The WordPress Governance Project is a new community initiative, led by Rachel Cherry and Morten Rand-Hendriksen, that will host its first meeting Tuesday, January 15 2019.
The purpose of the project is to address two objectives:
- The governance of the WordPress open source project and its various community components, and
- WordPress’ role in the governance of the open web including representation in forums where decisions about the web platform and the Internet are made.
Hendriksen advocated for open governance when he introduced the project at WordCamp US in his presentation, Moving the Web forward with WordPress. He discussed how the decisions made for WordPress’ future affect a large portion the web. The project will first look at WordPress’ internal governance structure and then move into the second aspect of getting WordPress a seat at the table in important discussions affecting the broader web.
Contributors on the project are aiming to propose a governance model for WordPress at or before WordCamp Europe 2019 or the Community Summit, if one is planned for 2019. The group plans to research existing governance models from corporations, government, and the open web community and submit their proposal to WordPress’ current leadership for consideration.
WordPress Governance Project Seeks to Change Leadership Structure, Rand-Hendriksen Says Status Quo is “Not Tenable”
The governance project has piqued the public’s interest but some have found its objectives confusing. It is not clear what actions will be within the realm of possibility with the current benevolent dictator model WordPress has used. Part of the scope of the project is to “propose a leadership and governance model for the WordPress open source project and its communities.”
The idea of governance means different things to audiences across cultures. The second aspect of the project that aims to get WordPress a seat at the table seems more feasible and more likely to be well-received by the project’s leadership. It might make more sense to split up the two objectives into different projects. WordPress’ internal governance and its role in the greater web are very different topics, but the project’s creators seem to view them as inseparable.
Matt Mullenweg hasn’t joined in the Twitter conversation about governance but he did address the topic on a recent Post Status podcast episode.
“When he was talking about open governance, my take was that he was talking about getting WordPress a seat at the table, and discussing these regulation changes and et cetera happening,” Mullenweg said. “I think the example last year was that there was this meeting at 10 Downing Street. Who was there? Was WordPress represented?
“And he started talking about the Web Foundation, and I began thinking, “Wow, WordPress only represents a third of websites, and not even, really. It’s a third of the top 10 million. Another foundation like the Web Foundation actually might be a better vehicle to try to advocate on the open Web as a whole, versus just the people who happen to be using a single CMS.”
When asked more about WordPress’ leadership structure, Mullenweg reviewed the different approaches he has taken with the project. In 2018, the expression of his BDFL-style leadership was manifestly more overt than previous years, which may have influenced or even inspired the creation of the WordPress Governance Project.
“There’s been a lot more leaders, but I would actually argue the point that WordPress has always been sort of my vision being set, or even my direct leadership,” Mullenweg said. “There was a good four or five years there where the leadership structure, because we’ve experimented with lots of different – we don’t call it governance – but essentially leadership structures in WordPress. For a while, we had kind of the … It wasn’t a committee approach, but essentially like the lead developers consensus approach. We did that for a few years.
“Even from the beginning it wasn’t just me. It was me and Mike Little, so it’s never been solo. Then we went to where the release lead was the final decider, including over me, so that was probably, I don’t know, 3.9 to 4.7 maybe, that included overruling me as project lead for what was in the release or not, and that was to try to give a little more autonomy and flexibility to release leads. But the big change was a few years ago I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to take back over core WordPress development,’ and that was to try to make some of these big changes happen. So right now it is much more of a benevolent dictator model, although both of those words are questionable. But, I don’t see that as the permanent forever structure.”
Mullenweg may not be able to sustain this level of involvement in core leadership indefinitely, with all of his other responsibilities at Automattic. He said he is open to WordPress empowering other leaders in the future.
“I’m not saying it always has to be me, but what I want is a strong, opinionated, thoughtful leader setting a bold direction, taking experiments and being willing to fail, comfortable with failure, is I think what you need to create great software,” he said.
Brian DeConinck, a WordPress developer who has recently been a vocal critic of the project’s leadership, called for more transparency around the decision-making process in his initial thoughts on the governance project.
“Matt is the central figure of the WordPress project,” DeConinck said. “He’s been a guiding force since the beginning. Without a doubt, he’s an important and valued member of our community. I don’t imagine governance as a means of usurping him.
“But should there be a single human face at the head of a project and a community at this scale? When people are critical of decision-making, having Matt at the center makes it easy to make criticism needlessly personal. This dynamic is hard on Matt and others in the project leadership, and ultimately toxic for the community.”
DeConinck said in order for the governance project to be successful he thinks it needs to be international, multicultural, and multilingual, with diverse voices, as well as clear mechanisms for WordPress users to provide feedback. He outlined a detailed list of success criteria that hasn’t officially been embraced by governance project as it has yet to hold its first meeting.
DeConinck’s suggestions are incompatible with the current BDFL-style leadership, as he claims that “feedback from a community of millions of users can’t adequately be processed and acted upon by a single individual listening and making decisions for the project.” WordPress has risen to become a dominant force on the web during the past 15 years under this style of leadership. Any meaningful proposal of change to the leadership structure will need to demonstrate how the new model can continue to enable WordPress to make rapid progress and maintain its relevance on the web.
WordPress Governance Project Flagged as Unofficial and Removed from WordPress.org
Earlier this morning, WordPress Community Team representative Francesca Marano posted a notice on behalf of the governance project’s leadership to announce that the project has been removed from WordPress.org.
“Concerns have been raised about the posting of news about the WordPress Governance Project on make.wordpress.org and use of the #community-team Slack channel giving the impression the project is sanctioned as an official WordPress project,” Marano said. “It has not received such sanctions from WordPress leadership.”
“We went through what we believed were the appropriate channels for launching the project through the Community group (ie speaking to group members, asking for access to the Make blog, coordinating with the team and others to find a meeting time which didn’t collide with others, etc),” Morten Rand-Hendriksen said. “We were later informed the project was not sanctioned by WordPress leadership and therefore cannot use the Make blog or Slack.” He would not comment further on what transpired or the communication his team received.
For the time being, it looks like the governance project will need to prove its worth independently before being officially adopted by WordPress. Many other community-led efforts and tools have followed this same process before coming under the umbrella of core.
The project now has its own dedicated website at wpgovernance.com and a Slack instance at twgp.slack.com. The first meeting was set for January 8 but has been postponed to January, 15, 1600 UTC to allow participants to sign up at the new Slack workspace.