User:Alecmconroy/Role of a Board Member
A Reply to Ting about my conception of the role of board member
Ting asked me:
- "Hello Alecmconroy, thank you very much for the kind words. Since you said that we differ on the role of a board member, may I ask you what is in your opinion the role of a board member?--Wing 07:09, 28 May 2011 (UTC)"
I'm not good at brevity, so this page is my answer.
- 1 A Direct Duty to Represent the Community
- 2 Not just a good idea, a sacred belief
- 3 Not just a sacred belief, also a very good idea
- 4 May 2010
- 5 Why'd they do that??
- 6 Why'd Ting do that??
- 7 Prime Directives
- 8 What will our mission be?
- 9 The Duty of a Wikimedia Leader
- 10 Free Will for the Wikimedia Movement
A Direct Duty to Represent the Community
Basically, I think that a board member has a clear and direct responsibility to represent the values of the Wikimedia community. This is true for all board members.
As a Trustee of a US non-profit, a board member does have a certain legal duty to the American public, e.g. stay within the law, no gross misuse of resources, etc. But these 'trustee' duties are really just the tiniest of your overall duties to the Wikimedia Movement and the foundation. What I think may have been missing is a willingness to "Clarify Donor Intent", to quote a recommended article. Donors, in our case, are of course the community.
As a leader of the Wikimedia Movement and a trustee of WMF, you have a duty to directly represent the values of the community that invested you with your leadership powers. All the board members have this same duty, regardless of how they get to be board members, whether it's direct election, or appointment by those who were directly elected. Representing the community's values is an expectation we have for all the board members and all the staff when acting in an official capacity.
Now, we certainly understand that some board members, namely the 'founder/expert' board members, will in practice, be a little less capable of representing the community, especially when they are new to the movement. Their voices are ever-so-slightly less likely to be representative of the community's values, and in aggregate, their words carry a little less weight among the community than the other board members.
In contrast, the board members who should, in theory, be most capable of representing the community are probably those who were directly elected by the community. Their words carry a certain extra weight because of it. (Although, I dare say the chapter-appointed board members also do a great job of representing the global community, and they seem to have equal levels of trust in the projects. At least some chapter members have done a great job of representing the global community, and for all I know, they all have).
Not just a good idea, a sacred belief
For me, a life-long citizen of a democracy, I accept as an axiom that supreme executive power can only derive from a mandate from the masses, not from "individual good judgment". For me, this is virtually a moral belief-- my participation in Wikimedia has always been conditioned upon the idea of consensus self-governance. Jimmy's non-consensus-based magic powers had worried me long before last year, not because he had ever messed up in the past, but simply because it's a bad idea. Picking one person, giving one single human being so much power, and then telling them they have a duty to use that power--- this is a recipe for inevitable mistakes, potentially catastrophic mistakes.
So, if you want to understand the community's view of the role of board member (or atleast my interpretation of it), you need to understand this. Board members have a duty to directly represent the values of the community. This is not just a good idea, it's a deeply held belief, a belief that fuels all the work we do. It's the reason people show up to work on Wikipedia while nobody wants to volunteer to work for Britannica for free.
Every day, we show up and give our time. Every year, we show up to give millions. Why do sane people behave in such altruistic ways? It's because they are not especially concerned about directly helping the foundation with its mission, but they are very concerned about working and supporting their own projects and their own content.
The community of contributors (edits and dollars) very realistically feel they 'own' the foundation, even if this may not be literally true in US law. The community does recognize a role for the board in short term emergencies, they recognize a role of the board to help lead, the recognize a role for the board to help with sane resource usage. But the community has never recognized a role of the board to over-rule community consensus, and I doubt we ever will.
Governance through consensus isn't just a good idea, it's a moral or semi-moral belief. a "value", as it were. It's why people show up for work in the morning.
Not just a sacred belief, also a very good idea
The community does consider community-governance a core value of our movement, and I hope all the board members do too.
For anyone in doubt, however, about concepts like community 'morals' or 'values', an equally valid argument can be made based upon purely pragmatic reasoning.
Whether the individuals board members know it or not, Board Members do in fact have a pragmatic duty to respect community self-governance .
- On a catastrophic schism
If the board ever forgets its representative duty and imposes a sufficiently unpopular change on the community, they will discover, in virtually the blink of an eye, that the mighty castle of Wikimedia stands upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand.
If the foundation consistently and repeatedly overruled strongly-held consensus, there would be a catastrophic schism between the non-profit and the editor/admin/donor community.
Initially, the non-profit foundation could attempt to maintain control over the trademarked names like "Wikipedia" and of course the non-profit would control the cash-on-hand.
But you can bet exiled projects are going to want to keep calling themselves "Wikipedia"-- so will the US non-profit try to use international trademark law to stop them? And even if they try, could it succeed? Given the global nature of our movement, it probably wouldn't-- an Arabic-language judge hears from one of our Arabic-language chapters about how they want to keep being called Arabic wikipedia hosted out of that judge's country-- will judges in every single country on the planet rigidly apply trademark law? I doubt it.
And then, in the even of a catastrophic schism, the second immediate dispute would be over resources-- the US nonprofit would naturally keep all cash on hand, but you can bet the leaving projects would at least talk to a lawyer about the possibility of 'reclaiming their share of the resources', whatever that is. I have no idea what would come of that, but it'd yet another source of strife that would rip apart whatever was left of the US non-profit's community.
In short-- if the belief of consensus-governance is ever abused too badly, the community could and would move elsewhere. From the perspective of a board member, that change might happen in less time than it takes to click a hyperlink.
The post-schism nonprofit might well live on in some limited way, much as Yahoo was once the greatest thing on the internet but is now a sad, sold-out zombie of its former self; an organization that has mostly lost all the confidence of it held once upon a time. But the Wikimedia revolution would be over, and the remnants might or might not regroup in a single non-profit to try again.
I talk about a Comunity-Foundation schism not because it is likely, but only because it's the greatest threat I know to our continued success. At the same time, I wish I could say all the above discussion came about only through my own farcical imagination-- the fact is that not long ago, discussions like this were being held in all sincerity, rather than in theory.
We have backed away from that, as best I can tell, we intend to stay away from that cliff for the foreseeable future. But I wanted to paint, one more time, what the "catastrophic schism" scenario looks like and what it would mean for the movement if it were ever to occur.
Remember this in the coming years. There is absolutely nothing at all that could be said in the press that would be anywhere near as catastrophic as a catastrophic foundation-community schism. World-wide journalists could catch Jimmy, on camera, molesting animals and children while dressed as hitler and chanting "Death to America", and it would not be remotely as detrimental to our movement as a catastrophic schism would be.
- aka Sic Semper Benevolentēs Dictatoribus (thus always to benevolent dictators, ideally accompanied by an image of a crowd cheering as a person throws a crown in the air? <grin> )
In May 2010, some fraction of the board forgot that duty to represent the community, and I suspect they also forgot just how easy a 'fork' or a 'fracture' is on the modern internet. Some members of the board got scared about bad press, lost their heads, and decide to overrule well-established community consensus, and to keep overruling it.
In doing so, those members of the board managed to unite BOTH sides of what had been a civil policy debate-- it united both sides together AGAINST those board members who had tried to impose a non-consensus solution. For a long time, no one even wanted to work on the policies anymore, because why bother arguing over policy when implementation will boil down to "Jimmy said so"?
It was an untenable situation. The only reason we can sit here in June 2011 to debate this, the only reason there is a still Wikimedia Foundation that is worth being elected to, is because calmer heads prevailed and realized the "cure" Jimmy wanted to impose was, in fact, more damaging to the movement than the initial "disease" of a little bad PR.
Why'd they do that??
So, a portion of the board messed up last year. Another portion saw the error right off. A third portion saw the error midway through the events. "We" the global community know who's who. (and indeed, we knew who was who long ago-- my talk page question to the 3 incumbents wasn't meant to learn about the past actions, it was mean to learn about your present state. Everyone answered 100% honestly, as I expected they would, and you in particular earned my respect for that honesty.)
I don't know Jimmy, so I won't try to understand him or impose my guesses about why he lost his head during that period. To be completely honest, I spent about 60% of my time back then seriously believing his account had just been compromised by a hacker group that was also posting claiming that they had 'spoken' to him about it. One of the reasons I was embarrassingly zealous about removing his founder flag permissions was because I was partially in "sysadmin security mode"-- my thinking was:
- 1. Something just went wrong with the system.
- 2. A single account was able to cause widespread disruption in an unauthorized away.
- 3. We need to lock down that account's permissions until we figure out what happened for sure.
Why'd Ting do that??
So, I don't know Jimmy, I shouldn't speculate on his reasoning, and I have no greater insight into it than your average wikimedian sitting on a bar stool talking. I always suspected that Jimmy would keep his founder crown only until the first time he tried to use it controversially-- and ultimately that's what happened. A human being just isn't up to the job of governing that many people and having that much power. Militaries and Corporations do have a more hierarchical leadership style, but then their humans can't just leave or switch affiliations with the click of a mouse.
But I think I may understand the reason you messed up during that time, and it may come down to a confusion over your view of the role as board member and the role of the foundation in general:
I want to say-- you've been the one in the hot seat, so in some ways, it's been your interpretation of the role that matters. I respect that-- I've been sitting here for two years 'back seat driving' while you've been working and working and working. As with everything I say, you should only believe it if it makes sense and seems to represent a wider viewpoint beyond my own..
But since you asked:
- I think you've elevated your Trustee duty to the American PUBLIC way too far above your Representative duty to the Global COMMUNITY.
Yes, you have a certain limited duty as a Trustee to do all those things you said above. But you have another duty to the people who invested you with the office you hold. A board-appointed trustee may feel they have no duty to the community, but a successful election candidate will at least claim a duty to be representative or they are unlikely to get re-elected too many times.
You justify controversial actions by saying "your primary duty as Trustee is to the [American] public." This may be technically true, but it's a little unnerving to hear you describe it as if it's your only duty.
To use a parable: This is a bit like interviewing a potential nanny about her duties. In response to a question, the potential caregiver states proudly that "her primary duty is not to the family nor to the child. Her primary duty is to the public, which has entrusted her not to commit murder."
This may, indeed, be a factual statement, but it's not a particularly reassuring one. Yes, I agree that each and every nanny does have a solemn duty to not commit murder. But I would not feel comforted leaving my child in the care of someone who spent an inordinate amount of time focused on that specific aspect of their child-care duties.
What will our mission be?
So what is our mission, and how do we pick it?
If you just want Wikimedia to have a fixed, one-time mission of completing a set of reference documents-- if you don't want to do anything that might detract from that goal--- then our movement will be short-lived indeed (or else it will seek leadership elsewhere).
If we are truly a movement-- a movement destined to set alight the planet, something people will talk about a century from now-- if we are all those things, the we can have no fixed and immutable 'mission'. If Wikimedia will evolve with the world, our mission must evolve too, as new voices and new understanding present new challenges and new needs. The things humans needed in 2001 just isn't the same as what we will need in 2021. We can't reasonably predict what our movement will be doing in just 10 years! fixed mission is clearly untenable.
Given that the mission must evolve to succeed, who, long-term, should dictate or interpret our mission and its evolution over time?
If your answer is "majority vote of a dozen or so individuals, some of whom weren't even elected", you answer incorrectly.
The Duty of a Wikimedia Leader
In obeying US law, a trustee's primary duty is indeed to the US public-- if our community wants to start a criminal enterprise, you have a duty to put your foot down and veto that idea.
But a "Wikimedia Leader" has a clear duty to the community in addition to the trustee duties-- in interpreting "the mission", your duty is to let the community tell YOU what the mission is, not vice versa. Ting didn't create all this, neither did Jimmy. The entire foundation was created by the community to serve the community in the community's mission-- not govern our projects or dictate our mission to us. That duty should weigh especially heavily on the minds of all elected members, if not all foundation leaders.
Free Will for the Wikimedia Movement
A regrettable but necessary consequence is that projects must be "free to make mistakes" or even "free to fail". That is OK. Mistakes and failures are all part of the wiki process.
The wisdom of the crowds has brought us this far. If consensus-governance doesn't work, our movement won't work either. In poker terminology, we have gone "All In"-- our entire movement has bet its existence on the wisdom of community self-governance.
Within the law and within a few other sane limits, projects have to decide for themselves what their policies are. Ultimately, within the law and other sane limits, the global community is going to have to decide what "the mission" means and what projects are included or excluded on WM servers. --Alecmconroy 23:08, 14 June 2011 (UTC)