News and notes
"Crisis" over Wikimedia Germany's palace revolution
Pavel Richter: focal point of the crisis.
Back to 2012: former WMF trustee Arne Klempert and one of the two chapter-selected WMF trustees, Alice Wiegand, with Richter; both Klempert and Wiegand were signatories on the recent petition supporting Richter.
Governance terminology for following German-language sources:
Vorstand = the executive director
Präsidium = the board
Vorsitzende = the chair
Geschäftsstelle (also Büro) = the office (including all employees)
Mitgliederversammlung (MV) = the annual general assembly of chapter members
Chapter members elect 10 board members for one-year terms each November [since the MV, now two-year terms], with direct elections for the chair, two deputy chairs, the treasurer, and six ordinary members. Each member takes on a portfolio.
Last Sunday the board of Wikimedia Germany almost unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in the chapter's executive director, Pavel Richter, who has held the position since 2009. The only one of the 10 board members not to support the vote was the chair, Nikolas Becker, who abstained. With more than 50 employees, an annual budget approaching $10 million, and the right to conduct its own fundraising through the Wikimedia Foundation's site banners, Wikimedia Germany is the second-largest organisation in the movement after the WMF itself.
The decision was announced on the Wikimedia mailing list by the chair of the board, Nikolas Becker, who wrote that "for quite some time the Supervisory Board has been striving for a different strategic course for Wikimedia Deutschland, [and] has come to the conclusion that it will not be able to implement this paper with the current Executive Director. Thus, the Supervisory Board and the Executive Director have agreed on jointly shaping a well-ordered transition. ... I would like to thank Pavel for his very good work and for both the professionalism and passion with which he has shaped the development of Wikimedia Deutschland."
With all the drama of a Mozart opera, support for or opposition to Pavel Richter's leadership has become the flashpoint on a battleground of ideological dimensions that has been coming to a head over the past two years. This struggle, to determine what the chapter's role should be, has now engulfed the board itself. A day before what amounted to a dismissal of the executive director, two rival petitions had landed at the board's doorstep arguing for or against the action; each, the Signpost understands, was aligned with one of the two sides in this struggle.
Petition to retain Richter
One petition was signed by high-profile members of the chapter—including WMF chapter-selected trustee Alice Wiegand, former WMF trustee Arne Klempert, Kurt Jansson, Delphine Ménard (currently an FDC member), Raimond Spekking, and former chapter board member Sebastian Moleski. The strongly worded petition expressed "utter horror" at the proposed dismissal, arguing that under Richter's stewardship the chapter has been financially stable, a valued employer, and has enjoyed increasing membership and positive public recognition. This petition is apparently associated with the expansionary view of the chapter's scope in the offline world.
Among the proponents of this perspective is Philipp Birken, a former member of the German board. He told the Signpost:
||... supporting the existing community that creates the content financially and structurally has from the beginning been an important part of the chapter's work. But there's much more than that, e.g. political lobbying to prevent copyright law that would screw us, improving the software as was done with flagged revisions or WikiData, changing the existing community by trying to get underrepresented groups to take part more, press and generally informing the public about open content, helping like-minded projects like OpenStreetMap ... [if these things weren't] done by Wikimedia Germany, nobody would do it and the movement as a whole would suffer.
The Signpost asked Alice Wiegand to comment on whether her signing of the petition might be construed as undue intervention by a WMF trustee in the internal matters of a legally independent affiliate:
||The letter represents the views of long-standing members of Wikimedia Deutschland ... who have spent blood, sweat and tears for the association. It explains quite well and clearly that I speak in my capacity as a WMDE member. The reactions demonstrate that people read it as such, and drew a distinction between my WMDE capacity and my current function.
I signed the letter because I care, and because I want to see a productive, controlled transition. As a member of the WMF transition team, I know about the challenges and obstacles of such a search, selection, and onboarding process. The WMDE board may underestimate the effort.
Petition to dismiss Richter
Nikolas Becker, chair of the board: abstained but then changed his mind.
The other petition argued the case for dismissal, broadly aligned with the belief that the chapter should primarily serve the activities of volunteer online editors. It was signed by four long-standing members of the German Wikipedia editing community: Ralf Roletschek, Robert Radke, Alice Chodura, and Marcus Cyron. The petition cited a "dramatic imbalance" within the chapter, including the "combustion" of a major education speakers' network program. While "staff in all areas are committed to the cause, [they are] without effective leadership ... not one of the departments can boast great success". And it claimed that fundraising initiatives "are simply ignored". According to the petition, there is a certain unpredictability about finances, and a "complete lack of transparency in the office" is related to "job preservation". There was complaint that Richter's recruitment practices favour bringing in young, inexperienced professionals, and the Signpost understands that the issue of micromanaging staff has been a point of friction for some time.
We are also aware that a "staff council", the German equivalent of an in-house union, was launched at the chapter some months ago. We asked Sargoth, who departed the chapter recently, whether this had been brewing for long: "Quite long. There had been several thoughts about it throughout the years, but nobody would implement it. ... One reason [for the creation of the union] was that a lot of contracts were ended after two years without convincing reasons. Continuity of employment is unsure for everyone." Was his dismissal from the chapter in reprisal for any role he had in the creation of the union? "I had no official role in forming the Betriebsrat [staff council], I just communicated a lot with colleagues who showed initiative, brought them together and spoke in favor of it."
One of the signatories, Marcus Cyron, wrote an Open letter to Wikimedia Germany last month in the German Wikipedia's news outlet, Kurier, accusing the chapter's leadership of being out of touch, of power over-centralised in the chapter's office, and of a lack of openness. Another strong supporter of this approach is the chapter's treasurer, Stepro. Signpost readers will remember our report of his publicly expressed despair that a presenter should have said, "Fuck the community, who cares", during a session at the London Chapter Boards Training Workshop. The chapter's board, Stepro wrote at the time, "must make it clear to all employees ... that the office was created in support of volunteers ... only under this condition is a partnership between all stakeholders possible—communities, members, the chapter office, the board, and the employees."
Board member Robin Tech: resigned because of aggression, personal attacks, and outrageous themes.
Deputy chair Anja Ebersbach
: told the press that the chair's behaviour is "outrageous".
The saga took a new turn soon after the vote, when chair Nikolas Becker wrote to the public German-language mailing list. In his view, the board's decision had been premature: "I personally do not agree with this decision and it is a wrong step for the chapter." The matter, he said, would be taken up at the annual meeting of chapter members (scheduled for 09:30–15:00 in Frankfurt on Saturday 24 May, just after the publication of this edition of the Signpost).
Becker's message was followed by a statement from Sebastian Moleski (who had unsuccessfully stood against the current treasurer Stepro in last November's election): "I can only hope that the general assembly will end this unprofessional, carelessly considered drama on Saturday. There is still time for emergency motions and the question of whether this issue is urgent should be beyond dispute." There was a rebuttal of this position by no less than the chair of the board of Wikimedia Austria, Kurt Kulac ("thoughtless ... the scatter of strawman arguments, and unsubstantiated criticism"; "very naive ... or calculated populism").
Ramping the temperature up to new heights, a member of the German board, Robin Tech, resigned, referring to the situation as a "crisis"—a decision that had been "working in me for many weeks". He continued: "As early as my first board meeting, I perceived an aggression that I've seen nowhere else previously and could make no sense of until the end. ... The extremely personal attacks, especially from a few board members against fellow members who didn't share their views, have appalled me time and again"—behaviour, he claimed, that met "partly amused acceptance by other members of the board". Tech described what he called "constant dripping that wears away the stone" in terms of Richter and Becker, with a focus "always on new, supposedly outrageous themes". This prompted incredulous accusations by Cyron of inconsistency: "Did you not have the courage of your own opinion [when you voted to] terminate the contract?"
Unsurprisingly, these wars of words migrated seamlessly onto the mainstream press. A notable example was the high-profile German publication Der Spiegel, to whom the board's deputy chair, Anja Ebersbach, declared she was "shocked" by Becker's criticisms of the board: "the chair's behaviour is outrageous", she added, without thinking through the consequences. Other coverage was provided by Zeit, Stern, Heise, Golem, Netzpolitik, Der Tagesspiegel, and Focus.
The Signpost understands that Richter's contract still has 18 months to run, and we have been advised that his salary is "impressive, for what is only a middle-sized non-profit". One issue that might play into the scenario is that since 2012 board members are no longer personally liable for the chapter's actions (except where they are neglectful in overseeing the executive director); apparently this may have altered the severance obligations to Richter under German labour laws.
Update 10:40 UTC Saturday 24 May: the Signpost has been advised that Nikolas Becker, chair of the board of Wikimedia Germany, has tendered his resignation to the general assembly, which is still in progress. There are unconfirmed reports that the board and Richter signed a mutual agreement to terminate his contract before the assembly, but that this will not take effect immediately. Towards the end of the meeting two urgency motions failed: to recall the board and to reinstate the executive director.
- Media Viewer on English Wikipedia delayed until next week: The new Media Viewer software update, which displays images from articles in a lightbox rather than going directly to the image description page, was originally meant to arrive on the English Wikipedia on 22 May. The Signpost covered it in detail last week. It has now been pushed back to 3 June so that the Multimedia team "can assist with the deployment and feedback as best possible." The tool is currently live on around 25 wikis, and English Wikipedia users can test it before the rollout by enabling the beta version in preferences or browsing a wiki which has the viewer enabled by default.
- WMUK protests WMF decision: The Wikimedia movement's national affiliate in the UK has filed an open grievance with the Wikimedia Foundation over the decision to not renew the chapter's fundraising agreement. The agreements allowed for national chapters to collect money directly from visitors to WMF sites. WMUK had been one of four chapters allowed to do so by the WMF in a March 2012 board resolution—as long as they met a list of required criteria—but the board also asked "the Executive Director not to allow any additional chapters to payment process, until the Board revisits the framework for fundraising and payment processing in late 2015 in advance of the November 2016 fundraising campaign." Wikimedia UK has faced an ongoing series of governance issues, most notably those surrounding Gibraltarpedia. These problems were reviewed by the UK-based management consultants Compass Partnership, whose findings were published in February 2013. Pursuant to this decision, only the German and Swiss chapters will still be allowed to conduct payment processing.
- Adrianne: The Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640–1830 has dedicated its most recent issue to Adrianne Wadewitz, the Wikipedia editor who passed away last month.