On GNOME Governance

On 2015-10-04 it was announced that the governing body of the GNOME Foundation, the Board, has a vacant seat. That body was elected about 15 weeks earlier. The elections are very democratic, they use an STV system to make as many votes as possible count. So far, no replacement has been officially announced. The question of what strategy to use in order to find the replacement has been left unanswered. Let me summarise the facts and comment on the strategy I wish the GNOME project to follow.

The STV system used can be a bit hard to comprehend, at first, so let me show you the effects of an STV system based on the last GNOME elections. With STV systems, the electorate can vote for more than one candidate. An algorithm then determines how to split up the votes, if necessary. Let’s have a look at the last election’s first votes:

elections-initial-votes

We see the initial votes, that is, the number of ballots in which a candidate was chosen first. If a candidate gets eliminated, either because the number of votes is sufficient to get elected or because the candidate has the least votes and cannot be elected anymore, the vote of the ballot is being transferred onto the next candidate.

In the chart we see that the electorate chose to place 19 or more votes onto two candidates who got directly elected. Overall, six candidates have received 13 or more votes. Other candidates have at least 30% less votes than that. If we had a “simple” voting mechanism, the result would be the seven candidates with the most votes. I would have been one of them.

But that’s not how our voting system works, because, as we can see below, the picture of accumulated votes looks differently just before eliminating the last candidate (i.e. me):

elections-final-votes

If you compare the top seven now, you observe that one candidate received votes from other candidates who got eliminated and managed to get in.

We can also see from the result that the final seat was given to 17.12 votes and that the first runner-up had 16.44 votes. So this is quite close. The second runner-up received 10.39 votes, or 63% of the votes of the first runner-up (so the first runner-up received 158% of the votes of the second runner-up).

We can also visually identify this effect by observing a group of eight which accumulated the lion’s share of the votes. It is followed by a group of five.

Now one out of the seven elected candidates needed to drop out, creating a vacancy. The Foundation has a set of rules, the bylaws, which regulate vacancies. They are pretty much geared towards maintaining an operational state even with a few directors left and do not mandate any particular behaviour, especially not to follow the latest election results.

But.

Of course this is not about what is legally possible, because that’s the baseline, the bare minimum we expect to see. The GNOME Foundation’s Board is one of the few democratically elected bodies. It is a well respected entity in industry as well as other Free Software communities. I want it to stay that way. Most things in Free Software are not very democratic; and that’s perfectly fine. But we chose to have a very democratic system around the governing body and I think that it would leave a bad taste if the GNOME Foundation chooses to not follow these rather young election results. I believe that its reputation can be damaged if the impression of forming a cabal, of not listening to its own membership, prevails. I interpret the results as a strong statement of its membership for those eight candidates. GNOME already has to struggle with accusations of it not listening to its users. I’d rather want to get rid of it, not fueling it by extending it to its electorate. We’re in the process of acquiring sponsors for our events and I don’t think it’s received well if the body ignores its own processes. I’d also rather value the membership more rather than producing arguments for those members who chose to not vote at all and try to increase the number of members who actually vote.

14 thoughts on “On GNOME Governance”

  1. This kind of post does not come across well, nor in particular does it endear you to those who might otherwise support you. If posted by someone else, this would come across quite well; posted by the person who expects to be handed the seat makes me sincerely hope that the board finds this sufficiently distasteful to find another candidate or call a one-off election.

    For the record, I find “transferrable vote” systems of any kind awful, both for single-winner elections and for multi-winner elections. But this kind of post just comes across as whining, demanding, and otherwise sour grapes.

    1. I agree.
      Given the lack of other discussion of the matter at hand (rather than the form presented), I interpret your “If posted by someone else, this would come across quite well” as support for the points brought up and the right thing™.

  2. From the latest minutes:
    https://wiki.gnome.org/FoundationBoard/Minutes/20151027

    “Kat will take over vice-president duties for a few weeks until we have a full board again, then we’ll call a vote for the new vice-president”

    Who will vote exactly? All Foundation members or just the Board? If it is just the Board, then yes maybe you can call that a cabal. If it is all Foundation members, it would be fully democratic, but not terribly efficient.

    But it looks like you are disappointed to not being re-elected. What tells us that you’re not part of the cabal :-) ?

    “ I’d also rather value the membership more rather than producing arguments for those members who chose to not vote at all and try to increase the number of members who actually vote.”

    When first reading that sentence I interpreted that as a strange accusation. I.e. someone who doesn’t vote but is part of the committee that accepts new members. Those new members part of the cabal, right? But it’s maybe because you talked about a cabal that I interpreted the sentence like that (and maybe because I was tired and it was the end of the day). Now by re-reading the sentence I understand (probably) what you meant, i.e. among the current members, you want a higher percentage who votes.

    1. Sebastian, positions like vice-president have always been elected by the Board itself.
      Christian was the former vice-president. Now that he stepped down we need another one. For the sake of getting meetings done efficiently if the president can’t make it, Kat is filling the position in the meantime.

      1. Ok, thanks for the explanation. It makes sense.

        Another possibility is to take the 8th candidate, and you re-assign the positions internally. But re-assigning the positions can be inefficient, since at the beginning a new Board member needs to learn his/her duties and become more efficient with time.

  3. “I believe that its reputation can be damaged if the impression of forming a cabal, of not listening to its own membership, prevails.”

    Don’t worry, there’s no way that would happen, because nobody outside the Foundation would notice or care, at least not unless you do something like write a blog post about it!

    Oh wait.

  4. Muelli, as a European I appreciate what you have done when you were on the Board, I think that:

    https://www.gnome.org/news/2015/07/donations-within-the-eu-are-now-handled-through-the-wau-holland-foundation/

    was mainly thanks to you. But for the last election, for your candidacy announcement, you didn’t explain what you did during the previous years:

    https://mail.gnome.org/archives/foundation-announce/2015-May/msg00004.html

    There were also more candidates, and IIRC you were a bit less verbose than other candidates at answering questions, maybe because you were busier than usual. So, the combination of all that may explain why you weren’t re-elected, even if you were an active Board member.

    1. Right. There are many reasons I suppose. And I totally accept the result. But the question now is what do you think is the right approach given that there is a vacancy? Do you still think it’s good to respect the result? Whose call should it be to decide on who to fill the vacancy with? People will answer differently to that question. One option is to have the body simply decide, preferably on someone of their liking, basically ignoring the results. And that’s a legally valid approach. My answer is that it would be good style, show good leadership, and set a good example if our democratically elected body followed its electorate, rather than its own interests.

  5. But the point made here is simple imho, but it would be more clear by actually quoting the relevant section of the bylaws, in section 8.2:
    “In the event that any election of directors results in a single entity representing greater than 40% of the Board, than the nominee representing that entity receiving the least number of votes, shall be replaced by the nominee receiving the greatest number of votes who was not elected to the Board.”, so I don’t understand where any confusion on filling the seat by the board would be coming from. Was it formalized as a resignation with different replacement logic instead of acting on this point (which might be meant only for initial decisions based on results, not affiliation changes?), or what

    1. Good point. That section does indeed have the spirit of “filling up by following your electorate”. It is also the only place that mentions the 40% case which, depending on your point of view, is rather applicable than others. The other section I mentioned in the post is rather geared towards being operational even in the event of a single director left.

      However, I think you can easily make the argument that the section you quoted does not apply to this very case. Because, as you also have stated, when following that section word by word, it mentions the election results only; not the case when affiliation changes after these results had been obtained. But the results are relatively young. A more extreme thought experiment is to imagine one elected director to change affiliation just one day after the elections. Change in affiliation is not directly covered in the bylaws. So we can ask ourselves “what procedure should then apply”? Do you treat that event as if the elections had just happened and apply the section you’ve mentioned or do you think it’s a “regular” resignation without 40% being the cause? And again, people will answer differently to that question. And that’s fine. I would make the argument that, irrespective of the age of the results, they should be followed. Not necessarily because I think that the “40% resignation” rule should apply, but rather because I think it’s good style of governance to follow your electorate, even if it yields uncomfortable situations. In other words: If, in a democratically elected body, you have the choice of either deciding for yourselves whom to appoint or to follow your electorate, I think the latter is the better.

      As for your question where the confusion about how to fill the vacancy would be coming from, we can, at this stage, only speculate, because the public communication has been sparse. I’ve tried to get an answer by asking via email, but that didn’t yield answers. One speculation is that the result, when following the spirit of the bylaws, would not be liked by those in power and that, even considering the risks of any allusions, it would be better to just appoint someone of their liking. Now, that’s pretty extreme and we will hopefully have some statements that indicate otherwise.

  6. I can’t work through any of the e-mails time-wise really, but aren’t they just looking to assign a vice-president seat amongst the board members, with Christian having filled that role before on the board; and not getting another member to the board at all, as it doesn’t seem needed per bylaws? As in, selecting a vice-president in a proper vote amongst board members from within themselves or whatnot (instead of having Kat serve it in interim until a full formal vote), not having a new member on the board itself?

    1. It’s about replacing a Board member who resigned in order to not have more than 40% of the members employed by one company.

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