Wikipedia:Wikipedia Signpost/2021-02-28/Opinion

The call for feedback on community seats is a distraction: Free as in Liberty.


The Wikimedia Foundation is taking away your freedom to elect community representatives to their board.

In 2017 some 5,500 contributors to Wikimedia projects elected three members to the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation for a three year term. Their mandate ended nearly a year ago. The Board decided to extend their terms for a year. The ongoing pandemic was an excuse to postpone an election, yet the Board of Trustees launched a very intensive consultation with the community. This consultation is probably more time- and energy-consuming than an actual election.

They want to discuss changes to the way Trustees are selected. They aim at greater diversity. They have concerns about skills and experiences of community elected board members.

This consultation isn't the only ongoing consultation with the communities. There are a whole range of Global Conversations about implementation of the recommendations of the Wikimedia 2030 Movement Strategy process. And some other consultations are also running. One of the strategy recommendations – which is priority 1 – is to ensure equity in decision making. To include underrepresented voices in governance and to assure diversity, it was recommended to have a Global Council in the future. The Global Council would be a large body, representing the diversity of the movement.

There will be a Global Council at the earliest at the end of Wikimania 2022. Depending on your point of view that is either very far away, or pretty soon. In the interim, there will be an Interim Global Council to draft a Movement Charter and oversee the implementation of the strategy recommendations. The current timeline projects having an Interim Global Council seated in April or May 2021. That is pretty soon, and probably at the same time or even before new community representatives will be elected to the Board of Trustees.

The movement has recognized and acknowledged a lack of diversity of our representation in governing bodies over the past years, and has resolved this issue by proposing an (Interim) Global Council (IGC). The current call for feedback about community seats is not only badly timed – in the midst of a pandemic, on top of multiple other consultations, but also tries to seek to solve a problem – diversity – which has already been solved by having an IGC soon. And the board failed to integrate this consultation within the overall framework of conversations about implementation of strategy recommendations. Just like they failed at integrating the branding discussion within the strategy process.

The other part of the 'problem' the Board seeks to solve is with respect to skills and experiences. Five trustees on the board are selected by communities and affiliates from volunteers who contribute to Wikimedia projects. Those volunteers have multiple years of experience within the Wikimedia Movement, are skilled in editing Wikimedia projects, and skilled in contributing in other ways to the Wikimedia Movement. Most notably, those volunteers have taken initiatives both online and offline to organize projects and programs. It looks like the current board doesn't value these skills and experience as relevant to governing the Wikimedia Foundation.

Half the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation consist of appointed trustees chosen for their specific skills and experiences. Most of them aren't contributors to the Wikimedia projects. Most of them had no idea how Wikimedia projects function and operate, and are unaware how Wikimedia volunteers have organized themselves online and offline over the past.

Most notably there is a total lack of diversity among appointed trustees, most of them being US residents. The five volunteers on the board all speak different native tongues, and are all born in different countries, originating from four different parts of the world. The current diversity among community and affiliate seats is at a maximum given the number of available seats. If there is a diversity problem on the board, then it is within the appointed seats, not within the community seats.

In 2019 a woman from Ukraine (Eastern Europe) and a woman from Israel (Middle-East) were selected by affiliates to become board members. The call for feedback states as problem the election process favors men from the US and Western Europe. The latest election outcome fully contradicts this part of the problem statement.

The Board amended the bylaws in 2020. They proposed expanding the board from 10 to 16 seats. There will be even more appointed seats, not selected by contributors to Wikimedia projects, in the future. The call for feedback is restricted to community seats. The Board didn't ask the community for advice how to fill in the extra appointed seats they created.

What the Board of the Wikimedia Foundation actually does is mostly boring stuff. They have to read piles of paper, approve annual plans and annual budgets, review financial reports and go through tons of legal stuff. The board also does hire and fire the CEO or Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the person who actually leads the 450+ staff of the Wikimedia Foundation on a daily basis.

Apparently the Board sees an urgent need to hear from a voice from Africa. They created three extra appointed seats, and no one is blocking the Board to handpick someone from Africa to become one of the Trustees. And maybe another one from South-East Asia. Apparently they want someone on their board who has previous experience as CEO or Executive Director of a non-profit of comparable size working in the same field as the Wikimedia Foundation. No one is blocking the Board appointing Katherine Maher to the Board, as she has announced her departure as CEO/ED of the Wikimedia Foundation by April 15. All in all, this leaves ample room for the community and affiliates to select their representatives through their preferred method, that is by having a free and open election.

Apparently the Board has a dislike for elections, and wants to get rid of the system of election by the community and the affiliates of Trustees. In preparing this article I have reached out to all board members, asking them whether they would prefer appointment of parliamentarians rather than electing them by the people in their country. Some of the board members engaged in email conversation, and I raised more questions. The ensuing conversation stopped soon after the moment someone realized they were stepping out of line, and ranks were closed. I could get a quote from an official voice from the board. That quote ended up being 462 words long, not answering any of my questions directly.

The call for feedback about community seats proves the Board of Trustees is not capable of governing the Wikimedia movement, and the call for feedback on community seats is a distraction from the conversation on implementing the Wikimedia movement strategy recommendations. The Wikimedia movement has an urgent need of a Global Council inclusive of all Wikimedia project wiki communities.

Whether or not Wikimedia project wiki communities actually do support the creation of an (Interim) Global Council and drafting a Movement Charter, which are highly preferred by some people from Wikimedia affiliates, is a topic for a Signpost article in the future.