times-they-are-a-changin'

After nearly a year down,  my blog is finally alive again!
My “GLAM Fellowship” with the Wikimedia Foundation concluded at the end of 2011, and as a result the beginning of 2012 has seen lots of changes for me, so I will apologise in advance for the length of this post.

  • I’m now a project officer for the ARC Centre for Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation (CCi) – which is the group that runs Creative Commons Australia. My role is to assist Australian cultural organisation in adopting CC for their content. Hopefully I’ll have lots of announcements from that over the next year…
  • I’ve also been offered the role of “2012 Director’s Fellowship” at the National Museum of Australia – in order to develop a comprehensive “Wikimedia strategy” for the organisation including training, a situation report and three year plan.
  • I’ve enrolled in the QUT/WIPO Masters of Intellectual Property Law  – because the world needs MORE copyright lawyers!
  • Oh, and I got engaged :-)

But there’s something else…
Every two years it is the chance for the Wikimedia Chapters to nominate two people to the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation – the full process for this is described here. After being involved in the Wikiverse since 2005, I’ve decided to become a candidate for this very important position.

At this point in the process two years ago, much to her credit, Phoebe Ayers made public on her blog the fact of her [eventually successful] candidacy as well as her thoughts and election statement. So today, I’m doing the same thing here.

== Wikium Vitae ==

I can honestly say that every stage of my professional life has been influenced by my involvement in Wikimedia and the free-culture movement more generally. I have variously worked for the online history project the Dictionary of Sydney; for the founding member of the “free access to law” movement AustLII; and most recently, for the Wikimedia Foundation and now Creative Commons.

Academically, I have a Bachelors of Globalisation Studies and  my honours thesis subject was “The academic lineage of Wikipedia: Connections and disconnections in the theory and practice of history”. For this I earned the UNSW 2008 University medal in history. I am now undertaking a Masters degree in Intellectual Property law.

Within Wikimedia, I have had various formal and informal roles, including as:

As a result of this experience, I have had the opportunity to meet many many Wikimedians, free-culture advocates and GLAMs around the world. I have also given dozens of formal presentations about Wikimedia, including a few conference keynote addresses and most recently a live TV interview about the SOPA strike (full list with links). Finally, I am one of the very few people who has been both a Chapter executive and an employee of the Foundation.

== Candidacy Statement ==

With regards to Wikipolitics, it always feels like right now is the biggest or most disruptive argument we’ve ever had – until you step back for a day or so and remember the other big arguments we had in the past! But at this critical time in the Wikimedia Movement’s history I believe that it is especially important that we get things right. The Wikimedia Foundation, and by extension the Movement, has been going from strength to strength in public areas (visibility, impact, quality, financial and technical stability) but many of the internal problems remain unresolved. I would categorise these as broadly  “community development and communication” issues that have led to a perceived gap between several groups within the Movement – a “democratic deficit” if you will.

From my perspective it looks like each of the Wikimedia Foundation, the Chapters and the general editing community all feels that it is the group with the least power and is the most misunderstood. It is my perception that many in the WMF feel as if they are a “whipping boy“, blamed no matter what they do; that many in the Chapters feel as if they are being sidelined and regarded as unhelpful despite their best efforts; and that many in the editing community feel as if their needs are widely ignored – especially if they are not from the English Wikipedia. Like all generalisations, this simple analysis lacks nuance or counterexamples – and there are many – but I think it is broadly true.

The ways that I would like to help bridge this gap (whether it be one that is real or perceived) is by focusing on four distinct areas: 1. Board role; 2. Chapter development; 3. Community support; and 4. WMF Human Resources.

1. Board role

Whilst the WMF Board of Trustees is the highest decision-making body in the Wikimedia movement, it remains rather hidden from the general community. This is not by intention but it is the reality. I would propose a variety of transparency measures, including:

  • Name Board voters (for/against/abstain);
  • Host “office hours” and/or publish videos, community interviews, board blog, etc.;
  • Provide access to non-confidential reports prepared for the board in advance of meetings for comment;
  • Formally approve annual grants to Chapters (or fundraising approval) on advice from Staff. (Similarly to how the Board already formally approves new Chapter creation on advice from ChapCom);
  • Provide updates on current discussions whilst consensus is still forming, but once it is decided, make directions to WMF more clearly less room for interpretation;
  • For resolutions that contain policy, publish drafts for comment and review (similar to the recent Terms of Use rewrite).

2. Chapter development

This particular point has been debated back and forth for years. And, whilst we are getting better, there is still not a consensus about what the relationship between the WMF and the Chapters should be – this has focused most especially on the issue of fundraising. In my opinion, I subscribe to the principle of subsidiarity – that matters should be handled by the least central competent authority. I also believe that our mission is a very broad one and to achieve it we need to see ourselves in the future at a scale and level of impact like the Red Cross. What they are to disaster relief, we are to knowledge: global, neutral, free.  Because of these two points I believe it is the Wikimedia Foundation’s responsibility to actively assist in the capacity development of the network of Chapters. Without such a network I believe we cannot achieve our mission. I am not saying that the WMF has been actively ignoring the Chapters. I generally support an expanded framework for affiliation of Wikimedia groups. However, I do think we need to ensure Chapters are effective – rather than trying to route around them. We should:

  • Plan for a fundraising future where virtually all of the money from the “annual banner campaign” goes through Chapters. Obviously this will not happen for many years but that is the general direction I believe we should be heading. (I blogged about this general idea almost four years ago here).
  • Develop a plan for how to structure WMF (legally, financially and organisationally) when there’s a national Wikimedia-USA Chapter with fundraising capacity (a corollary of the point above, discussed in more detail here).
  • Treat Chapters according to their capacity and create a model of rights and responsibilities with “tiers” for different levels of development. There should be specific WMF staff liaison and guidelines for each level. For example: New Chapter with no funds; Entirely volunteer Chapter with funds; Partially professionalised chapter with annual grant funding; fully professionalised chapter with fundraising.
  • Actively support ChapCom to increase its efficiency in providing assistance to new/prospective Chapters, and develop rules for disendorsement of non-functioning Chapters (a corollary of the point above).
  • Obtain and publish the financial compliance requirements for large international money transfers to/from USA for each Chapter country. This allows for money to be transparently and legally moved to where it is most needed in a way that is agnostic to where the money is raised.
  • Develop and maintain a “global budget” that shows how much money each organisation in the movement is planning to raise, how much they are planning to spend (and the growth %) broken down by categories. This also provides clear expectations and data for long term planning.
  • Develop expense oversight committee for whole movement’s budget. This is similar to Sue’s recommendation #4 or the Board’s recommended FDC but is different in that it is for “reviewing” rather than “allocating” funds. (This is a corollary of the point above).
  • Coordinate global priority programs with the Chapters taking the management and funding at the national/local level, as distinct from running only outreach programs directly managed by WMF staff. For example, the “Education program” should be managed and promoted by the local organisation while the coordination and associated course management software should be developed centrally (which would help avoid problems like this).

3. Community support

I completely agree with and support the WMF’s focus on new user retention as their primary metric for success over the next few years. On all other aspects of the strategic plan’s goals we are moving forwards (e.g. higher quality, more content) but in this we are actually moving backwards. Clearly this needs addressing and I’ve blogged about editor retention before. However, by focusing on new users to the exclusion of the existing community, the WMF risks seeing the existing community as the problem rather than part of the solution. To quote a veteran Australian politician, I worry that we are fast moving towards a position where it becomes “…so reliant on focus groups that it listens more to those who don’t belong to it than to those who do.”[1] Focusing on helping the existing community do their work more efficiently and effectively will mean that newbies are less likely to be turned away when the do join up. Building new “curation” tools such as the New Page Triage system is an excellent move in this direction.

One of the most common complaints from the existing community is that the WMF has an overwhelming focus on Wikipedia and virtually none for the sister projects. Therefore I would propose to undertake a formal “brand review” of the current projects. We should:

  • Identify the community expectations of what minimum standard of technical/organisational support WMF hosting should provide;
  • Identify “under-supported” sister-projects that have high growth potential for relatively small investment (e.g. Wiktionary, Wikisource) and build plans to directly support them. (this is related to Erik Moeller’s presentation at Wikimania 2010);
  • Identify wikis that can be merged to consolidate the community and discussion e.g. OutreachWiki merged with MetaWiki or WikiSpecies merged with WikiData (currently being built);
  • Invest to remove software-enforced division between projects e.g. global userpages;
  • Devote specific attention to supporting the needs of the “power-users”;
  • Run regular “by popular request” software development projects which ask the community(s) to build consensus for most wanted features, and promises to invest in the results (within reason, of course).
  • Develop a movement-wide calendar to coordinate software releases, outreach events, conferences…

4. WMF human resources 

As a former staffer of the WMF I know how hard everyone there works to do their jobs well (and transparently), how high the staff morale generally is, and how supportive the organisation’s policies are to its employees. However, there remain issues that cause resentment and reduce effectiveness. This is not the direct purview of the Board of Trustees, but it is something that the Board can direct the WMF executive to focus more on. We should:

  • Decrease recruitment process length and increase process clarity. Good applicants are being unintentionally turned away  as a result of vague and drawn-out hiring processes. Often, no one is sure who has approval to give a formal “yes” while the applicant is given a months-long runaround.
  • Build systems to stop “bait and switch” hiring practices – where the real job turns out to be much less inspiring and more restricted than the advertised role.
  • Increase everyday visibility of WMF staff to community, such as videoing office lunchtime presentations and providing greater detail on staff wiki pages.
  • Increase job autonomy and personal empowerment within assigned tasks.

Thanks for reading down this far, those of you who have! I look forward to your comments or questions.

[edit: my formal candidacy page is on-wiki here and you can read my answers to the many "questions to all candidates" here.]

Peace, Love & Metadata.

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12 Responses to times-they-are-a-changin'

  1. Phoebe says:

    Good for you! Good luck. I just saw the pingback :)

  2. Jan-bart says:

    Without supporting your specific candidacy: thank you for candidating yourself !

  3. Kerry says:

    As a new member of WMAU, I’m very supportive of your candidacy, Liam.

  4. Jane says:

    Yes! I can’t agree more; well now I said that, maybe I agree a little more with Lodewijk. I also feel like the movement is about to wander down the wrong road and someone needs to grab the wheel and back up to the public highway. No taxation without representation! Let’s start a Wikipedia chapter “united we stand, divided we fall” group.

  5. Erik Moeller says:

    Hi Liam,

    good luck! This is a very thoughtful candidacy statement, and one which stays focused on the facts and objectives, rather than reinforcing divisions — great preconditions for having these kinds of conversations at the Board level. I have tremendous respect for your work in Wikimedia, and I think you would be a great addition to the Board, as well. A few responses to the points in your candidacy statement:

    Fundraising: I think Wikimedia went down the path you describe, with regard to chapters-driven fundraising, for the most part, but at least people inside WMF have increasingly become convinced that it’s a harmful long term growth path, especially as 1) our desire for fair distribution of funds increases, 2) our desire for having organizations other than geography-based chapters organize program work increases. (By “our” here I’m generally referring to Wikimedia as a whole, though WMF certainly has been a driver of both.)

    The most recent analysis from the involved WMF staff on this issue was just published, here:

    http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Fundraising_and_Funds_Dissemination/WMF_staff_memo

    This includes a reference to a first cut legal analysis on the payment distribution issue. It’s predictably generating tons of controversy, but there are many important points here, including the fact that raising money in a global online campaign with lots of national organizations having to then transfer money via a movement-wide reallocation process is a bureaucratic nightmare in the making, given all the different jurisdictions involved. I’ve not seen any analysis which refutes this, except for a lot of wishful thinking arguments along the lines of “We’re a great group of people, surely we can solve these trivial legal problems”. Please review this detailed legal analysis of funds distribution issues by country:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/meta/5/51/Study_on_transfer_of_funds_-_APPENDIX_E.pdf

    Yes, you can pick and choose any individual assessment, but you have to wear considerably large blinders to ignore the overwhelming issue here: It’s a lot more manageable to collect funds globally and then disseminate them where needed, then to do things the other way around.

    Support for projects: As for a meta-level review of Wikimedia’s projects and their needs, in general, I’d love to see the Board do more of the thinking about “work beyond Wikipedia”, because the gravity on the staff-level is certainly going to pull towards “investing in what works” as opposed to “taking risks on bets that may not play out”. I think one of the Board’s roles can be to help spur the organization to take risks and embark on at least one high-risk project a year (e.g. “Let’s really make the Wiktionary idea work”).

    That said, I think if you end up in an oversight/governance role, you’ll find yourself confronted with a much more difficult dilemma than when preparing a candidacy statement like this: the dilemma of choice. I had similarly broad ambitious when I prepared a Board candidacy back in 2006, most of which didn’t survive contact with reality for very long. We’re barely able to do a good enough job with the vast number of projects we’re already working on, and we shouldn’t add to that list without removing from it.

    In that spirit, if I understand you correctly, you’re essentially proposing to eliminate the Brazil, India and MENA catalyst programs. I think the opportunity of these kinds of catalyst programs is to accelerate learning and program development while building sustainable program capacity on the ground. I don’t view something like the India Education Program experience as evidence of the idea that this approach isn’t useful, quite the opposite: In the last year, we’ve learned things about running an extensive outreach program in India that might otherwise have taken us years to learn. My personal main concern is that we really do have a clear view on what a “catalyst program” is — not an attempt to engage in programs on the ground in lieu of self-sustaining activity, but a way to accelerate learning and local capacity development, with a clear end date attached to it, and actual transition to independently run, local organizations and groups.

    Finally, as for the HR issues you mentioned, I do agree that the process here has at times been pretty haphazard, which is pretty common in growing organizations. We’ve recently embarked on a series of improvements on that front, including a new jobs site, a new HR tracking system that monitors the state of candidates through the hiring process, more on-site recruiting support, etc. I don’t think it’s the type of issue that warrants Board-level attention — those are normal improvements that are routinely being made as part of ongoing operations. But certainly any individual Board member should have the ability to raise these types of questions and get reasonable answers.

  6. Erik Moeller says:

    Bleh, sorry for the missing close tag there — for some reason this comment form doesn’t have preview. :-(

  7. Welcome back, I missed your blog.

  8. Phoebe says:

    I will say, my fellow candidate, that I yearn to support the sister projects and have been a bit stuck about how to do so. Erik’s comments are insightful. This is one of the areas where I truly wish that people smarter than myself, from the community & staff, could work with the board on a few proposed directions. Maybe we should start an RFC process for things like this!

  9. Seb35 says:

    I like the vast majority of your points, particularly the comparison with the Red Cross, the “reviewing” status of the FDC (a sort of soft governance maintaining the organizations’ authority, from what I understand), and the spirit of the “Community support” paragraph.

    I just agree with Erik about the (non-)Board-level status of the HR, but you probably have a specific point of view.

  10. Pingback: Ich kandidiere für das Board of Trustees » lyzzy sucht das wunderland

  11. Pingback: National Museum of Australia Situation Report | Witty’s Blog

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