Trustee candidates speak about Board structure, China, gender, global south, endowment
Nominations closed last Friday for the three community-elected seats on the Wikimedia Foundation's (WMF) ten-member Board of Trustees—the ultimate corporate authority of the worldwide WMF. The Board has influential roles and responsibilities over one of the most powerful global information sources on the Internet, hosting 900 sites, including the 286 Wikipedias, that attract 18 billion hits a month. Voting will start Saturday next week and will last for two weeks, from 1 to 15 June. All active editors on WMF sites are eligible to vote, with minor exceptions.
The 12 candidates are Leigh Thelmadatter, Milos Rancic, Liam Wyatt, Phoebe Ayers, Tom Morton, John Vandenberg, María Sefidari, Jeromy-Yu Chan, Samuel Klein, Kat Walsh, Michel Aaij, and Francis Kaguna.
The Signpost asked the candidates a set of wide-ranging questions and received responses from all but Kat Walsh, who said she was unable to meet the copy-deadline. This week, we cover their views on three issues—views that were not shared among the candidates before publication of this edition of the Signpost. For the sake of brevity, we will refer to the candidates by first name.
Since 2008, the Wikimedia community has directly elected three trustees; the Wikimedia chapters have selected two trustees; and the Board itself has appointed four "specific expertise" trustees and one "community founder" trustee (reserved for Jimmy Wales). Current membership is listed at the Foundation's wiki; all trustees have two-year terms. We asked whether the three seats for community-elected trustees (30% of the Board) sufficiently reflect the ongoing investment of an active global editing community of about 90,000.
Not surprisingly, given that the candidates are themselves seeking community-elected seats, most believe that there should be more community representation on the Board—although there are some interesting angles. Francis says that the majority of the board members should be elected by the community, a view shared by Leigh, who added "with term limits for all seats". Phoebe supports "expanding the Board by a couple of seats to increase diversity, [but] not because I think this would somehow better represent the editing community". She adds that this would enable the Board to divide more easily into sub-committees. John believes that the entire board of trustees should be community-elected: four long-term Wikimedians, four non-Wikimedians, and two seats for those who have already served on the WMF Board for two terms, with term limits for the first two categories. Samuel says: "While it is useful to have up to four seats for appointed [expert] trustees, I'd like us to have at least as many elected trustees. Along with a fourth community-elected trustee, we should consider switching to an annual election cycle (matching the proposed FDC process), with two seats up for election each year."
Milos is concerned that the community tends to elect prominent Wikimedians, rather than people with specific relevant expertise. "I think that we could have both larger community representation and expert Board members. The Board should define those expert positions, and the community could make its wishlist and elect Board members for the specified positions." Michel provided interesting nuances on this question: "the Board's job is not to reflect editors' investment—it's to improve and further the project as a whole. Obviously there is no future without volunteer editors, but by the same token there is no future for the WMF without long-range vision, and some of that should probably be supplied by outsiders. A more interesting question is whether the three trustees typically represent those editors fairly, or if in the past editors have been short-changed by the trustees they elected, but that's not a question that I can answer. It seems to me that three capable and outspoken trustees are in principle enough to fully represent."
Some candidates consider the two chapter-selected seats to represent the "community" too, although our question specifically referred to the online editing community. María says that in the current two chapter-selected trustees "we do have Wikimedia editors on the Board who reflect the diversity of our communities [Patricio, from the global south, and Alice, from a non-anglophone country]. Notwithstanding, in the mid-term it could be preferable to increase community representation in the Board." Tom says: "there should be more seats (one more, perhaps). But don't forget there are also the chapter representatives who are also community members! With an additional community seat the community then holds a majority on the board, which is important." Jeromy-Yu thinks that three community seats are sufficient, given that the two chapter trustees "sort of represent the community" already; but he believes the chapter-selected and the board-appointed seats should be publicised on shortlists and should answer questions from the communities.
The China problem
Under the WMF's 2011–15 strategic plan, almost no WMF resources are allocated to Wikimedia-related activities within China. Should the Board grapple with the problem of how to integrate China into the Wikimedia movement?
Jeromy-Yu, from Hong Kong, has been involved in strategic planning for WMF activities in China. "The political atmosphere is very uncertain inside Mainland China; so it's really hard to develop a model similar to what we did in the other parts of the world. Assembly inside China is a sensitive issue, and I'm unsure whether the authorities are happy even with user groups. Directly funding an individual Wikimedian could get them into trouble, and the WMF and even the Hong Kong chapter may be regarded [with suspicion] as 'foreign entities'. Recently a group of Chinese Wikimedians gained funding for an outreach project funded under the WMF's individual engagements grant scheme, although I'm not sure about the outcome—but we should support that. The safer approach is to work with the experts on the Foundation's Advisory Board of experts, to see if we can set up some support framework inside China, rather than directly fund from the 'outside world'."
Although María thinks that "where there are active contributors in China doing work in compliance with the mission and strategic plan, they should be supported", she threw in a note of realism to those candidates who keenly support active funding: "Specific expenditures are not the role of the Board. The Board's role is to provide guidance. ... The possibility of empowering Chinese contributors through the GAC, FDC, AffCom, and IEG mechanisms is available, but the context of mainland China is, to put it succinctly, far from simple."
For Tom, "China is something of a problem due to ongoing censorship issues. Do we take a stance of moral outrage and refuse to interact with the country? Or do we assume that by working within the region slowly, inexorably, freedom of information will succeed? Hard choice. Perhaps the best solution is to establish a community/Foundation working group to look at these issues." Liam's view is that "China is currently in the "too hard basket" to a large extent, ... but that doesn't mean we can't try different approaches and build on successful ones. ... Targeted programs that build the capacity of local communities, such as the Individual Engagement Grants, are likely to be far more effective in the long run than a grand centralised program administered directly from San Francisco."
Samuel says: "Yes. China was discussed extensively in the development of the strategy; it was not included in the final overview because it was complicated—compared with India, Brazil and the Mideast—and we hoped to develop experience there first. But China encompasses a large portion of the world, and is one of the oldest literary and encyclopedic cultures. We must find better ways to make our projects and platform available there." Phoebe's view is that "our line on rejecting censorship is a [strict] one, and I do not see the WMF in any way supporting a compromise on content to satisfy mainland China's current internet policies. Until those policies change, our involvement directly in China is necessarily limited."
Several candidates are concerned with the diplomatic challenge. Milos says that reaching China is a complex issue and that the WMF has already put effort to into dealing with China. But this "requires much more sophisticated work, which includes WMF's entrance into formal diplomacy; this seems out of the WMF's range for years." He has personally worked on the Foundation's "entrance into formal diplomacy ... and it's likely that the first project will be ready later this year." Leigh points out that "a direct effort may not be our best option: we have a presence in Hong Kong and Taiwan and we have yet to capitalize on Chinese immigrant communities in the West. ... we should create and strengthen groups of Wikipedians among these demographics, who would be far better ambassadors to mainland China than those of us with little or no direct experience with the country/culture."
Michel says "the WMF could lobby or align itself with lobbying efforts, though at some risk of taking political sides; then again, the ultimate goal of democratizing knowledge is itself a political goal based on ideology. Political involvement is a two-edged sword—it takes away from objectivity (a price one must pay, though to which extent is open to discussion), and the more one becomes politically involved or aligned the less one represents every citizen of the world."
In John's view, "the WMF urgently needs a strategy for China and the Chinese language family. ... like establishing core funding for the existing chapters in Chinese language nations, such as Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan based on their capacity. WMF should consult the community about the viability of a chapter within China in the near future, or if a Chinese-language-family thematic organisation would be more appropriate. An organisation located in or near China is relatively cheap to bootstrap with basic operational funds for a few staff.
Gender and "the global south"
The current strategic plan includes supporting "healthy diversity in the editing community", and by 2015 by doubling the percentage of female editors to 25%, and increasing the percentage of editors in the so-called global south to 37%. Are we living up to these aims? Do the candidates have practical ideas at Board level for achieving these goals?
Leigh thinks that the gender goal is attainable, but is less optimistic about the global south. "The Foundation needs more knowledge and experience, both positive and negative, in dealing with different cultures; there's is still a bit a naivete. ... We've made some progress in South America, Africa and Asia, but we need to build on our successes to attract more interest in areas where we do not yet have a significant presence."
Milos thinks "the present results are mixed. I see more prominent women in global and chapter structures, but I don't see more female editors. I see more editors from developing countries, but I'm unsure about the extent of that increase. In both cases, it's not enough to give money, but to build environments where those people would feel safe to contribute."
Liam agrees that the results are mixed. "The GenderGap projects are doing a lot to to help increase awareness of, and redress, the gender disparity of editorship and content. Equally, Wikipedia Zero is measurably increasing the access and usage of Wikipedia in many developing countries, although the Strategy calls for increase editorship from the 'Global South', not merely readership." But he believes that true success cannot be achieved with centralised projects. Capacity development of the local communities, both on- and off-line, must be proactively supported so they can professionally and effectively undertake projects at a local level.
Phoebe says that "these goals are aspirational: we're not there yet. She thinks "huge strides" have been made in increasing outreach to women, but growing the editor communities for non-European language wikis has proved more difficult. "Increasing global editor recruitment and retention across all communities remains our biggest challenge. At Board level, we can encourage effort and research, she believes, and "experimentation with many different kinds of activities to try to increase editor numbers".
Francis believes that gender equity "is a very important tool in Africa" and points to the lack of good statistics. The reality for Africa and internationally, he says, is that we must come to terms with accessibility, accountability, responsibility, and gender equality. To bring WMF leaders and communities together, he suggests we think about having Board representation from every continent.
María pointed out that the WMF's 2012–13 plan (p. 10), says we don't yet have indicators that overall diversity has begun to improve, and it looks like we will need time before a significant shift happens. Maria again put the role of the Board in perspective, as providing "guidance in conjunction with the strategy to the Executive director in terms of implementing community ideals".
Some candidates were cautious about the Foundation's emphasis on statistical goals. John in some ways agrees: "The way these goals are worded promote a 'bums on seats' attitude, and I think instead they should look at broader ways of measuring success at diversifying the community. Tom's view is similar—that these two problems need "extensive work, but while those percentages are good things to work toward, reaching them doesn't necessarily mean any improvement (if we attract, for example, many additional female editors, who only rarely contribute, that is not really useful)."
John was also critical of the lack of statistics that the WMF does produce: the results of the 2012 Wikipedia editor survey have not yet been published, and the Report Card doesn't track these targets, as far as I can see. The WMF monthly reports do report on active editors in the 'Global South', and a graph here indicates that we've not been making progress on this target. The Wikimedia Foundation 2011–12 Annual Report doesn't even mention the Global South, and the monthly reports don't track progress on addressing the gender gap. The first and most obvious step to be taken is to have a clear and well-disseminated definition of what is 'Global South' and develop a methodology for regular reporting of the gendergap. He advocates the assignment of one community liasion employee for each of these two target demographics, to coordinate and support relevant program activities, and to analyse and report on those activities to the Board; and he wants a competitive grant scheme targetting both demographics.
Samuel says the answer is both no and yes—that despite lots of discussion about these goals, "we're not on track to reach them. ... However, our reach in readership is high among women and in parts of the Global South. We should experiment with new messaging strategies, using our site banner to reach out to new potential contributors year-round. Different messages will suit each culture—to inspire both editing in general, and female editors in particular. And we should help each language-project set up wikiclasses ...".
Jeromy-Yu supports efforts to address both issues, and cites Wikipedia Zero as an important step for the global south. He cites one problem as an example of what editors in developing countries face: "I recently reached out to some Wikipedians in Burma, who told me that the current edit interface with ajax is a big problem for them. We should figure out how to help them, although not necessary on the Board level.
Michel, whose PhD dissertation involved critical and feminist theory, says "the goal of doubling the percentage of female editors is lofty, [but] owe it as editors and administrators to take swift action. But that doesn't take place at the Board level, though editors and admins should feel supported by the Board if they take positions that support women and their participation but are not yet mainstream. Like Jeromy-Yu, he points to mobile devices as highly significant for the 'south'. "And I'd like the Foundation to get into say, North Africa, and actively scout and recruit gatekeepers, public opinion makers, ... to help spread our word", which will in turn "help spread their word".
The endowment proposal
Several arguments have been put for why the WMF should create a special endowment fund. How high a priority should the creation of such a fund be for the Board?
Most candidates generally support the formation of an endowment fund. Michel believes endowments are a "no-brainer" because they "ensure a certain level of stability and are a kind of promise toward longevity" if managed well. Endowments, he says, can encourage donations by those who would like "their names and donations to 'last' longer." Phoebe, who actually wrote most of Meta's endowment talk page, thinks that the Foundation needs to start thinking long-term and an endowment is a natural outgrowth of that; but she points out that creating such a fund would take years. Leigh, too, believes that an endowment is necessary for long-term survival, and on the question of the investments an endowment fund would make, doesn't believe that putting funds into commercial enterprises would compromise Wikipedia any more than they compromise universities.
Samuel says it should be a "quite high" priority. "The Board should consider both an endowment fund and a long-term investment plan by the end of this year. We have an abundance of support, and can raise more than our projected budget. ... It's a good time to make such plans: we are focusing on the future, and have a wealth of experience with large individual and institutional donors."
Milos and John support the idea in principle but have problems with any move to implement an endowment immediately. Milos would like the WMF to focus first on adding more projects and reaching more people. For John, "the arguments for a special endowment fund are very persuasive, and I would advocate for it in principle. ... we should engage professionals outside of the movement and within our community to outline the various options." Liam says: "in principle, an endowment should happen"; however, he believes that it would have to be accompanied by an overhaul of the fundraising apparatus—something that would take large amounts of time and effort—so he is cautious about immediate proposals.
Only one candidate is entirely opposed to the concept. Jeromy-Yu thinks Foundation money would go further if it was given to local affiliated organisations like the Wikimedia chapters. He believes that this would "empower individuals to do meaningful stuff" rather than throwing more money to bureaucratic measurements.
- Comments are welcomed below. Part 2 of our election special will be published next week, just days before the start of voting. Part 2 will cover Board candidates' opinions on other major topics, and an interview with the candidates for three vacancies on the Funds Dissemination Committee and for the position of FDC ombudsperson.