TheCaseForGovernance

From The Art Of Community by O'Reilly (http://www.artofcommunityonline.org) by Jono Bacon

Introduction

Governance is not a rite of passage for community. It is not an expected norm, and its absence is not something that is perceived as immaturity. Before we begin exploring the nuances of governance, we need to determine if you need governance in the first place. At the end of the day, only your community should judge whether governance is required and what form it will take. There are, however, some indicators that suggest that a governing body could be useful to have in place:

Size of the community

One of the first indicators that governance may be required is that your community grows extensively. If you have a community of around 10 people, governance is probably not required. If you have a community of 100 contributors (not users/consumers/onlookers) or more, it becomes a more pressing consideration. If you exceed the 1,000 mark, you should strongly consider governance, and possibly muscle relaxants, too.

Increasing conflict

Conflict resolution is a primary responsibility in governance. You should be careful about what you consider real conflict, though. People disagreeing on a few things is not conflict. People having full arguments in which multiple people are involved and factions develop is a far more serious issue. When this happens, sometimes the different sides hit an impasse and can’t move forward. Governance can really help here, under the proviso that the community respects the conclusions of the governance body.

Extensive resources

If you find that your community requires significant resources and some of these resources are donated, you may require a governing body to oversee the stewardship of these resources. An example of this could include a software project such as the Debian (http://www.debian.org) project, which requires extensive resources such as servers, hosting, build farms, and more.

Commercial interests

When there are commercial interests in a community, a governance body can be useful to ensure that the community is “kept honest.” The governance body should be tasked with the responsibility of always maintaining and defending the primary values of the community and standing up against any improper requests that may result from commercial sponsors. If some of these elements apply to your community, it would be worth considering governance in more detail. Let’s now expand on this introduction and explore some of the responsibilities that governing bodies can provide, and consider how this could apply to your own community. To ensure we focus our minds on these important topics, I am going to revisit the approach from earlier in the book when we built a Community TODO List to remember which items were important in growing strong community. Our list will look a little like this.

Governance TODO List:

  • Item.
  • Item.
  • ....

Follow the Leader

The primary responsibility of a governance body is to lead. It is there to initiate and engage in a conversation about topics that affect the community as a whole and represent the best interests of that community. A governing body seeks to understand and make decisions that are representative of the community, its goals, and its culture.

For many communities, leadership is broken into a few different threads that pull in the same direction to form a diversely detailed governing body. Just as a conventional government will have leaders and departments that focus on specific areas (e.g., Department of Health, Department of Employment), many communities divide their leadership up, too. For most communities, this leadership is broken up as:

General governance

Decisions that need to be made around general topics that apply to the community as a whole. This could include things such as how people join the community, resources and infrastructure, community-wide policies and procedures, governance changes, etc.

Direction

Decisions about the goals, ambitions, and focus of the community. As an example, with a software project, this kind of leadership would decide on which features to aim for in the next release. In a local civil rights group, this could be how the group is planning on raising awareness and which campaigns will be organized.

Specialist governance

This really applies only to larger communities. Specialized governance may be required in specific areas of expertise. As an example, in a software community the developer community may require its own governance, and so may the discussion forums.

For many communities, each type of leadership falls together inside a single governance body. This is particularly common in smaller communities. For example, many user groups have a known collection of leaders who advise and govern around all manner of topics, including how people can join the group, how the group should focus their efforts, which campaigns should be worked on, how money and assets are handled, and more. It is often the same small set of people who advise on these issues, and the expertise and more general focus of a user group makes this kind of simple approach a perfect solution.

For larger or more specialized communities, these separate leadership roles are often divided into different governance bodies. As an example, in the Ubuntu community we have the following governance bodies:

  • Community Council→General Governance.
  • Technical Board→Direction (technical direction and processes).
  • Team Councils→Specialist Governance (e.g., the Forums Council governs the Ubuntu Forums).

If this approach piques your interest, you should be tickled pink to learn that I will be providing a detailed summary of how Ubuntu is governed later in this chapter. We will look at the structure of its governance, crack it open, and see how it works. Let’s now add our first item to our Governance TODO List.

Governance TODO List:

  • Ensure your community is governed in terms of General Governance, Direction, and (if applicable) Specialist Governance.

Engage the People

Governments are fundamentally representatives of the people, and for this representation to be fair and accurate, the government needs to engage with the people. A government that lowers itself into a silo and rarely interacts with its people is doomed to a future riddled with problems. If a government fails to communicate with its people, the people will not only lose faith in those who govern, but also in the confidence of being governed in the first place.

George Burns, the famous American comedian, replete with arched eyebrow and cigar smoke punctuation, had a lot to say about government. In a 1979 issue of Life magazine, Burns shared a nugget of insight that resonated with many people:

Too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair.

He isn’t wrong. When I started my career in community management, I spent a lot of time traveling. At OpenAdvantage I would hurl myself across Europe from conference to conference, and my move to Canonical expanded my travel to the worldwide stage. As I moved from plane to plane, and ate miniature bag after miniature bag of salted peanuts, I went to meet and greet the various members of my community. While en route, I had my own opportunity to meet a battalion of taxi drivers, each with his own carefully considered manifesto of what his government had screwed up and the rather obvious solution to the problem. I heard views on Chinese politics in San Francisco, opinions of U.S. trade treaties in Prague, and just about everyone had a view on George W. Bush. I suspect that that man doesn’t get as many Christmas cards as he used to....

Virtually all of these taxi drivers had one thing in common: they all felt that their voice was rarely heard by their governments. Their right to vote was always cherished, but it was seen as a binary decision around favor or rejection. These always-entertaining cabbies weren’t asking for much, they just wanted to be able to have a conversation with their governments, and so they should.

Great communities always have a close connection between the governing bodies and the members of the community. This relationship requires more than a communication channel with the governance body; that part is simple. Real engagement is when government and community enter into a two-way conversation. Gone should be the days in which the government dictates to the people. Today governance should focus its heart on engaging in conversation with its members. Whether you call it shooting the breeze, having a good ol’ chin-wag, or anything else, you need to be having it with the people who govern you.

It is likely you are going to be governing others, and as such we need to ensure that we are cognizant of engaging in conversation with our communities. Let’s put this on our list.

Governance TODO List:

  • Ensure your community is governed in terms of General Governance, Direction, and (if applicable) Specialist Governance.
  • Build communication channels between the governance body and those whom they govern.
  • Foster a culture in which the members of the community can engage in conversation, debate, and discussion with their governing bodies.

Aspire to Inspire

Every community looks to its governing members for direction and advice, and leadership helps to ensure the community is on the right path and feeling productive and nimble. A very close cousin of leadership is inspiration. Your members will also look to you to inspire, motivate, and enthuse them. If you make the hairs on the backs of their necks stand on end when you lay out your vision and what you want accomplished, your community will succeed. Inspiration is an important responsibility for leaders. Earlier in this book we spent some time discussing how to write inspiring words for your community. Unfortunately, some community leaders who work to build governance bodies seem to forget that governance is seen as leadership and leaders are expected to inspire. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that governance is merely about decision-making. There is no reason why you can’t constrict it in this way, but you will be missing out on a wealth of opportunities to excite and energize your community.

You can see the divergence in this approach in conventional government. Compare and contrast how some presidential figures have approached inspiration. A recent example of an inspirational orator is Barack Obama. Irrespective of where you stand on his politics, Obama has inspired a significant chunk of the electorate behind a rhetoric of pumped-up, energized, forward-looking narrative, and the promise of a bright future. I am sure you can think of many presidents who merely took office and started legislating.

Obama primarily inspired people with the promise of a brighter future, and you should do the same for your own community. However, there is another important and more focused responsibility that governance bodies should shoot for: inspiring your members based on the values of your communities. Governance is almost entirely based around values. When a government appears open, transparent, and honest, it generates trust, respect, and a faith in its leaders. When a government throws values out of the window and replaces them with self-interest and sleaze, your community may as well pack up its bags and go home.

You need to not only understand your values, but celebrate them. It is these values that will continue to make your community feel open and engaging. When you learn to inspire based upon values and the promise of the future, it will stand you in good stead and stand your community in even better stead.

Let’s ensure we make a note of this important topic on our TODO list.

Governance TODO List:

  • Ensure your community is governed in terms of General Governance, Direction, and (if applicable) Specialist Governance.
  • Build communication channels between the governance body and those whom they govern.
  • Foster a culture in which the members of the community can engage in conversation, debate, and discussion with their governing bodies.
  • Seek to inspire, motivate, and enthuse your community based on future opportunities and the honesty and openness of your governance.

To Bring Peace

A final topic that is an essential function of governance is the ability to bring peace to your community. We all look to our leaders to resolve and calm conflict, and your community will be no different. Every community faces conflict. Communities attract different personalities, goals, approaches, attitudes, ambitions, and opinions, and some of them are going to rub up the wrong way. In the worst of these situations, conflict can cause deadlocks, and the community will look to its governors to unblock it. We need to expect conflict, acknowledge it, and react to it elegantly.

Conflict resolution is a large and complex topic, and with this in mind I have devoted an entire chapter to it later in the book (Chapter 9). As such, we will revisit this topic in that chapter. For now, though, you should simply ensure that inside the box in your mind that says “Governance” is a smaller box with “Conflict Resolution” written on the front. Let’s also add it to our TODO list.

Governance TODO List:

  • Ensure your community is governed in terms of General Governance, Direction, and (if applicable) Specialist Governance.
  • Build communication channels between the governance body and those whom they govern.
  • Foster a culture in which the members of the community can engage in conversation, debate, and discussion with their governing bodies.
  • Seek to inspire, motivate, and enthuse your community based on future opportunities and the honesty and openness of your governance.
  • Provide a clear, objective, and mature approach to solving conflict and contentious issues and for providing a decision when faced with deadlocks.


CategoryBuildingCommunity

BuildingCommunity/TheCaseForGovernance (last edited 2010-08-02 13:52:23 by jonathan)