What is the Crisis?


The following is my answer to a question asked of board candidates in the current ASBS election. I'd like to be able to discuss what I posted without making it look like I'm canvassing or something. You can read what other candidates said on Meta-Wiki.

Q. One candidate stated: "WMF has been going through, for many months now, an important crisis with huge stakes." I think many would agree with this overall statement; however, different people would describe the "crisis" differently. A Trustee's perception of what the problems are will play a huge role in how they approach the position. Can you please share your understanding the events of recent months, and what Board-level problems they expose? Pete F (talk) 17:55, 1 March 2016 (UTC)

There is a significant amount of mistrust and fear within the organization and the movement as a whole. The staff do not trust the board. The community does not trust the board. The community does not trust the staff. The staff are afraid of the community. The board does not even trust itself!

I believe I will have a unique perspective on this from other candidates as a WMF staffer during the “crisis”, so I'll go into some more detail. I do not believe it is worth rehashing the specific events that have happened recently, so I'll try to speak more generally.

The staff do not trust the board. Starting with the November all-staff meeting, an overwhelming amount of staff have lost their trust in the board. When legitimate concerns were presented to the board (many of which are still not, and probably will never be public), the board did not act, forcing staff to bring the matter up publicly, after strongly trying to resolve the matter internally. From what I understand, part of the problem was that one of the main sources of information the board got was from the executive director, which was not a good conduit for passing information along. Jimmy and Alice visiting San Francisco to talk with staff is a good start to rebuild trust, now both sides need to follow through by creating the discussed “ombudsperson” role that reports directly to the board.

The community does not trust the board. The other questions on this page about transparency and minutes lacking detail are simply symptoms of a lack of trust (not that they aren't important, but I'll address them in those questions). Rebuilding trust here will take a while, mostly because the board operates in a different manner than our wikis do. I believe that over the years I have earned the trust of many Wikimedians, whether in my volunteer role or as staff, and hope to bring some of that trust to the board.

The community does not trust the staff. I talked about this in my candidate statement – the community is tired of bad software being thrust upon them, and then fighting to get rid of it. It's not uncommon for me to be reading a village pump or technical page where people will sincerely state that they believe the WMF is actively harming the projects, rather than helping them. I believe that the best way to rebuild trust in this area is to get more people involved in product and technical development. Whether it be individual community members of affiliates participating in developing our software, I think the end result will be significantly better.

The staff are afraid of the community. Some (definitely not all!) community members are openly hostile to staff members, questioning their competency for their job, etc. Part of it is due to the lack of trust and past history, while other community members are just frustrated and are looking for someone to blame, and it technically happens to fall under the WMF's responsibility. The end result is that staff will now draft proposals and plans in private Google Docs instead of public wikis, or discuss things via private email instead of public mailing lists. We claim that our communities are our biggest asset, but the WMF needs to start acting like it means it.

The board does not trust itself. This one seems self-evident based on the removal of Doc James from the board. I do not have much visibility on the current board dynamics, and don't have much to offer in what to work on.

So where does the board come in to all of this? The WMF is in a partial state of dyfunction currently. It is the board's responsibility to make sure the WMF is able to function properly. The board needs to be proactive in rebuilding bridges and rebuilding trust.

All that said, a phrase that's come up recently that I strongly agree with is “change happens at the speed of trust”. There is a huge lack of trust right now, which means that change will happen slowly. That's okay. Trying to push change through too quickly will only cause more mistrust, which we desperately need to avoid.