The Politics of Legitimate Governance

An Open Letter to the Membership Committee of the Open Source
Initiative
.


Re:
Membership Policy

Let me take a step
back and try to articulate why I think this issue of membership is coming up
now, in the context of larger challenges facing the OSI. Caveat: I am not
by training or position a political scientist, though I do play one on the
Internet. 🙂

Roughly speaking, there
are three ways communities can make legitimate
decisions:

a) Informal
consensus

b) Formal
voting

c) Designated
autocrat

Of course, there’s numerous
variations and combinations of these, but this should suffice for our
purposes. At the risk of oversimplifying even further, I would add
that:

a) Consensus works when
the community can socialize a shared understanding of the
problem

b) Voting works when
there exists mechanisms to ensure “fair” representation across winners and
losers

c) Autocracy works when
the person(s) in power are trusted by the community for the task in
question

Of course I’m sure you could
all find loopholes in these admittedly vague assertions, but hopefully it gives
a flavor of the central issues involved, at least from my
perspective.

Why does this
matter? I believe that the OSI worked so well in the past
because:

a) The OSD did in fact
reflect a broadly-shared community
understanding

and

c)
The community — based on past experience with the OSD — trusted the OSI to
manage that wisely

That is, as long as
the OSI stayed within community norms, on a topic for which they had
credible expertise, (almost) everybody was
happy.

However, what has changed — and
the reason I got ‘bounced’ here from license-discuss — is that the OSI decided it
needed to be proactive in an area where there was *not* a pre-existing community
consensus.

Were they right? I
don’t know. Yes, there *is* consensus that license-proliferation is “a”
problem. However, I don’t believe there is a *broad* consensus
that:

i) it is an *urgent*
problem

ii) the OSI has
characterized it properly

iii) it is related
enough to OSD issues that OSI should/must take it
on

iv) the proposed solution will be
effective

v) the benefits of the solution
outweigh its costs

I don’t want to
debate those issues here (that’s what I promised to do on license-proliferation-discuss :-), but merely
point out that the OSI does NOT have (currently) an effective mechanism for
determining whether their position does in fact reflect community understanding.
Clearly, the reaction on license-discuss seems ample proof that a consensus does
not (yet) exist. In that case, what are the OSI’s options? I see only
four:

1. Admit that
it cannot deal with the problem, since there is no consensus, and give
up

2. Invest
significant time and effort in developing a consensus -before- enforcing a
strong stand


3. Establish a fair voting mechanism, to determine the community’s will
(even, perhaps especially, if
divided)

4. Decide
the issue is too important to wait for consensus, and set itself up as an
autocrat

Anything else? I don’t think
so, but I’m willing to hear realistic alternatives. But for now, allow me to
assume this is true and move on.

Within
this framework, I suspect that the OSI Board felt that their actions were
in line with #2: i.e., their perspective was “close enough” to the community
consensus, that the community would naturally recognize that these decisions
were in the community interest, and a natural extension of their existing trust,
and not take offense.

Alas, if so, I
feel they gravely misjudged the situation. Not maliciously, I hasten to add, but
severely. In fact, the trust about the OSI’s ability to correctly perceive the
‘community sense’ behind the OSD only *partially* transferred to their actions
on license proliferation. Worse, the limitations (which, to be fair, may be
technical rather than political) in how it was communicated further exacerbated
the problem. With the end result that a vocal minority of the community (at
least of those paying attention) are worried that the OSI Board is acting like
#4 (autocracy).

What’s the solution? Is
membership? To be honest, I don’t think so. A vote, by its very nature,
implies winners and losers, and counting noses. Give the size and nature of
our community, I honestly can’t imagine any rational scheme for membership
that wouldn’t allow a particular faction to “stuff the ballot box” to the
detriment of others — especially on a issue that differentially impacts various
populations.

Frankly, I believe the
only viable option is to pursue consensus, by adopting a more formal,
transparent, feedback-oriented communication process (a la #2, with a fallback
to #1). Anything less, IMHO, would tear the community
apart

I think one of the problems is
that the original board was too busy, or didn’t have the right skills, to
maintain ongoing involvement. Some organizational knowledge was lost, and
the new Board (IMHO) didn’t understand what all was at stake. A healthier
mechanism (again, IMHO) would be for the current Board of Directors (who’re
doing the actual work) to be required to consult with an “emeritus” Board to
validate policies before presenting them to the public. And similarly to
consult with the public before implementing those
policies.

In particular, I would
recommend that, in order to increase their perceived legitimacy, the
OSI:

I. Suspend the current
policy on anti-proliferation impacting license approval; not as a “bad” idea,
merely as “poorly
formed”

II. Develop a public
process for how new policies will be drafted, aired, and
implemented

(including things like a
Slashdot posting and public comment
period)

III. Establish a Board of
Advisors, consisting of diverse, high-profile, well-respected community
“elders”

IV. Better publicize the
membership of the Board of Directors, including the criteria and process for
their election

I realize that may be a
lot of work, but frankly I don’t see how the OSI Board can hope to
simultaneously:

a) pursue an activist
agenda, and

b) maintain
legitimacy

if they do NOT do something like
this.

Anyway that’s my two cents —
perhaps this will get a reaction. 🙂 I welcome your
feedback.

Best
wishes,

Ernest N. Prabhakar,
Ph.D.

[speaking only for myself]

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