On 19 August, the WMF's Affilliations Committee ("AffCom") announced that the Board of Trustees had established three additional criteria for new applications by user groups to become chapters and thematic organizations ("thorgs"), instructing AffCom to take these criteria into account.
These new criteria reflect the next development in a process set in motion by a 2014 Board resolution, which required that applications to become a chapter or thorg would require at least two years' prior status as a user group. Previously, any group of Wikimedians had been able to apply to move straight to chapter/thorg status. The 2014 decision proved highly controversial at the time, as it changed the rules and effectively put new chapter/thorg applications on hold until February 2016. According to AffCom's schedule, some of the user groups since established have now become eligible to apply. AffCom first discussed the criteria by which such applications would be evaluated at its July meeting.
The new criteria are:
- Diversity of Activities: Chapters and thematic organisations are expected to plan and conduct a variety of different programs and events; to balance online and offline projects; to strive for continuous activity; and to conduct programs and events at least once every two months.
- Planning and Evaluation: Chapters and thematic organisations are expected to set specific goals and targets for programs, projects, and events before executing them; to measure the results of programs, projects, and events against those targets; and to report on those results to the Wikimedia Foundation and the wider Wikimedia movement.
- External Partnerships: Chapters and thematic organisations are expected to engage in programmatic partnerships with external groups and organisations (for example, cultural, academic, or government institutions, and so on) to promote the Wikimedia movement and to add and improve content on Wikimedia projects.
Questions on the Wikimedia-L email list have challenged the announcement on several fronts, ranging from the unclear duration of the “trial period” to the suitability of a two-tiered system in which existing chapters and thorgs will be treated differently from new ones. While AffCom’s chair, Carlos M. Colina, has engaged on the list, the Committee has yet to supply responses to many of the issues raised.
The existing 41 chapters and one thorg need only comply with the pre-existing requirements (items 4–9)); these are less specific, involving general big-picture expectations for mission alignment, geographical focus, legal incorporation, governance, a minimum of 20 active contributors, and "capacity". In effect, the new criteria will create a two-tiered system of standards and accountability, in which there are substantially lower standards for existing chapters and thorgs than for newly recognised chapters and thorgs.
The number of user groups has grown from nine to 64 since the Board’s 2014 decision. User groups are a simpler, less formal, and more flexible form of affiliation. Despite the official position that user groups are "equal players in the Wikimedia movement", they enjoy fewer privileges than chapters and thorgs do. Unlike user groups, chapters and thorgs are eligible for annual operating grants, which can involve significant amounts of donors' money; this may explain the strong attraction by some affiliates to the relatively expensive model followed by some European chapters, which involves paid staff and "bricks and mortar" city offices. Chapters and thorgs have the privilege of nominating two of the 10 WMF trustees, whereas user groups do not.
The announcement prompted an extensive discussion on the Wikimedia-L mailing list, which included the following themes:
- questions over whether criteria should be qualitative or quantitative;
- a complaint that the bar is set "super high" for those organizations without paid staff;
- queries about the vagueness of the new requirements, and perceived inflexibility in timing requirements.
- the issue of creating two tiers of chapters/thorgs: existing and new.
Pine, a user group board member, wrote: “the criteria should also apply to existing chapters” and "existing chapters should be evaluated routinely". He suggested that “if any chapter's status is in doubt as a result of the new criteria, then the chapter can be given 6 months to rise to the occasion. If chapters still do not meet the new criteria after that time, it seems to me that they should be re-classified as user groups until they re-apply for chapter status and are accepted by AffCom as meeting the new criteria." The AffCom chair responded to Pine's suggestion of "a common baseline throughout the world" that he found it “divisive, discriminatory, patronizing, to say the least. Every chapter's situation is different, so being absolutely quantitative would be unfair and damaging to the movement".
Nevertheless, several Wikimedians expanded on Pine’s theme:
- Ben Creasy, a former non-voting member of the WMF Audit Committee, asked which chapters fall short of the new criteria, adding: “I think we should at least get a sense for that, and those chapters should be notified and be put on the path to meeting standards or losing their status." Colina suggested that losing status would be a rare last resort: "in those cases the AffCom may reach out to them to help fix the issue, stimulate the organization of activities, fix governance issues, ...".
- Chris Keating, formerly of the Wikimedia UK board, endorsed “a method of inactive chapters to be de-recognised – just as it is also useful for User Groups working towards chapter status to know what they are meant to be working towards." Keating pointed to a somewhat tougher approach, without conducting an audit, used by the organisers of the most recent Wikimedia Conference to review existing chapters' eligibility for paid expenses.
- Asaf Bartov, a WMF staff liaison to AffCom, pointed to a relatively new process "being followed, right now, to review the status of inactive and non-compliant chapters, at long last." Bartov suggested that perhaps this link should be added to the AffCom navbox.
Delphine Ménard, a non-voting adviser to AffCom, took issue with the proposition that holding existing affiliates to solid expectations would be too harsh:
||Experience proves that 'trying to get in touch' [with an apparently dormant chapter] and 'trying to put together a plan' is a very lengthy process, and takes months, if not years. ... You do have to draw the line somewhere though, and at some point get 'harsh' and have hard deadlines. An appeal process would mean having someone at the other end of the line. More often than not, this is not the case. I think it's important that we know to 'terminate', because dormant entities often prevent new people from rekindling motivation and starting anew.
WMF Trustee Alice Wiegand endorsed Ménard's post, while suggesting that "immediate termination [of a chapter/thorg] is for 'serious and urgent cases' only and that there is a more partnering process for less serious cases."
On the other side were claims that the new criteria were "focusing on how to bring down chapters", and a claim that "The only measure should be trust and an assumption of good faith". A related issue for some was "a huge shortage of support for user groups and smaller chapters."
The Signpost's questions to AffCom
The Signpost contacted the chair of AffCom, on 29 August, inviting response to a number of questions raised by the announcement. He declined to comment by copy-deadline, citing a need to confer with his AffCom colleagues. Our questions built on those raised on the list: We asked whether evaluation of applications for chapter/thorg status, which were not open to scrutiny in the past, would be handled transparently in the future. We inquired whether the proposed two-tiered system of new and existing chapters constituted an attempt to avoid objections by existing chapters/thorgs. We asked whether AffCom is sufficiently independent from chapters/thorgs to exercise the types of judgment indicated in its charter, in the Protocol for noncompliant Wikimedia movement affiliates, in WMF’s Organisational best practices, and in the new criteria. The Signpost awaits comment from AffCom on these and other issues that we put to the chair. TS
Editorial note: In keeping with the Signpost's COI practice, Rosiestep—a member of both the Signpost’s editorial board and AffCom—was not involved in preparing or writing this story.
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