Wikimedia Conference 2011/Documentation/Accountability and Legitimacy

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Accountability and Legitimacy[edit]

Accountability and Legitimacy.jpg
Movement values

Goal: To discuss how organizations in the movement get their legitimacy and ways of accountability towards the legitimacy base.

Description: The session is aimed at answering some of the fundamental questions underlying the existence of the Foundation and the chapters, and to agree on principles of accountability that can help address future legitimacy challenges. (See also some initial thinking on the questions by the movement roles working group.)


  • Why do we exist? What have you done for me lately? These kinds of questions arise from the community and from chapters.
  • The Foundation has experienced tremendous growth in the last 2 years. Now there are 63 employees, which gives rise to provocative questions.
  • Why the WMF is growing, and why it is hiring. These are questions being raised about chapters, especially in Germany or in the UK.
  • We need to prepare for really tough questions:
    • Communication: How do we share our perspective? How do we convey how relatively small we really are?

We are ALL facing the same questions. We need to have one common approach to possible answers.


  • Are we doing the things we say we are doing regarding how money is spent?
A (Germany): There were a number of newspaper articles in the last year on topics of our organisation and the way money is spent.
These are media that actually like us. What we have learned: Embrace the questions! Don't hesitate, don't shrink before the task.
It is all about explaining. We don't have anything to hide. Be sure that you spend your money wisely. Still, there is the question: Should we spend the money we have differently, for different projects? How do we react? :We support a movement, Wikipedia is more than a website.
  • Q: What were those Questions?
A: In order to give unrestricted money to the Foundation we had to change our organisational form. :This wasn't well communicated.
The community was wondering whether there was some mysterious reason for changing the organisation. In the end, the article in German SPIEGEL (seriously important!) was a lengthy one and not a bad one, as it turned out.
  • Q: So be open about anything?
A: There are good * Questions that we don't answer nevertheless, like how much money our staff makes.
A: Wikimedia Poland agrees. Its proceedings are perfectly open. There are no closed wikis or anything. Everbody can go to the organisation webpage. There is no point that could be justly attacked.
  • Q (WMF): Transparency is king. We get so many questions about donations. You need to be effective about transparency. There is so much information. How information is presented is extremely significant. There is the annual WMF report. But there is more, like the monthly reports. This is useful.
  • Q (Board of Trustees): who do you consider yourselves accountable to? To the community, to the WMF? Is it a mix?
A (Netherlands): We had to deal with these kinds of problems during our formation. We feel accountable to the stakeholders, these being readers, contributors, supporters. As a chapter our communication strategy is to provide all stakeholders with the information they are entitled to get. We are not yet succeeding in reaching everybody. Our goal is monthly reporting. One of our weak points actually is communications. We need to be recognised for what we are. There is a lot to learn.
A: (Indonesia): We were established in 2008. In 2009 we were still finding our identity. When we got low funding, we didn't consider ourselves accountable. Once that changed (two sources apart form WMF, private companies, official organisations), we were in a position that required reporting. What disappointed us was that the WMF wanted to know what we did with all of the money, although they only gave roghly half of it. In the end there were four different reports, three for the stakeholders and a fourth which featured everything. Turns out this is best practice. We don't hold ourselves accountable to other chapters.
A (Netherlands): There is an annual report much like the one by WMF. Specific reporting is generally reserved for a special group of donors.
  • Q (Kenya): A question to the Indonesian. Why three reports? Wouldn't one do?
A: The single stakeholders apart from the WMF are not interested in the other financial reportings.
  • Q: Is legitimacy solely about financial questions?
A: Judging by lifted hands, at most half of the people here report regularly to the public. The WMF started reporting well before these reports were published. In the last year we stopped the distinction between stakeholders altogether (board, chapters, community). It's put on Meta and that's it. We use a tool called etherpad that might work for all of the chapter, as well. Google docs is possible to.
  • Q (Sweden): Writing in the Swedish blog has proven to work.
  • Q (Australia): Reports are fine. We do have a blog, as well. We have all kinds of reports like meetings on IRC. So, if there are legitimacy issues people can talk to us about them. Legitimacy is less an issue, if your are open and transparent from the outset. Be there, answer questions!
  • Q (France): We tried to establish one report for all target groups. It didn't work, since the community is French and the other audience is English speaking. The one place that is most read is the Signpost. So we connect with the Signpost, if we want to spread things. We just drop a link. We know the community reads it. Are there communities with problems? What are they?
A (Germany): WMDE has had a pretty rough year with their community. At one point there was an attempt to basically demote the Board. If there is a lesson learned, it is that the Board didn't communicate efficiently. Put simply: There are people out there to get you. Transparency is a difficult learning process. It is more than "recent changes". The new Board will address this issue.
  • Q (Netherlands): If WMDE has documented best practices, please share!
  • Q (Kenya): Kenya find´s it difficult to be accountable in some cases, as in the Kenyan school project. There are not even receipts for bus tickets. the chapter can give results, but documentation is missing.
  • Q: Last year there was major outcry about WMF engineering practices, claiming that the WMF only cares about their own concerns and was ignoring the global needs. The problem was that the impacts of the taken engineering actions didn't show direct advantages or improvements but indirect ones, e.g. volunteer engagement.
  • Q (WMF): There are different accountability groups. It is * Quite tough to prove legitimacy to all at once, to be honest about it. What are your experiences?
A (Netherlands): Simple answer. Time is limited.
  • Q: There are expectations Wikimedia is supposed to meet. Wikimedia stands for a number of high moral values. In how far are these to be accounted for?
A: The process of solving or addressing an issue is often more important, legitimacy-wise, than the result. Questions more often address the process and reasons behind decisions than the decisions themselves.
  • Q: In the development of organisations it happens at times that the development becomes more important than the movement. This kind of accusation has been directed at Wikimedia Germany. A good reaction: A page on the German Wikipedia was opened, asking the question of what the community suggest should be done with the money? It works like that. How to deal with subsequent requests?
A (Poland): Wikimedia Poland is offering support like book stipends and the like. All people need to do is submit a few sentences about how they plan to spend money.
A (WMF): A year ago WMF was approachd by a specialized mathematical database. They were glad to offer us accounts. Within hours there were hundreds of community requests. This as a clear-cut example. Others?
A (Sweden): e.g. Travel grants
  • Q (Sweden): What if you are not able to spend all the money you get?
  • Q: Also, how do you remain open-minded as you grow more organised?
A (Germany): With the growth naturally comes criticism from the community. This is actually pretty obvious. These kinds of questions have to be raised. WMDE is absolutely transparent. Actually, there is information overflow. The question is, does the community have the capacity to digest all this?
A (Germany): There sure is information overflow. However, the community doesn't feel informed enough. So, being proactive is tantamount. Being reactive is not effective. Maybe "timely fashion" is lacking.
A (France): There were two critical topics. There was community criticism about the venue of the next Wikimania. The other was a complaint about Wikimedia France not using an open source programme. So, there was controversy. We found that suppressing the issue was not a good idea. There were talks with the complaining organisations.
  • Q (Netherlands): There often is criticism by people complaining they only cared about Wikipedia. They don't see a need in supporting Wikimedia. Why support other activities. Experiences?
A (Germany): Surely all the chapters do have an argumentation in store. The real question is, how we make sure the outside world is with what we are doing.
  • Q (WMF): Look at other NGOs. The Red Cross had a huge scandal that harmed their reputation as a trustworthy organisation. Are there things that the chapters, as a group, consider potentially very harmful topics?
A (Australia): Australia has a statement of purpose, in which the word Wikipedia doesn't even exist. The statement highlights education in general. That's in the constitution, that's on the website. Each and every donor has access.
A (WMF)If we look at editor trends data, this is what has to be considered in terms of legitimacy: There might be the claim that there is no sense in donating, if our organisations fail in keeping this community and Wikipedia up.
A (WMF): Our goal must be to take this as motivation. Our goal must be to make the internet less suck than it sucks today  :-)