Wikimedia Foundation transparency gap

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The Wikimedia Foundation has a formal position that transparency is a core principle. This page is intended to collect information about areas in which the organization may have opportunities to improve its adherence to that principle.

As of January 9, 2016, the content below is a summary of items discussed in more detail on the talk page.

Wikimedia Foundation's commitment to transparency[edit]

Note: I propose this be summarized and moved to the lead section. -Pete F (talk)

The Wikimedia Foundation's guiding principles and values have surprisingly little to say about our concrete commitments to transparency. As a member of the Foundation's Fundraising Tech department, I engage with this contradiction on a regular basis and it impedes my work to not have clear organizational directives that mandate openness. My work also treads a fine line regarding privacy (donor tracking) and on-wiki advertising (e.g. promotional partnerships with payment processors), which makes it even more important to work transparently and with public oversight.

  • Draw a very explicit and public line around the few topics that must be handled in private.
  • Use public, logged IRC channels.
  • Internal coordination should happen on public mailing lists.
  • Even when producing statistics that must be kept private, there should always be equivalent public data, and any omissions should be publicly documented.
  • Research and literature reviews should never be secret.
  • Planning should be done in the open (and collaboratively), from the very initial stages through execution and iteration.
  • Contracts the WMF is a party to should be made public.

The few exceptions should be made explicit.

We continue to make slow progress towards a few of these aspirational goals, but it bothers me that this has been an elective effort. Transparency (as with ongoing training, respect for individual privacy and diversity of opinion, and otherwise following staff codes of conduct) should be a core responsibility of all staff rather than something we "aim to do". Adamw (talk) 08:57, 3 January 2016 (UTC)[reply]

Budget transparency[edit]

Discussion on the Talk Page
The Wikimedia Foundation is bringing in a rapidly increasing amount of money.[1] The Wikimedia culture up until 2010 developed in relative financial scarcity. From 2010 to 2016, the budget of the organization grew from about USD 10 million to USD 90 million. The volunteers of Wikimedia used to understand and influence most of the financial resources, but connection has decreased substantially. It is less clear now who controls the assets of the Wikimedia movement, how these assets are directed, who directs them, and why they are directed in the way that they are. Future financial planning is also opaque. The Foundation should generally explain these things better than it does, and the success of that explanation should be measured in how well volunteers understand these things, and how substantially they engage with making the decisions.

Board minutes[edit]

Discussion on the Talk Page
The Board does not publish detailed minutes of its non-privileged meetings. This could be addressed through such methods as:

  • More detailed minutes
  • Minutes approved and published sooner
  • Broadcasting (portions of) board meetings in real time, via streaming video
  • Board could interact in real-time with community for some portion of their meetings (e.g., on IRC)

As of this writing, there is no consensus about the best approach.

Removal of James Heilman as Trustee[edit]

Discussion on the Talk Page
There is ongoing interest in the factors that led to James Heilman's removal from the Board. (This is an ongoing issue, and may be difficult to summarize adequately in real-time on this page.)

Framework for expulsion of a Trustee should be clearer[edit]

Discussion on the Talk Page
It's not responsible to expel a member on the basis of unwritten and unknowable rules: one would expect Wikimedia to prefer Hammurabi to a masonic law. But it appears that is what happened with the removal of Doc James. While the law may require no statement of cause, the organization can and should hold itself to a higher standard.

In which way is current and former board members' free speech restricted?[edit]

Discussion on the Talk Page
Some expansion of what the pledge of personal commitment entails -- including how a Trustee's speech is restricted after leaving office -- would be helpful. See also the Wikimedia Foundation Board Handbook and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) (which may be out of date; it has been stated that it erroneously states that Trustees sign NDAs.)

Engineering reorganization of 2015[edit]

Discussion on the Talk Page
There is some desire for clearer public communication about staff reorganizations, with the engineering reorganization of 2015 presented as an example.

  • Proposal: Major reorganizations should be communicated openly and well ahead of time, and should always involve collaboration with the people whose jobs will be affected.

Executive hire by appointment[edit]

Discussion on the Talk Page
Proposal: WMF will conduct a job search whenever filling key positions, and will run a background check on candidates before hiring them. (This proposal is presented with the knowledge that such checks are already required by policy, but with some concern that the policy may not always be followed.)

Private wikis[edit]

Discussion on the Talk Page
Staff should use public wikis in lieu of private wikis and Google Docs to a significantly higher extent (and perhaps there should not be so many private wikis). See also Grants:IdeaLab/A place to work together.

Alternately, an accounting of what private wikis exist, and a summary of their contents and staff responsibility, should be made available.

Discussion on the Talk Page
The Wikimedia Foundation should generally increase its tolerance for reasonable disagreement, and should seek to increase the capacity and willingness of personnel (and volunteers?) to dialogue through conflict.

Accountability source[edit]

Discussion on the Talk Page
The Wikimedia Foundation is ultimately not accountable to anyone (see the above section on #Democratic centralism). Accountability may come in many forms, but the WMF has generally avoided them in its structure. It is not reliant on big funders; its board is entirely self-appointed, and has (as demonstrated in December 2015) the ability to remove even the five members who are commonly thought to be chosen by the community and the affiliates. (This point is somewhat distinct from "transparency," and it has been proposed to split this item into a separate page.)

Staff communications discouraged[edit]

WMF staff have been forbidden (at one time at least) from bringing their problems to the Board. The Foundation has a Whistleblower policy, but it covers only illegal acts (not compliance with Wikimedia principles). One suggestion is explicitly allowing staff/board communication. An ombudsman might be another worthwhile way to address this, as well. A similar function may also be needed for volunteers. (Note, while there is an ombudsman commission, its role is restricted to privacy policy complaints, typically against volunteer functionaries -- not staff.)

Board and executives should set a high standard for generative communication[edit]

Acknowledging substantial dissenting views -- which is separate from granting their requests -- is an important practice. Summarizing the dissenting view and commenting on it in detail is also valuable, as it helps many stakeholders in the analysis of an issue, and creates an opportunity for misunderstandings to be discovered.

A significant example: the 2014 Superprotect letter, signed by more than 1000 people, has never been acknowledged in any formal, public statement by its recipients.

There is some agreement that the U.S. presidency's approach to this is worth considering as an example; has clear standards for when a petition will receive a formal response, and even when the White House declines to act on a petition (that has met the participation standards), they explain why.

Employee engagement survey[edit]

The Wikimedia Foundation employee engagement survey has been conducted since 2012; but its results have not recently been published by the WMF. Some results from the 2015 survey were reported in the English Wikipedia's Signpost, but not sourced from official channels.

A key issue has been the WMF's annual evaluation of employee engagement, conducted and analyzed by a third-party consultant in late 2015. The results were made available on an internal office wiki, and it is now public knowledge that an internal discussion among staff has begun about making the survey public. As of publication, more than two dozen staff members have spoken in favor of releasing the survey as soon as possible "with no dissenting voices". The Signpost has been apprised of the results by one of their number. We understand that there was a healthy 93% response rate among some 240 staff. While numbers approached 90% for pride in working at the WMF and confidence in line managers, the responses to four propositions may raise eyebrows:

  • Senior leadership at Wikimedia have communicated a vision that motivates me: 7% agree
  • Senior leadership at Wikimedia keep people informed about what is happening: 7% agree
  • I have confidence in senior leadership at Wikimedia: 10% agree
  • Senior leadership effectively directs resources (funding, people and effort) towards the Foundation's goals: 10% agree
The Signpost has been informed that among the "C-levels" (members of the executive), only one has confidence in senior leadership.

Providing for important translations without having to be asked[edit]

The Wikimedia Foundation has a remarkable resource at its disposal, in the volunteer translation community. (See transcom.) But it frequently does not use it effectively or appropriately.

Two important things:

  1. The WMF should proactively seek translation of important documents (on Meta, Foundation Wiki, and elsewhare); and
  2. The WMF should not take free translation for granted, but should be prepared to pay for services when the volunteer community is not willing or able to meet the WMF's needs.

Transparency about grants received by the Wikimedia Foundation[edit]

In January 2016, the Wikimedia Foundation announced a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. It appears to be a restricted grant (as opposed to a grant funding general operations); and it's unclear exactly what the grant will fund. The Knight Foundation's and the Wikimedia Foundation's announcements appear to contradict each other about what the grant funds.

This blog post outlines the WMF's apparent evolution away from Open Philanthropy in its grant-seeking activities. We should have a clear statement of principles around grant transparency, and the WMF's practices should be upgraded.

Where is the open discussion about the new strategy?[edit]

Discussion on the Talk Page
A strategy for this community enterprise is only valid, if it's discussed in the full open with the whole community from the very beginning. Any secrecy about such discussions is bad.

Low-hanging fruit[edit]

Discussion on the Talk Page
This section is intended for items that are easy to implement -- and in some cases, could even be implemented by staff without the need for any kind of formal directive or policy (though clear policies might be beneficial in their own way). Such changes could have a small, but undoubtedly positive impact on the smoothness of day-to-day interactions, and they could also help the organization move incrementally toward a higher standard of transparency.

  • Useful transparency of professional role: When emailing a list, an individual, posting on a wiki page, etc., staff should be forthcoming about things like their job title, and how to contact them. (e.g. email signature, wiki signature, on a user page, or in the prose of a message. Different cases may call for different approaches.)
  • Staff should be judicious about the use of the disclaimer "in my volunteer capacity."
  • Wikimedia Foundation personnel could commit to improving the data structure and the substance reported on, and also here on Meta Wiki about the Foundation. Summaries of meetings, decisions, policies, etc. should be clear, up-to-date, and carefully categorized. Staff pages should be updated when they leave the organization. Etc etc.
  • Staff (and everyone) could reduce the use of jargon, and increase mindfulness of readers who may be new to an issue.

Selection process for board nominations[edit]

Discussion on the talk page
Boryana Dineva, the Foundation's Vice-President of Human Resources, wrote in October 2015 of nominations for the board:

Having narrowed down the number in several rounds of review ... we are meeting with finalists to collect more information and get acquainted over this week and next. After that, all finalists will interview with Lila, and finally with our panel comprised by the BGC [Board Governance Committee] (and likely also the Board Chair). The BGC will decide and present recommendations of chosen candidates to the whole Board. ... I am copying Dariusz, our BGC chair, in case he would like to add anything also.

On 8 January 2015, this was near the top of a Google search for Arnnon Geshuri, the new board member. Dariusz Jemielniak, chair of the Board Governance Committee, seemed not to know about it until that day, when he wrote:

I have read about these allegations today, and I am going to follow up on that. I don't have an opinion formed, as jumping to conclusions is definitely not just to people. I can assure you that in the whole process Arnnon's expertise, professionalism, as well as technological connection were clearly outstanding (but obviously we have not discussed this case).

This suggests that changes need to be made to the selection process. We should also consider whether the Board Governance Committee should in future include non-board members.

Private issue trackers[edit]

Certain WMF activities (including those that have no particular need for confidentiality) use non-public issue trackers such as a private Asana installation instead of the public Phabricator system.