On Governance

One of the primary functions of a community manager is to put governance in place where it is appropriate to help your community run effectively. Governance is a funny ‘ol word though, and everyone has their interpretation of what exactly it means, to what extent it should be used and how required it is. Like any kind of community work though, there is no hard and fast rulebook about how things work – good judgement is the best method of determining exactly how your community should be governed.

The problem is that that bad governance can really bugger up a community. The concept of governance itself is to put in place processes and rules that are universally understood and accepted by the community in an effort to establish a semblance of control and guidance of the community and its growth. Get it right and your community feels well run, not restricted by bottlenecks and effective to growth. Get it wrong and it feels like a bleedin’ great ship that is impossible to turn around.

The problem is that governance can very quickly turn into bureaucracy if you are not carefull. Bureaucracy is simply governance that refuses to change, despite a better method of governance becoming available. If you put rules in place and refuse to change them because they are the rules, your community gets bound in red tape and will heartily suck for all involved.

Again, it all really comes down to common sense and a measured approach. A few things to bear in mind when considering the formation of constitutions, councils, mandates and other governance hop-scotch:

  • Not every community needs a council.
  • Setting up a council for the sake of having a council is a bad idea. Having a council does not make your community look any better, more mature or better equipped to do its work.
  • Before setting up a council, justify its existence. Justify what problems it will solve and what it seeks to achieve.
  • Always regularly re-assess the processes and effectiveness of your governance. Things change, community change, people change…and so will the effectiveness of your governance.

Also, one final note. One of the most wonderful elements of Open Source is the diversity of people it brings along. However, Open Source also has its fair share of Civil Servants who get a kick out of councils, constitutions, boards, elections and what-not. While these people can be useful, and many have the right intentions and balance, beware those who believe that governance is important just for the sake of having governance – invariably this can result in Civil Servant death-matches where there is a fight for power, and the real people who actually care about doing interesting work in the community just get to sit there and watch a pointless power struggle. The best governance is invisible – it just exists and helps cool people to do cool things.

Just my 0.2c.

  • http://mneptok.com Kurt von Finck

    0.2 cents? Point two cents? Wow, that really is pretty worthless.

    $0.02, maybe?

    And Jono, you know I kid because I love. muah

  • Vadim P.

    Thanks. Bookmarked

  • http://www.aoirthoir.com Joseph James Frantz

    If you are saying what I think you are saying, I hope to hell you will be there at the community council meeting. If a bunch of rules are going to be created, I hope we create ones that let the other side know how it feels.

  • http://www.jameshooker.com wicks

    More pictures of Kittens on mailing lists? Kittens make everything better.

  • http://pipka.org Pia Waugh

    I’ve just (finally) published a paper I did about openness which included Governance. I’d love your thoughts on it:

    http://pipka.org/blog/2008/07/23/the-foundations-of-openness/

  • http://pvanhoof.be/blog pvanhoof

    Agree. Right now GNOME’s governance is ~ correctly balanced.

    We are much more in need of technical leadership than we need more bureaucracy.

  • http://blog.santiago.zarate.net.ve/ Santiago Zarate

    WOW! your post came so just in time… ill try to apply it on .ve :D

  • http://matthewhelmke.net/ matthew

    Thanks for a great post, Jono! You have got my mind working. I’ve had similar thoughts, but they have been more of the nebulous cloud sort and not as clearly framed or stated as what you have here. This was helpful and I appreciate it.

  • http://blog.tanpat.net/2008/10/freedom-of-speech/ Freedom of speech at tanpat (dot) net

    [...] wanted the write about freedom of speech, censorship and communities. I don’t know if Jonos article “On Governance” which appeared shortly after this dispute has any connection but he made two statements which I [...]