User:The Land/Tensions facing movement strategy

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Noto Emoji Oreo 1f4c4.svg This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some Wikimedians but may not have wide support. This is not policy on Meta, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.

This essay attempts to set out some of the questions faced by the movement strategy process, particularly for the parts of the process that are looking at resources and governance.

Firstly, accountability and equality are both complicated concepts in the context we work in. And secondly, there is inherently a tension between those two things and independence and opportunity, which is another key value we hold. That's not to say there is a zero-sum choice to be made between these things, but there may inevitably some choices to be made between them. I believe that acknowledging the existence of these tensions is the best way to achieve the best outcomes from the whole process.

Equality of resources[edit]

Movement funds are largely spent in wealthy countries. I hope the working groups are looking at this systematically, but my impression is that it’s true across categories of expenditure: tech spend is obviously concentrated in the US, but so far as I can see ‘community support’ and ‘partnership’ expenditure is also concentrated in wealthy countries. I would love to be wrong, but I would not be surprised to find that 'community development/support' expenditure in Western Europe was greater than that in the whole of Africa and Asia combined.

This is a phenomenon with deep roots - the countries with the most spend of movement funds tend to be countries which have large communities of editors (thanks to having good connectivity and plenty of affluent, educated people with time and motivation to contribute), and where is a strong network of potential partners to work with, and where it is easy to run a non-profit without excessive bureaucracy or political interference.

It’s not just possible to flick a switch and decide to switch Wikimedia movement expenditure to emerging communities (if it were, it would probably have happened long ago) - that’s why capacity-building has been identified as one of the key parts of the strategy.

But acknowledging the reasons why the status quo exists, there is still the question of what we are aiming for. "Knowledge equity" is clearly the answer, but it is scarcely precise.

  • What does 'knowledge equity' look like and how will we know when we get there? Are we, for instance, aiming for 'equal' spend per community member? Or spend that gives every community member equal opportunities to contribute? Or something else entirely?

(It would help if we had a clear idea of how we were going to measure impact).

Accountability[edit]

Accountability in the Wikimedia movement is really complicated.

As a global free knowledge movement, we should be accountable to our beneficiaries – to everyone who can, will or should use the projects we create. We should also be accountable to the people who make it possible – to volunteers in our project communities, and to donors who give money to support us.

Then we are also accountable in different ways to a whole bunch of national legal and regulatory regimes, most notably but not only the USA. Various parts of the movement are membership organisations in their own right, and are responsible to their members (who may or may not also be editors or donors). And the WMF has constructed its own accountability framework connected to the grants it gives.

Grantmaking and Membership accountability[edit]

If you’re an organisation that participates in the WMF grantmaking system (APG, SimpleAPG or even project grants) then you have quite detailed accountability to the WMF and the broader Wikimedia community through those processes. You can expect to be challenged on what you are trying to achieve, and why, and how you intend to measure it, and whether the level of resource you intend to spend is appropriate.

If you’re a membership organisation you are accountable to your members, who will typically elect all or most of your Board of Trustees, vote on annual reports and/or budgets, and be able to submit motions. This kind of accountability has been exercised most dramatically in the cases of Wikimedia UK in 2012, Wikimedia Deutschland in 2014 and Wikimedia France in 2017 - all cases where pressure from members resulted in significant changes of direction of the Board and senior staff. Members, and indeed, editing communities, only seem to get heavily involved in holding Boards accountable when something is badly wrong - and when there is no crisis, it can be quite hard to engage people in governance questions

If you’re both WMF-funded AND a membership organisation then you are accountable in both of those ways (which often come with different, sometimes contradictory, priorities...).

But if you’re neither WMF-funded nor a membership organisation, then it’s entirely possible you have very little accountability to the Wikimedia movement, even if you are raising and spending multi-million dollar sums in the name of the Wikimedia movement. There is still an element of accountability – in extreme cases, the WMF can revoke recognition – but this power would only be exercised in the event of a spectacular governance failure.

Who is WMF accountable to?[edit]

WMF is accountable at a very high level to editors and chapters[1] through the election of Board members. There have been cases where this accountability has been exercised; for instance the Wikimedia Foundation Board elections in 2015, where after the introduction of the controversial Superprotect feature, all three of the sitting community-elected board members failed to win re-election.

Naturally, this accountability is only to the existing community. In the community elections, editors with more than 300 edits are able to participate, and in 2015 (the most recent election with figures available) over 30% of votes came from the English Wikipedia, and 70% of votes came from English, German, French, Italian, Russian or Spanish Wikipedias or Wikimedia commons. The 'support/oppose' voting system used is unique to WMF elections, and has the features of both being 'majoritarian' meaning that it does nothing to increase diversity of board members, and highly sensitive to 'oppose' votes. The chapters (and thematic organizations) are less heavily dominated by those projects, but are still largely concentrated in Europe.

The WMF also seeks to be accountable to the community by appointing or electing community members to, for instance, the Funds Dissemination Committee, the Affiliations Committee, the Election Committee, and the Wikimania Committee. The WMF also works to understand and respond to community needs in a less formal sense through the work of the Community Engagement department, particularly (though far from exclusively) the ten staff in the Community Relations team.

Some questions to think about:

  • Is the WMF accountable enough, and is it accountable to the right people?
  • Is there an 'accountability gap' between movement entities that are largely funded by the WMF's grants programme, and those that are not; or between membership organisations and non-membership organisations?
  • What is the minimum level of accountability we expect from a movement entity, and does it depend on how it raises its money, or on how much it spends, or both?

Independence and opportunity[edit]

As a movement we prize people taking the initiative and self-organisation. "Be Bold" is still one of our core principles. There’s never been a Wiki-map about what the future looks like – every movement body was started by people who had a great idea and the commitment to make it happen. Asking permission to do things, or being told you have to do particular things in a particular way, or you have to be prepared to answer difficult questions from people, stands in tension with this.

The flip side of this is the outcome of individual initiative and self-organisation is exactly what has led to the very mixed pattern of resource distribution and accountability that we currently have, for all the reasons discussed above.

It would be easy to see methods of creating more equality of funds distribution, or structures for accountability, that made having new ideas and taking up opportunities more difficult. In fact, the last major review in of this area in around 2012 did the opposite, creating the User Group model of affiliation for lightweight project work, and developing the WMF's grantmaking programme into a set of tools that aimed to support good ideas no matter the source, with progressively higher expectations for learning, evaluation, accountability and governance,depending on the amount of the grant and the organisational maturity of the recipient. Even so, the 2013 Chapters Dialogue project identified that the chapter-WMF relationship resulted in chapters (including most of the significant grantees) sticking to "safe bets" which had already demonstrated success and approval.

  • How do we continue to support independence and opportunity while increasing equality and accountability (assuming of course those things are desirable?)
  • Does the WMF's grantmaking model work, in terms of making sure activity aligns with the movement's values and strategic aims? If not, is it overly restrictive, or overly permissive?
  • Can anything from it apply to Wikimedia movement organisations who aren't mainly directly funded by the WMF?
  • What other organisations have faced similar challenges and what can we learn from them?

Notes[edit]

  1. And, alongside Chapters, the sole Thematic Organisation