, we also heard observations about how the movement relates to people presently outside it, particularly current and future audiences and partner organisations.
Clearly the Wikimedia projects are of immense value to the people who read or make use of them, which is why we’re the fifth-biggest site on the Internet. There are also many examples of projects with partners outside the movement, on issues ranging from advocacy to content uploads to zero-rated access.
From an outside perspective, the Wikimedia movement can be complex, even baffling. It’s not clear who is responsible for what, or who you should speak to if you have an idea or project. Some affiliates play a role as an approachable point of contact and network with potential partners, but this is not universal. We also heard that the Wikimedia movement can be viewed as unreliable, because project communities have a very high level of control over those projects, meaning that partners have less control than they are used to.
Readers (and future readers) who are the ultimate beneficiaries of our work are not presently involved or represented in decision-making, and there are challenges in how this might happen. The WMF puts effort into understanding how readers use Wikimedia projects and how to improve their experience, but this is usually operational rather than strategic input. Recruiting new editors to the projects was noted as a challenge in a number of interviews.