Hacking the Organization

2004-07-28

I'm not a big fan of elections, which is one reason I've never been fully satisfied with how the Jabber Software Foundation is set up (though in no way do I mean that as a criticism of Michael Bauer, who did the main legwork in setting up the JSF -- we've simply learned a bit about what works and what doesn't over the last 3 years). The JSF just held elections to choose new and returning members. Soon we will hold elections for the JSF Board of Directors and the Jabber Council. It seems that all we really do in the JSF is hold elections, which IMHO are just as wasteful in a small organization as they are in large nations (yes, I am a market anarchist, radical decentralist, contractarian voluntarist, localist democrat, and what have you). As recently noted, the ancient Athenians randomly selected the members of their governing council by drawing lots, not running campaigns and asking everyone to vote for their favorites (who will usually end up being those rich and powerful enough to buy influence). So I've begun to think that perhaps there are better ways organize the JSF than our current regime of endless electioneering. Herewith are a few tentative thoughts.

My preferred approach would be for all JSF members, without exception, to take turns serving on the Board, Council, and other teams (Infrastructure and Trademark come to mind). Let us imagine that every three months, a new Board and a new Council are chosen at random from among the members (in such a way that everyone will have to serve at least one quarter a year on each body, but never on both at the same time). This gives people long enough to make a difference, but the terms are short enough so that people don't lose interest (which traditionally has been a problem with both the Board and Council, through no fault of those who have served in these bodies). This also gives us a transparent method of choosing the Board and Council (and other teams if we add them), but dispenses with the bother of elections. (Whether this meets legal requirements for our organizational status as a non-profit membership corporation is something I need to investigate.)

So much for the Board and Council elections. What about JSF membership elections? Here again it seems to me that the current elections process is waste of valuable time, and in any case is not very effective in choosing worthy members (usually, almost everyone is elected a member, despite sometimes rather weak credentials). But if everyone is expected to serve on the Board, Council, and other teams -- and to make important decisions on those teams such as which protocols to accept, how to structure our relationships with other standards development organizations, and the like -- then I think we will need to maintain higher standards about who is accepted as a member. Those ancient Athenians were notoriously selective about who could become a citizen, and I think the JSF would do well to be selective, too. Several JSF reforms discussed in the past have included requiring a current member to nominate new members (not accepting applications from just anyone), which I think is a good idea. Naturally, once current members know that they will have to do something other than vote once in while (and that not contributing to the Board, Council, or another team after having been randomly chosen to serve is simply not an option), they may well resign their membership. Let's face it: some folks like to be JSF members because they love the technology and it sounds cool to be a member of the JSF, but they don't necessarily want to contribute actively to the work of the JSF. (To be fair, we haven't necessarily given people a lot of opportunities to contribute; random team selection will change that.)

This sounds elitist, and it is. Open source communities -- or at least the ones that aren't dysfunctional -- are traditionally meritocracies. If you work hard and contribute value (not necessarily in the form of code, I might add), then people will pay more attention to what you say. But they'll also expect real work from you, not just yammering on.

So there you have it: an elitist meritocracy on the outside, a radical democracy on the inside. Would it work? I doubt it's perfect (what is?), but I think it would work better than what we have now.

Let the flames begin!


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal