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WMF's draft annual plan turns indigestible as an FDC proposal

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By Tony1, The ed17, and Scott

Like hammering a square peg into a round hole, the Wikimedia Foundation has submitted a draft annual plan for 2014–15 to its own Funds Dissemination Committee. Unlike the WMF's submission to the FDC's inaugural round in October 2012, the "proposal" does not seek funding. However, according to the FDC's governing "Framework", it is "an advisory committee of the Board of Trustees and will provide recommendations on requests for funding by eligible entities ... / The purpose of the FDC process is to make allocations to FDC-eligible Wikimedia entities, ...".

However, there appears to be no Framework-supported role for the FDC in processing submissions from "non-fund-seeking" entities, a category into which the Foundation clearly falls in this round. Nor has it been clear why the Foundation was written into the process in the first place as both a potential "fund-seeking entity" as well as having "involvement and oversight".

Jan-Bart de Vreede: chair of the Board of Trustees

The FDC is supported by WMF staff whose role, among other things, is "to prepare for the FDC an assessment of the likely impact of fund-seeking entities' plans against the mission goals of the Wikimedia movement, and an assessment of the ability of eligible entities to execute those plans responsibly and well". The Signpost asked the chair of the Board of Trustees, Jan-Bart de Vreede, who is also one of the FDC's two non-voting Board representatives, if he believes that WMF proposals to the FDC—whether for funding or not—place the FDC and/or its staff in a position of potential conflict of interest. He responded:

The WMF's submission of its annual plan draft as an FDC proposal appears to meet the approval of FDC chair Dariusz Jemielniak, who told the Signpost a month ago: "I believe there is a lot of value in the WMF applying to the FDC. It is important to try to be as equal in the movement, as possible, I think. In my personal view the best approach was "core" vs. "non-core" budget division (where they applied for non-core activities), but the idea was dropped."

The submission opens with a statement that it has been "published now as part of the FDC process so that the WMF can get community and FDC member input to inform the plan as it's revised and refined". In her introductory remarks on the talkpage, executive director Sue Gardner wrote: "Last year the WMF submitted material after it had been approved by the WMF Board and after the fiscal year had begun. That was an okay first step to getting input from community members, but obviously the input will have more impact if we get it before the plan's locked down." She explained that this is why the draft has been synchronised to run as an FDC submission.

The experiment does not appear to have been entirely successful. As Dariusz Jemielniak told the Signpost: "I understand that perhaps at some level it may be difficult to adjust to the FDC process." And in Sue Gardner's words: "The drawback is it means you'll be reviewing material that is still a work-in-progress, and so you may find mistakes. The plan may also be a little confusing, which is partly because it's still in-progress, and also partly because we are merging this year the original WMF-Board-only format with the FDC proposal requirements. It'll be a little clunky: we ask you to bear with us as we work out the kinks."

The proposal, which comprises more than 22,000 words, does look like an odd fit. Despite the fact that no FDC funds are sought in the proposal, a table at the top lists "Currency requested: $60,064,000". A succession of questions designed for chapters yields underwhelming responses:

A large amount of information laid out in the draft is readily available elsewhere in the Foundation's on-wiki documentation, including its substantial monthly reports. Added to this difficult situation is that FDC submissions cannot normally be updated or altered in response to comments on the talkpage without explicit permission from FDC staff—draft or no draft. It is little wonder that despite banners on Wikipedia watchlist pages for at least the past week, only two community members, Pine and Nemo, have ventured onto the talk page to review the proposal and pose questions. Both have spent considerable time and effort on the talk page, sometimes in forensic detail with incisive follow-ups.

Pine told the Signpost by phone that on the good side, he believes the document reveals plans for "very appropriate investments in mobile and engineering, and other directions in staffing that make sense". However, he is not satisfied with the standards of transparency in relation to financial and quantitative performance data, especially the budget tables, which should have been "a lot more readable". While he is "not particularly upset that the plan has been put to the FDC," he said, "it does bother me how little engagement there was by FDC members."

An appendix to the plan adds another 14,000 words, including a table of contents that by itself numbers 1200 words: "what is this thing?", asked Nemo. The appendix was subsequently approved by FDC staff as a legitimate part of the proposal ("The FDC will be reviewing this supplementary document along with WMF's proposal," wrote one of the grants administrators).

Wikimedia Germany's involvement

Dariusz Jemielniak: chair of the FDC

Dariusz Jemielniak foreshadowed to the Signpost a month ago that there might be problems in having WMF/FDC staff reviewing the plans for other departments: "I think that there are ways to avoid involving WMF staff in WMF evaluation—if some large entities of the movement offer to do some of the work." On 24 April, he and FDC member Mike Peel announced on behalf of the FDC that "the WMF/FDC staff have a potential bias here, since their work is included in the WMF's proposal. / As a result, we have asked Wikimedia Deutschland (WMDE), the second largest entity in our movement, to do the staff assessment of the WMF's proposal, and they have agreed to do this. WMDE will be adapting the framework of the standard staff assessment as they see fit in order to appropriately assess the WMF's proposal; the main expectation we have is that they will help identify the key strengths and weaknesses of the proposal in their assessment."

This sparked a furore on the Wikimedia mailing list over whether it was an appropriate course of action. Risker wrote: "I think this is a horrible idea. WMDE is a direct beneficiary of both the WMF and the FDC decisions, and cannot be considered impartial in assessing the WMF proposals. / I also question whether or not WMDE has the skill-set necessary to make the equivalent of a 'staff assessment' of the proposals, particularly in view of the FDC's comments about their goal-setting and assessment of outcomes for their own proposal."

In a further message, Risker continued:

Among the responses was Jemielniak's: "WMDE staff has a lot of experience in using different metrics, and understands our movement. The FDC can request any the movement stakeholders specifically for comments, and so it did."

Nicole Ebber, Wikimedia Germany's manager of international affairs, wrote to the mailing list: "Given the short time frame, we are only able to assess the Infrastructure and Mobile part of the proposal. We will focus on the plan's comprehensibility and its consistency with the strategy. / Please note that we will only be able to determine the detailed scope of the assessment in the course of the analysis."

This raises the issue of who will conduct the staff review of the rest of the annual plan.

The Signpost asked Ebber whether she believes there a potential conflict of interest in having a staff assessment conducted by a large recipient of FDC funding, even given the limited scope the chapter had defined for itself. We put it to her that WMDE has recently published complaints about the FDC's processes; that FDC staff were highly critical of the chapter's bid last November, and slashed their quantitative scoring of the chapter over the previous year's; and that WMDE's own auditors had complained about vagueness and a lack of detail in its own budget draft last year. Ebber responded:

We also asked the chair of the WMF Board, Jan-Bart de Vreede, whether the decision to involve Wikimedia Germany was taken with the knowledge and agreement of the two Board representatives on the FDC: "Both board liaisons and I were aware of the proposal to have WMDE do (part of) the assessment that is normally done by the Foundation. I don’t think we have a place to agree or not to agree. ... the nature of the assessment and the characteristics of the WMF proposal makes it hard to see how useful this assessment will be." Is there a potential conflict of interest in the conduct of such a "staff assessment" by a large recipient of FDC funding?

In brief

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