The WordPress Governance project is looking for new leadership after its current leaders, Rachel Cherry and Morten Rand-Hendriksen, announced that they will be stepping down. Weekly meetings have been canceled until the organization selects new leadership.
After its introduction at WordCamp Europe 2018, the project went through what its leadership believed were the appropriate channels for launching it through the Community group but it was flagged as unsanctioned by WordPress leadership shortly before the first meeting and denied access to the Make blog and Slack workspace. Despite initial setbacks, the group has been meeting regularly throughout 2019 on its own website and Slack instance.
“I need to step down from my leadership role in this project,” Cherry said in a recent meeting. “I’m not stepping away for good, but this project is too important and I don’t have the bandwidth needed to keep it moving forward in the manner it deserves.”
She said the team is looking for two co-chairs who will help lead WordPress Governance going forward. Responsibilities include managing the overall vision and planning, as well as managing meetings and delegating assignments in support of the vision. Cherry said the duties list is intentionally “slim and vague,” as the leadership team doesn’t want the new leaders to feel they have to keep doing what has been done in the past.
“The Governance Project was always meant to be a community project meaning we want the community to take ownership of it,” Rand-Hendriksen said in his farewell announcement. “This is the first step: We’ve established the project and set some parameters. Now it’s time for the community to move beyond our intentionally vague vision and make it into what the community wants and needs. New internal governance in the form of co-chairs from the actual community is a key step in this direction.”
Governance Project Aims to Bring Clarity to WordPress’ Organizational Structure and Decision Making Process
In a recent post titled “What is governance and why does it matter,” Cherry said that the project “made a crucial error” in not clearly setting clear expectations at the beginning:
This lack of clarity, combined with a growing undercurrent of unrest in the WordPress community, led some to label the project a revolt, a revolution, even a coup.
That’s unfortunate and has done governance, and our project, a disservice. I feel it’s incumbent upon myself and Morten to set the record straight so we are able to move forward as a community.
Cherry identified two recent controversial issues within the WordPress project with debates that highlight a lack of established policy, including auto-updating old versions of WordPress and questions about conflicts of interest.
On both of these matters members of the governance project have chimed in on the Make/WordPress posts to urge decision makers to establish policies that will guide future decisions and to be more transparent about who is making the decisions.
Rand-Hendriksen asked questions about how and where the decision will be made regarding auto-updating old versions of WordPress, who holds responsibility for the final decision, and how people without decision-making power will be represented. His questions went unanswered.
“The WordPress project already has some governance, but much of it remains ad-hoc, opaque, and often inscrutable,” Cherry said. She identified three key areas where the WordPress Governance project seeks to introduce clarity and transparency: organizational structure, day-to-day processes, and how decisions are made.
The group is also actively working on researching and drafting policies around a variety of topics, including the following:
- Community Code of Conduct
- Diversity and Inclusion Policy
- Code of Ethics
- Conflict of Interest Policy
- Accessibility Policy
It is not clear whether these policies would then be submitted to WordPress’ community team for consideration, as the group has not yet attempted to propose a finished document.
“Considering there’s no clear process for proposing and ratifying these types of policies, the goal of these efforts are to create a starting point for future official discussions within the WordPress project,” Cherry said.
The Challenge of Defining Governance in a BDFL-led Open Source Project
In the past, WordPress has navigated controversial issues in its own way. While the project has handbooks that offer guidelines, its leadership has never really been in the business of piling up policies to act on in anticipation of of future conflicts. The Governance project seems to have a good deal of both active and passive supporters. Regardless, when it was officially branded as unsanctioned, it was clear that WordPress’ leadership was not actively looking to amend its organizational structure or decision-making process through the Governance project’s particular approach.
Cherry’s post clearly states that the project is not aiming to overthrow Matt Mullenweg as WordPress’ Benevolent Dictator for Life (BDFL).
“Governance and Matt Mullenweg leading the WordPress project are not mutually exclusive,” Cherry said.
“The goal of the WordPress Governance Project isn’t to change how Matt is involved, but to more clearly define how the project is managed, and how he and others fit into the process.”
The BDFL governance model has traditionally operated with leaders acting more as a “community-approved arbitrator,” who often “let things work themselves out through discussion and experimentation whenever possible,” as Karl Fogel describes in Producing Open Source Software. Historically, WordPress’ particular expression of BDFL leadership has loosely followed this design.
In her February 2019 newsletter, Nadia Eghbal, a researcher who specializes in open source infrastructure, shared some informal thoughts about governance, particularly in relationship to BDFL-led projects:
A friend of mine has very good taste in music, but I couldn’t tell you what he listens to. I couldn’t name a single artist he plays, or where one song begins or ends. His view is that “the best kind of music is where nobody notices it’s playing”. In his ideal world, music shapes ambiance as a background process.
Similarly, despite all our talk about governance design, I keep coming back to the idea that the best kind of governance is where nobody can tell it’s there.
Eghbal describes the relationship between the “government” and “the governed” as fragile and symbiotic and that “having power can be just as vulnerable [as disenfranchisement], an act of cupping water in your hands, rather than closing your fist over it.” Maintaining a BDFL leadership role requires diplomacy and a broad awareness of the project’s needs. Eghbal surmises that contributors support a leader in this position because of the character the leader has demonstrated:
In open source, there’s this concept of a “benevolent dictator for life”: a developer, usually the author, who runs the project and whose authority is not challenged. This phrase is often interpreted as “You’re the dictator, but at least you’re nice about it”. But I think there’s a hidden causal relationship that gets missed. It’s not that you’re a dictator who’s decided to be benevolent. Rather: because you are benevolent, you get to be dictator for life.
This idea echoes Fogel’s summary of the qualities of a good BDF. The forkability of any open source project serves to keep BDFL powers in check:
It is common for the benevolent dictator to be a founder of the project, but this is more a correlation than a cause. The sorts of qualities that make one able to successfully start a project — technical competence, ability to persuade other people to join, and so on — are exactly the qualities any BD would need.
In reviewing the 16-year history of WordPress’ leadership structure on a Post Status podcast episode earlier this year, Matt Mullenweg described different experiments the project has explored, including a “lead developers consensus” approach and having the release lead as the final decision maker for the software. In recent years he has returned to a more overt BDFL model but said, “I don’t see that as the forever structure.”
In attempting to clarify WordPress’ organizational structure and decision making model, the independent Governance project will need to be sensitive to the possibility that this ability to improvise and evolve the project’s leadership structures may have been one of the key factors in its continued growth and long-term ability to thrive.
The new leaders who replace Cherry and Rand-Hendriksen will have a formidable challenge ahead of them in carving out a path for the organization to have a meaningful impact on WordPress, despite not being designated as an official project. As it stands, the leaders face an uphill climb in moving the project from an unofficial working group to one that can effectively draft policies that WordPress will readily adopt.
Matt is governance. Period. I continue to predict that wordpress dot com and dot org will, in time, be merged by Automattic. Investors will be delighted. No shiny ball needed.