How Do Open Source Communities Govern Themselves?

This is the second in a series on governance and Drupal in preparation for the Drupalcon Denver Core Conversation on The Future of Drupal Governance. The initial article started off with What is Governance; Read all, Governance project on drupal.org, Drupalcon presentation video.

The fact that world-wide open source communities can organize themselves to collaborate is one of the great treasures of the world's recent history. If you're pessimistic about the world's future and about governance in general, you should really take some time to look at all these great open source projects and their incredible success. Drupal is an example right there with the Linux kernel project, Wikipedia, Debian, Ubuntu, KDE, and dozens of others. I think they give us great reason for optimism. The fact that communities like the Drupal community can thrive is a huge reason for optimism about the future!

The various communities thrive with a whole variety of different governance mechanisms. Some, like Drupal and KDE, have nearly no formal governance process, and rely completely on community norms and culture. Others, like Debian, have an extremely formalized governance process. And there are lots and lots of variants.

  • Drupal is a huge community with a Benevolent Dictator for Life (Dries Buytaert) who is exceptionally gentle, community-oriented, and generally non-dictatorial. With the exception of issues where he is directly involved, almost all governance is by a loosely defined consensus model, where involved parties seek to find middle ground. Although very often successful, this can also lead to a committee mentality where disagreeing parties can prevent anything ever being done, or can result in design-by-committee. As do most other projects, Drupal has a parallel funding organization, the Drupal Association, which deals with money and events. It has its own governance, but in general does not have anything to do with core or contrib development, or with community governance. Drupal has the Drupal Code of Conduct, which spells out hoped-for community behavior, but the DCOC has no teeth in terms of resolving problems or making decisions.
  • Debian (the project that produces the operating system and packaging system Ubuntu Linux is built on) is the most striking for its careful organization. They have a Social Contract, a Constitution, and a completely specified technique for electing leaders. Wikipedia short version. Although the Debian community of contributors is probably small compared to Drupal. they're exceptionally clear about what they're doing. You can go to their site and figure out in a moment who has influence in what area. I don't have personal experience with the Debian community (although I very much appreciate and benefit from the project), but I chatted at length with anarcat, a distinguished member of both Debian and Drupal, and he is very positive about Debian's governance and its future.
  • The KDE project is at the far opposite end of the spectrum from Debian. (KDE is one popular graphical UI for the Linux family of operating systems.) KDE has almost no governance - they don't even have a designated leader. They have just two documents, on Project Management and concerning their Code of Conduct, which like Drupal's is derived directly from the Ubuntu Code of Conduct. The one body they have is a Community Working Group, which is essentially a conflict resolution group for when arguments get out of hand. And it has no formal power, just the magic of people trying to resolve conflicts. KDE does have a "Money organization", the analogue of the Drupal Association, which handles events and the like. It seems that nearly every open source group has a parallel organization to manage money and events. But KDE, despite being a successful and established community, has no Benevolent Dictator, no voting, no constitution; essentially, it has only its culture: "If you are going to do the work, you get to decide how it will be done." KDE's entire governance structure fits into one short page.
  • Wikipedia, the world-famous encyclopedia of everything, has a Benevolent Dictator for Life (Jimmy Wales, the founder) but is perhaps most noted for its emphasis on conflict resolution. With articles on a zillion controversial topics and people, and with editing open to nearly anyone nearly any time, they have a highly refined view of what consensus is and spend an enormous amount of energy on it. Wikipedia/Wikimedia has something of a Constitution, And Wales, as the founder, has an impressive but limited array of powers.. However, the most striking thing to me about Wikipedia is its capability to resolve conflicts in its editorial process even when there are millions of articles to care for.
  • Ubuntu (probably the most visible Linux OS distribution) has both a Benevolent Dictator for Life (BDFL) in Mark Shuttleworth and a backing commercial entity in Canonical. However, it has a huge, structured, and thriving community of contributors. Although Shuttleworth has certain distinguishing powers, and although Canonical as its commercial backer has specific capabilities to influence the direction of the project, a huge community and an enormous amount of community organization underlies a very large project that is not just a fan club for Canonical. The Ubuntu Technical Board makes feature decisions and a Community Council is empowered with non-technical governance. Ubuntu's Code of Conduct has inspired many imitators, including KDE and Drupal, but unlike theirs it cites specific ways to resolve conflict, pointing into the significant governance structure.
  • Wordpress.org, a famous competitor to Drupal in the CMS space, may be quite similar to Drupal on the surface, but has a very different leadership and organization. It has a BDFL/founder, Matt Mullenweg, who is also the head of the most important Wordpress company, Automattic. It has an impressive worldwide corps of contributors, including committers who are not employed by Automattic. The most obvious differences between Wordpress and Drupal seem to be that Matt is very involved in decision making at a number of levels, and Wordpress has an explicit organization chart, explaining who has what authority and what commit privilege. (Contrary to popular belief, Automattic is not a fully controlling backer of Wordpress.org; Wordpress.org is an open-source project, with a vibrant community which includes lots of people outside Automattic.)
  • The Linux Kernel project is unique in that it has a BDFL and strong, centralized leadership. As I understand it, Linus Torvalds as the founder and BDFL sets the agenda and also appoints strong lieutenants, so most issues do not require his attention until they're ready for commit. Anybody can submit a patch to the mailing list, but getting it accepted is very much a matter of working with the chain of command.

It seems to me that the key external differentiators between these projects and their governance are:
* BDFL or strong, semi-permanent leader (Drupal, Ubuntu, Linux kernel, Wikipedia)
* Top-down leadership (Wordpress, LInux Kernel)
* Amount of governance structure (org chart, method for selecting leaders)
* Membership distinction for some contributors (Debian, Ubuntu, KDE)
* Backing commercial organization (Ubuntu, Wordpress.org)
* Participation style (open, like Drupal, or more limited, like Linux Kernel)
* Explicit governance (like Debian) or culture-only based governance (like KDE and Drupal, mostly)

The bottom line is there is certainly no one right model. The purpose of governance is to build and sustain the community so it can accomplish community objectives and attract and keep contributors. And governance is something that typically evolves over time.

I'm well aware that this simple (minded) comparison of open-source projects is incomplete and inaccurate and will gladly improve it based on your comments, so please help out that way in the comments.

Resources and Acknowledgments

  • Thanks to Lydia Pintscher (@Nightrose) of KDE who graciously took more than an hour of her time to explain the inner magic of KDE.
  • Thanks to anarcat, a distinguished member of both Debian and Drupal communities, who did the same explaining Debian on IRC. See also * Scientific study of Debian Governance
  • Jono Bacon's excellent The Art of Community explains at length in the chapter on governance how communities can and do organize, and goes into depth about how Ubuntu organizes itself. (free download at the bottom of that page).
  • Jane Wells' presentation on how decisions get made in the Wordpress project does away with many myths about Wordpress, but also makes clear that Wordpress has a more top-down leadership style than Drupal does.
  • David Eaves is well-known in the Drupal community and well-known for his thinking about governance, metrics, and community organization. Thanks to Dave for taking the time to chat about governance both good and bad.

10 comments

by John Walling on Mon, 2012-03-05 22:22

Another good example is OpenStreetMap and its founder Steve Coast @SteveC
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenStreetMap
It's becoming the free alternative to Google maps.

by rfay on Mon, 2012-03-05 22:24

I'd be interested in their governance model, if you know anything about that. Feel free to explain it here.

by John Walling on Thu, 2012-04-26 20:59

OpenStreetMap and Wikpedia governance
http://osm.gryph.de/2012/04/learn-from-wikipedia/

by John Walling on Thu, 2012-04-26 20:32

OpenStreetMap learning from Wikipedia governance
http://osm.gryph.de/2012/04/learn-from-wikipedia/

by zzolo on Tue, 2012-03-06 11:11

I am really glad you are doing this series, Randy; I think its about time Drupal takes a serious look at its governance model (or lack of one).

One thing to point out is that maybe it makes sense to mention Acquia in this context. Though it is younger compared to Canonical or Automattic, it follows a similar suit of these companies and its role in the Drupal community (at least in my opinion). Obviously this is a subjective sort of thing, but might be worth mentioning.

by rfay on Tue, 2012-03-06 11:30

Actually, I think agree with you, but Acquia has explicitly distanced itself from a "primary influencer" or "Commercial Sponsorship" role. But my opinion is that there might be a more explicit role for Acquia in the community, and that recognizing their very special position (with Dries as the CTO of Acquia) would be better than the current "Oh, we're nothing special" party line.

by Larry Garfield on Tue, 2012-03-06 22:20

I think with the creation of the Office of the CTO (OCTO), the idea that "Aquia is no one special" is dead and we should acknowledge that. OCTO employs Dries and Angie, and a number of other key people. Whether intentional or not, conflating OCTO leadership and Drupal leadership *will* happen, and if Dries or anyone else at Acquia thinks that's not going to happen they're naive.

Whether that is a good development for Drupal or not, I do not know.

by Carlos on Wed, 2012-05-16 02:10

Excellent article! I arrived here looking for conflicts and collaboration within drupal.org community and I found this article impressive. I've always been interested in how communities (and more specifically opensource communities) governance, and your article serves as starting point for many future researches by comparing consolidated communities and identifiying key variables.

Thanks for your good job

by Manuel Alejandro on Thu, 2012-07-19 08:29

Hi Randy, I believe the Ubuntu site is http://www.ubuntu.com not .org.

Regards.

P.D. Nice article!

by rfay on Thu, 2012-07-19 09:27

Thanks - Fixed it.

Drupal theme by Kiwi Themes.