As covered previously in the Signpost, I was removed from the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees in late December, by an 8–2 vote. The Board has not been forthcoming (publicly or to me) about the reasons, though they have (officially and as individuals) repeatedly stated that “mutual trust” was the main factor.
My brief time on the Board – since sent there with more than 1800 of your votes in June – was defined by tensions around transparency. I believe transparency is a crucial value of the movement. Upon joining the Board, I encountered a culture of secrecy that was distressing. I advocated, forcefully at times, for publishing information that others felt should be kept secret. They may have believed I felt so strongly that I would publish it unilaterally; but it’s hard to know: I’m not a mindreader. I’ve not published such information.
During my time as a trustee, and in the weeks since my removal, I’ve learned that many Wikimedia Foundation staff share the Wikimedia movement's dedication to transparency, share my concerns about secrecy in the present organization, and are willing to take bold steps to bring about change.
Shortly after my removal, several Wikimedia staff created, and began to populate, a page on Meta Wiki called the "Wikimedia Foundation transparency gap." Many community members, including English Wikipedians and members of other projects, and former staff and Board members, have built out the page in detail, documenting areas in which the WMF could improve its transparency, and suggesting specific steps it could take to do so.
This essay will focus on just a few of those ideas.
The past couple of weeks have seen a great deal of discussion on transparency and what this means for our movement. Members of the volunteer community, along with Foundation staff, have begun collecting specific ideas about how transparency could and should be improved, on the Meta page Wikimedia Foundation transparency gap. The community is a unique and invaluable asset of Wikimedia. Not only is transparency required to properly leverage this asset: our communities demand transparency.
Not everything should be transparent, but a great deal must be, and I believe much more than currently. We need a culture that is transparent by default, one where confidentiality is only dragged out for specific reasons and with specific justification.
We must keep in mind that the WMF is a steward of movement funds, and those in positions of authority should act accordingly. This is reflected in our values "we must communicate Wikimedia Foundation information in a transparent, thorough and timely manner, to our communities and more generally, to the public." We additionally say: "In general, where possible, we aim to do much of our work in public, rather than in private, typically on public wikis." We need to redouble our efforts to reach this goal.
Our long-term strategy must be developed in genuine collaboration with our movement. This means that strategy discussions are started early, that ideas are proposed, and that this is done before a year into a project or millions of dollars are spent. Our ideas around “search and discovery” were developed before April to June of 2015 and we presented them first to potential funders rather than our own communities.
Restricted grants can change the direction of an organization. If allowed they need to be very carefully managed. The Bylaws require Board approval of restricted grants over $100,000, and for good reason. In a movement like ours we must not be “selling” ideas to potential funders that we are not willing to sell to the movement as a whole.
Grant applications should be published at the same time as they are submitted to potential funders. This would keep those in a position of management accountable. It would reduce the risk of unpleasant surprises down the road. The community would also be aware of what has been promised to those who are funding us. Best practice would be to take this a step further by discussing what kind of grants we should accept – an idea put forward by the previous ED, Sue Gardner.
With the grant for the visual editor (VE), from my understanding there was a timeline around rollout agreed to with the funder. Thus VE was rolled out before it was ready, as exemplified by the difficulty initially of adding references with the new system. It should have been obvious to all involved that rollout was too early. We ended up taking an idea that had a great deal of support from the community at large and turning it into a loss for the WMF’s programming teams.
Those who have pushed the most for transparency around restricted grants have left the organization. We now need “clear standard[s] for transparency [around] restricted grants”].
If the US government can have “open, honest, challenging conversations”, then why can’t we? Our communities are able to have frank and difficult discussions in public. If one takes a controversial position one should be willing to defend and stand behind it. We have a communication gap, one that holds our movement back; this would help address it.
That these discussions are public keeps some level of behavioral decorum and allows inappropriate intimidation tactics to be reined in by admins. It also allows those who “vote” for community candidates to judge if those they have elected are living up to their positions before they ran. We should not be hesitant to publish dissenting views. While the final vote obviously wins the day attempts to hide other views should be disallowed. And they should definitely never be misrepresented.