Monday, 25 June 2007

Election process

I feel dirty saying this, but: process is sometimes important, at least when it comes to elections to the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation.

With all due respect to the members of the Board Election Steering Committee, the process for this year's elections leaves much to be desired. It is likely that many of the problems are a consequence of the committee only being put in place at the beginning of the last week of May, just over a fortnight before the election process was due to commence.

The most glaring issue is that major decisions about how the election will be conducted are still being made even after the process has started. For example, at the time of writing, the nomination and endorsement periods have closed, and voting will commence in two and a half days, yet neither the external third-party who will be conducting the election nor the software to be used for voting have been identified yet (or if they have, there has been no public announcement). While it is pleasing that the election will be conducted externally, and will not use an on-wiki method for voting, it is worrying that these fundamental issues have not been worked out in advance.

My other concerns are structural issues with the way that the elections have been organised.

While it's entirely appropriate to have participation requirements for voters (so that the franchise is extended only to those who have some stake in the Wikimedia community) it baffles me why we have participation requirements for candidates, particularly given the requirement (introduced this year) that candidates need a certain number of endorsements from members of the community eligible to vote in order to proceed to the voting phase.

An endorsement system (with appropriate parameters) should work fine in eliminating candidates unsuitable for whatever reason from being involved in the important voting phase, but having additional participation requirements can only serve to restrict the pool of candidates. There are all sorts of people out there who might be great to have on the Board of Trustees, such as people with experience in other non-profit organisations, people involved in other free content projects and so forth.

There are other, smaller problems with the current endorsement system.

Firstly, the just-closed nomination period ran concurrently with the period for endorsements. Several people observed on the Foundation mailing list that this effectively brings forward the closure of the nomination period, and it does so by an unspecified amount, since people would have to guess how long they would need to attract the requisite endorsements. effe iets anders suggested that it should be entirely possible for prospective candidates to line up their endorsements before nominating (and this also seems to be the conclusion that the Steering Committee reached, judging by this comment), and it should, but this for me raises a question about the objective of endorsements in the first place, which is supposedly for the community to assess whether candidates are worthy of serious consideration or not. I would rather have candidates putting their efforts into preparing their platforms, writing statements and answering questions, rather than shilling for endorsements.

Secondly, while the required number of endorsements was twelve, endorsement pages were not closed at this point, and endorsements continued to be listed, resulting in some candidates gathering very large numbers of endorsements. Some users expressed concerns that this was effectively a second voting period, distracting from the real vote ("a public one and a private one", as Walter Vermeir put it). It also runs the risk of making candidates who nominate early appear to have more support than candidates who enter later in the nomination period. If the objective of endorsements is only to eliminate the unsuitable candidates, then I would think it sensible that endorsements for a candidate be closed once the required number is reached. It may be preferable to have endorsers send their endorsements directly to the Steering Committee, perhaps by email or perhaps by an on-wiki interface, so as to prevent the perception of a popularity contest.

It seems to me that many of these issues could have been avoided had the Steering Committee been formed with adequate time to prepare for the election, and given that we are now more or less on a fixed cycle of elections (with certain positions up for election every two years) there is ample opportunity for planning to occur. I also feel that, given that some of the problems I have mentioned have been identified by other people also, that the Steering Committee could have opened up some of their decision-making processes to community input. Again, this was probably prevented by the short time that they had in which to work.

I would suggest that a timetable be laid down in the near future for the June 2008 elections, and that discussion on next year's format be opened now so that there is opportunity to comment while the issues around the present election are fresh in people's minds.

Now it's time for a wash.


Padraic said...

That is a good, thorough and much-needed critique of the BoD voting process.

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