Looie496 is a neuroscientist specializing in learning and memory. He has been an English Wikipedia editor since 2008, where he writes articles about the nervous system and maintains WikiProject Neuroscience.
The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author only; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. The Signpost welcomes proposals for op-eds at our opinion desk.
There is wide agreement among English Wikipedians that the administrator system is in some ways broken—but no consensus on how to fix it. Most suggestions have been relatively small in scope, and could at best produce small improvements. I would like to make a proposal to fundamentally restructure the administrator system, in a way that I believe would make it more effective and responsive. The proposal is to create an elected Administration Committee ("AdminCom") which would select, oversee, and deselect administrators.
As I see it, there are two fundamental problems with the current system. The first is that it makes each admin into a sort of Lone Ranger. Each admin independently decides what to work on and how to handle it. Good admins seek advice and consent from the community, but nothing forces them to. Admins are selected using a chaotic process, and can only be removed for egregiously bad behavior—but even then the removal process is very arduous. There is no coordination or effective oversight. On television, the Lone Ranger is a hero; in real life, where people do not always share a common understanding of right and wrong, lone-rangering is an endless source of trouble.
The second problem is that the current system forces each admin to be a politician. The requests for adminship process (RfA), regardless of any propaganda to the contrary, is an election, and it is impossible to win an election without behaving like a politician. Furthermore, winning an election serves as a validation of the views that the candidate expresses, and therefore adminship, like political office, becomes a power base and a status symbol, rather than merely a way of serving the community. What we want are admins who behave like civil servants, such as a dogcatcher or police officer; what we get are admins who behave like politicians. We talk about our admins being merely editors with some extra buttons, but that is not what the RfA process gives us.
These problems amplify each other. Because bad admins are so difficult to remove, the community has become very strict in its examination of RfAs—but the more difficult it is to succeed with an RfA, the more candidates are forced to behave like politicians, carefully avoiding any action that might offend a significant group of voters and carefully hiding any views that might be controversial. And the more difficult it is to succeed with an RfA, the more status comes from success, making adminship a goal in its own right.
How can we fix it?
What we need is a system that accomplishes three goals: (1) the community is in charge; (2) adminship is easy to give and easy to take away; (3) admins do not need to be politicians.
Having an AdminCom would accomplish all of these goals. The community would ultimately be in charge, because the community would elect the members of AdminCom. We would simply replace direct democracy with a representative democracy. Handing out the buttons and taking them away would be as easy as AdminCom decides to make it. Admins would be directly answerable to AdminCom rather than to the editing public at large, and so would get clearer guidance than they currently do.
The primary power of AdminCom would be to give and remove adminship. Other powers, such as overseeing and advising admins, would naturally follow from this. I do not believe it would be a good idea to formalize internal procedures for AdminCom: the members should be able to decide for themselves how to make things work. Naturally they would express their beliefs about proper procedure when they run for office, and the Wikipedia community could make its choices accordingly.
Objections and answers to them
If having admins be politicians is bad, why is it good to have politicians choosing and overseeing them? The answer is that any effective organization requires politicians at the top. Consider, for example, a city government. The people who carry out primary duties are civil servants, and answer to their bosses. In order to have a responsive system, though, the bosses have to be answerable to the public. That way the very difficult task of making the public happy is left to people who are experts at it (the politicians), and is not directly imposed on people who would only be impeded by it. The advantage of an AdminCom is that it separates the political functions from the administrative functions. Doing away with the political functions entirely would only be possible in a dictatorship.
Another potential objection relates to bureaucrats: do they not already fulfill the AdminCom role? No. Bureaucrats, as they currently function, have far less decision-making power than admins. All they really do is count votes, with a strictly limited power to decide how votes should be weighted. Thus, turning our current bureaucrats into an AdminCom would give them powers and responsibilities that nobody had in mind when they were chosen.
I have been thinking about these issues for a long time, and this is meant as a serious proposal. Of course I am aware that many editors will react to the AdminCom idea with dismay, for a variety of reasons. What is not so clear is whether there is a substantial community who would be favorably disposed. If a large number of editors endorse the idea, it will encourage an effort to put the proposal into a specific form and then submit it to the community as a referendum.
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