The Politics of Legitimate Governance (for OSI)

October 3, 2005 § Leave a comment

This letter was originally sent to the Membership
of the Open Source
as part of the ongoing discussion regarding membership. In
particular, it flowed out of concerns expressed on license-discuss about
Governance. I decided to post it publicly, since membership-discuss is
apparently not archived

[Note: originally
I had posted this another blog, but I moved it here as this one is more

An Open Letter to the Membership
of the Open Source

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. ­čÖé

Roughly speaking, there
are three ways communities can make╩legitimate

a) Informal

b) Formal

c) Designated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

i)╩it is an *urgent*

ii)╩the OSI has
characterized it properly

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

iv) the proposed solution will be

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

╩(including things like a
Slashdot posting and public comment

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

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

╩a) pursue an activist
agenda, and

╩b) maintain

if they do NOT do something like

Anyway that’s my two cents —
perhaps this will get a reaction. :-)╩I welcome your


Ernest N. Prabhakar,

[speaking only for myself]

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