Decisions, Decisions, and Joomla

On the Joomla! Community Blog, Steve Burge is requesting ideas for better communication between the OSM board and the Joomla community. If you are in any way involved in the Joomla community, please take a few moments to share your ideas with the OSM board. I just sent in my ideas and what I wrote is below. While I’m not sure that my ideas are 100% practical, there definitely needs to be better communication of how much money OSM is needing and what the money will be spent on.

Which questions are important enough to undergo community consultation?

OSM should adopt and publish an annual budget at a set time of the year, detailing planned expenses and desired vs. expected revenue.

Any single purchase totaling more than 5% of the annual budget should be put before community review.

Any decisions that involve compensating members of the Joomla community for ongoing services (greater than one month) should also definitely undergo community review. I think there’s potential for favoritism (or at least the accusation of it) if people who are close to the Joomla community are compensated for tasks behind closed doors.

Financially, these policies should make it possible to pay for routine expenses quickly, while ensuring that “back room deals” do not occur. These policies should also appropriately set the expectations for how much OSM will spend and how much it needs to carry out its mission. “More” is not the answer to “how much?”

Any proposals to change the leadership or governing structure of OSM or the Joomla project should go under community review. There have been far too many times where a new structure is simply announced because “the old one was too burdensome.” While this may be true, a new structure may not necessarily be less burdensome.

Changes or adoptions of OSM policies concerning the rights or responsibilities of members of the Joomla community should undergo community review.

What steps should all these decisions go through?

Community review should be the following process:

  • Creating a proposal
  • Putting the proposal up for vote with the following options: approve, disapprove (no change), disapprove with suggestions for alternative.
  • Voting open for one week.
  • If the majority of voters approve, the change is made. If the majority of voters disapprove with no suggestions, the issue is dropped. If there is no majority, the suggestions should be considered, then a new proposal should be created.

Ideally, eligible voters should meet a predetermined criteria (n number of posts on the Joomla forms, etc…). In the absence of predetermined criteria, voting should be open to the public at large.

UPDATE 3/26/10: After the discussion below, I’ve been reminded and convinced that a binding vote is not such a good idea. The logistics are tough to sort out when it comes to who is eligible. More importantly, OSM board members are legally liable for their decisions, while members of the Joomla community do not have this liability. Still, I think that having a simple feedback mechanism (let people either “like” an idea or suggest alternatives) for a set period of time would help things.

UPDATE 3/27/10: OSM Treasurer Dave Huelsmann has posted OSM’s unaudited YTD financials. It appears as though this will now be done on a monthly basis. I believe this will go a long way towards communicating OSM’s financial position and needs so that people can assist and rumors can be dismantled. If you’re not familiar with the way balance sheets and P&L statements work, Dave has also posted some helpful links where you can learn about them.

30 Responses to “Decisions, Decisions, and Joomla”

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  • Community voting sounds noble and fair, but it’s a veritable minefield. In all my years in FOSS projects I’ve not seen an ideal model for community voting that works and is not a burdensome to the organisation logistically (this has been my experience and the advice who have seen a lot more action than me – and just look around at how it works in our governments). It also assumes the premise that the majority is right (not always the case). We’ve seen with Mambo that voting in your leaders doesn’t necessarily lead to success (the opposite is true in that case). It may not be democratically fair or right, but Joomla (and *our* time with Mambo) has always worked with meritocracy (that basis for many FOSS projects) where commitment, excellence and respect is rewarded.

    Whatever the case, I’m looking forward to the results of the survey. Will be interesting to see how people from different backgrounds discern what they think are the most important decisions to them.

    On your points, some good ones there. I’m curious to know why you think 5% of the budget should be a flag. Why is that?

  • Hi Andrew, thanks for the comment!

    Budget flag first, as it’s most important. There’s a definite perception floating around that, at the sole discretion of a handful of people, tens of thousands of dollars are being spent on mystery line items. I think that if we make the money matters clear, a lot of Joomla community strife would subside. When there’s distrust and questioning over how and why money is being spent (and there is), it affects everything.

    While doing the flag as a percentage would eliminate the need to revise it every year (assuming OSM’s budget grows), it might work better as a smaller fixed number (say $10,000). I wanted to come up with a threshold that would provide enough room for smaller, routine expenses, while adding a check so that larger purchases don’t slip under the radar.

    Yes, the voting aspect is what I’m the least certain about. It is definitely a logistical problem and there’s probably a better idea floating around out there. I think giving an idea a week to air-dry in public is still applicable though.

    Meritocracy works well for writing code among a tight-knit group of developers, but I’m not so sure that it works when you’re dealing with non-code community issues. And there’s a *lot* of the Joomla community that is not centered around code at all. Or maybe I’m wrong on this and it really does work on a larger scale basis as well.

    The major problem I find is that we have these times where we ask for feedback, and then it breaks down into drawn out shouting matches where you have to sort through 800 comments. Perhaps we need to do something that will encourage people to stop and think before posting a “this idea sucks” drive-by comment. I think the way Steve has approached this with his request for ideas in combination with comments is good.

    So to clarify: I don’t think we should be voting on things like what features get added (as some have proposed), but we should have a clear method for gaining consensus when policies change. Especially when they’re policies on rights and responsibilities (trademark issues, community conduct, settling disputes, etc…). Hopefully though, getting the finances out in the open will lessen the need for OSM structure and policy changes.

  • Basicaly agree with Joe on this.

  • klas:

    Another problem with so called meritocracy is that without solid standards what represents a merit and what not it becomes more asskissingocracy than meritocracy. Someone with critical attitude will never get his merits recognized in Joomla, no matter how big they are.

  • @klas I’m not by and large opposed to meritocracy when it comes to writing the actual code. I’ve proposed patches that in hindsight were far less than ideal. I’m glad that others stopped them from getting committed to the core. And it’s usually a good thing, since you have to build your case for why your patch is a good one.

    However, I think the broader community efforts (JUGs, JoomlaDays, the Joomla Forum, etc…) suffer when they’re subjected to the same meritocracy.

  • klas:

    @Joe I’m not opposed to meritocracy in development either, I’m just pointing to arbitrary or no standards.

    Just a thought for those thinking that everything is ok in that area – if this particular meritocracy would be working ok then we would now be testing 1.8 beta. Perhaps I’m just too emotional at the moment but fixing a driver that one of the meritocrats happily committed 3 days ago is no fun at all.

  • klas: they are both published, please delete one

  • @klas methinks it was a caching issue :)

  • Klas, please show some maturity and respect and don’t be crass. I’m sure you are intelligent enough to make a point without being vulgar.

  • klas:

    Sometimes vulgarism is the only way to get at least some response. But if it bothers Joe, he is free to delete it.

  • I’m not a fan of deleting comments (aside from spam, hate, and imminent danger), but I think we could stand to keep this conversation mutually respectful.

  • No Klas, just being polite and not mocking people will get you more mileage and more people will take you seriously. The word you are looking for is something like cronyism (which is a serious allegation to which I would respond – prove it!). Whatever the case, all the ‘*ocracies’ have pros and cons. There is no perfect solution unless you are perfect yourself and there’s only one person who can lay claim to that. The shooting matches will happen whatever the governance model unfortunately.

    The fact of the matter is that this is the way Joomla operates but the beauty of FOSS is that you can choose to move to another community that suits your governance style, or by jingos create your own community and project (it’s harder than it looks though). Gary Hammel has looked a successful commercial businesses that are mimicking the meritocracy models of Open Source projects – the parallels of where he thinks business should move and where Open Source has already been are striking. So it’s not restricted to “just code”. But meritocracies do fall down when you have the wrong people on the bus and in the wrong seats (read Jim Collins “Good to Great” and his followup for the social sector), when “merit” is no longer the driving factor.

    The trouble with understanding money matters is that you have to personally invest a lot of time in processing the figures against what was required. Comments like “we are spending too much on X or Y” 5 minutes after a spreadsheet is published are really inane if you are just looking at the dollar value. How do you know it was too much? What are you comparing it to? I do agree more information is required, but more information will also lead to more “closet experts” firing more bullets out of ignorance. Unfortunately that’s something you just have to live with in leadership.

    For what it’s worth though, I would like to see the budget go up for RFC before it’s adopted by OSM (too late for this year). The regular board meeting minutes should then include a financial report from the treasurer to allow monitoring for those that are really interested in it. That’s all I’d ask. I think the communities opinion matters but ultimately they don’t have any legal personal liability as the board does – so fair’s fair – those carrying the can personally should have the final say in my opinion. If you don’t like that, you can always set up your own non-profit and then become legally responsible for your own actions.

    My obvious frustration is this new initiative is not new at all. It’s just formalising what has been done for many decisions over many years and the idea that this is a new revelation is amusing on the one hand but on the sad side lacks the acknowledgment of those who have already been doing a good job (maybe people choose to see what they want). The reality of the matter is the decisions that have met with disapproval are those that have not followed that process (even though on a whole, the actual decision was not the issue). So we learned something – albeit the hard way. Someone once said that if you are not failing you are not growing. But when that happens I’m not interested in rhetoric of the moaners and the scoffers and the mockers. I’m more interested in those people that, once they get the “I told you so” out of the way, want to come alongside and put some elbow grease into making a better community. I’ve done the same for people even when I disagree with their point of view.

    Anyway, back to coding (big milestone finished this week, rather proud of it actually … if I’m allowed to be).

  • klas:

    I don’t need people people to take – me – seriously, I just wish for issues to be take seriously and I would expect from people on prominent positions to respond to serious suggestions from anyone. But I agree, separating issues from people takes a mature person.

  • @andrew I think we’re definitely in agreement with doing an RFC on an annual budget before OSM implements it. And yes, since OSM has the legal responsibility for the money, they should have the final word on what gets spent.

    However, the “closet experts” are already out in full force. Only right now, otherwise reasonable people end up siding with the closet experts because of the lack of detail. Like it or not, whenever you start holding out the coffers for donations, people want to know what it’s being spent on. When a project is a few programmers using a Sourceforge/GitHub/Assembla/etc… account, that’s one thing. But if you’re saying we need tens of thousands of dollars to keep the show moving, potential donors are going to what to know why and what for. And very rightly so. Every mom-and-pop missionary I support will produce a detailed budget to their donors on demand; I don’t see why OSM should be any different.

    A couple of years ago, the college I attended went through a financial scandal. Among other things, the president used university money to purchase goods and services for his exclusive personal use. Financial reporting was vague and accountability was close to non-existent. With better accountability and reporting, there wouldn’t have been any way he would have gotten away with what he did. In the grand scheme of things, the amount of money he used was not all that much, but it was blatant that he did so inappropriately.

    And as far as cronyism goes, it does appear to be that when someone close to the project is hired on to do services, and then the hiring is only revealed months down the road. I don’t have any objections to hiring on people from the community to perform services for OSM, but ONLY when these arrangements are announced beforehand and others have an opportunity to apply. Otherwise, you DO open yourself up to allegations of cronyism.

  • There are some excellent nuggets in the comments here, especially this one to paraphrase – It’s good to fail. If you don’t fail at some stuff then it means that you aren’t trying hard enough.

    Also as Andrew indicated meritocracy works well (or as well as any ‘ocracy can work in a less than perfect world) but if you dont have the correct people on the bus then we don’t provide the opportunity for people to showcase their skills and rise up the meritocracy.

    In the non-profit world where I spend the majority of the time this is a constant battle as there is a tendency to always ask the same people to contribute and as long as the seats are being filled people forget to provide the opportunity for new people to get involved.

  • I’d like to first address what I think is the core of the problem. For a mature community like Joomla, it is a bit surprising to realize that communication is fragmented. The community communicates in so many ways, the forum, blogs, twitter, mailing list, and others. To describe the ‘community voice’ is to describe a vast and noisy bunch of fragments from around the web. The leadership structure has changed, their policies often unclear, and have not brought the community into the discussion on some important topics. The core is really the way that we communicate as a community and leadership. We seem to focus the blame on the leadership a lot, but don’t forget the community has to be clear as well, or what is the point in all of this?

    Now Joe brings a few good rules to the way we should/could communicate better. It makes sense (following the comments) that we are not talking as much about the way coding decisions are made, but project decisions. The most important thing is there would be a process (as proposed by Steve and Joe) that would make it obvious how the leadership and community discuss topics.

    So to address specifics, I don’t feel the community should have a vote on regular issues as proposed here. I like Andrew’s point that it takes a lot of time and energy to properly address these issues, and I’d rather those who are most educated about it make the call. However, I like the feedback loop suggested here, which will bring about a wide mixture of helpful and useless feedback (inevitable). A week notice is long enough (but not too long) to engage the community for responses before a final decision is reached. If there is a lot of negative feedback, it should be clear that revisions are necessary.

    Voting is a difficult process, technologically and logistically. A lot of energy would have to go into ensuring votes are from unique individuals, an independent party has to oversee, and if you put criteria on who can vote, how do you set that and enforce it? I don’t see how it could be put into place very well.

    I really like Brian’s last comment about retaining the same individuals for long periods of time. There should be some long term commitments to keep the leadership somewhat stable, but that leadership should be looking for fresh voices (if its through this type of response circuit or by bringing on some new members to the leadership).

  • @Joe, yes, there *has* to be financial accountability, no argument with that. In this area OSM actually does more than it’s legally required to do. The Leadership Team, and the Core Team before it, receives regular financial reports from the Treasurer as an additional measure of accountability. If I’ve read my mail correctly I believe other things are in the works to go above and beyond this as well. I think they have, and will continue, to do a good job in this area.

    As for paying myself and Louis (let’s just use the names rather than “people”), in hindsight, yes, it should have gone to an RFC. There’s an interesting backstory to the crisis that precipitated that decision if people are interested but all I can do is ask for the community’s forgiveness on that one.

  • Yes, OSM does more than is legally required under US law, but so do most other US-based non-profits I’ve encountered. And this ultimately works in their favor anyway as more donors are more willing to sponsor specific goals. Glad to hear that more financial accountability and planning are in the works though. I think OSM will be in much better shape if someone steps up and says “this is where we are, here’s what we want to do this year, and this is how much cash it’s going to take. Community, over to you.”

    As for you and Louis being hired by OSM to work on the code, I think everyone would be *keenly* interested in the backstory.

  • @Jeremy yes, the more I think about it, the more voting doesn’t sound like such a good idea. And I remember coming to the same conclusion a while ago when similar things came up.

    I may have been a little quick in getting my ideas down; I might update this post with a note at the bottom rescinding the voting idea.

  • As the financial reports and budgets have now been published, which is a great step forward, it just highlights further how half a story is never enough.

    Certain lines in the financial report may appear surprising (either by their size or lack of) as without the “explanatory notes” that typically accompany such reports “can” be misleading.

  • That’s the point I was trying to make Brian, but I will say this. Those reports are not done for the benefit of satisfying your curiosity. They are done to establish, beyond reasonable doubt, that good fiscal management is being practice in the organisation. They aren’t there to allow you to necessarily agree or disagree with what was spent on what, nor is it OSM’s responsibility to teach you how to read financial reports. Explanatory take a lot of time to prepare but, honestly, I can make them just as misleading to cover up creative accounting. It’s really not that hard. I suggest you tell us exactly what notes you want that would lead you to a “this is not mis-leading” conclusion and then we can all judge whether that is reasonable for the treasurer (with all the time on his hands) to satisfy you (can you tell I’ve been a former treasurer, hehe). But at the end of the day, Brian, you can just “ask” OSM what’s in a line item.

    As for me, here’s what would be ideal. OSM publishes the Draft 1 of the budget after all the sectors of the project and the organisation have put in their proposals. This is what the community can comment on and, for example, ask the PLT “what is this line item that you’ve put in”. The board then takes that comment on board and brings down the hammer. At the end of the year there is an annual report done which summarises what OSM has done the year, and that includes a financial report with the explanatory notes for the layman. Elin did something like this recently. In this way those that are really interested can ask the questions *before* the money is spent, and then ask questions after the fact at the end of the year if there are any discrepancies.

  • As you know Andrew the aim of good communication is to present the information in such a way that there are no questions. ;)

    As for asking OSM a question – well you just need to look how the treasurer responded to questions.

  • Touche, but the other thing I know is you’ll always have a question :P

  • People will always have questions, the skill is in reducing the number of questions and ensuring you give answers and not brush offs.

  • Andrew, I like your idea for the budget and hope that it gets adopted. When everyone has a clearer understanding of what OSM is trying to accomplish in a given year and what it needs to do that, we’ll have more donations and participation all around. I’ve seen Dave’s blog post with the month-by-month financials and find it very encouraging and helpful.

    However, since you used the term, one thing I’ve found exceptionally peculiar about OSM is the frequent hand-wringing about how certain actions will be perceived by “the layman.” This term has been thrown around a bit, particularly during the GPL debate (and I only bring that up as an example, not to trot out a dead horse for more beating).

    While yes, some people might not have the knowledge to interpret financial data correctly, there are many in our community who do. Joomla is a large community including lawyers, accountants, business owners, government employees/contractors, pastors, non-profit organizers, and pretty much any other profession under the sun. I doubt the balance sheet, profit and loss statement, and budget Dave just posted are the first ones most of us have ever seen before in our lives. And even if these are totally new documents for some people, learning the basics of how they work doesn’t take but a few minutes.

    When you get the information out there, those who have the ability to interpret it are then equipped to address concerns of those who don’t. When the information isn’t out there, people are left to their imaginations. The most fantastic stories tend to become the history, rather than the reality. And when people are brushed aside after asking specific unanswered questions, it only serves to make OSM look guilty of covering something up.

  • True there are many learned in the community, but those actually watching the information are a pitiful fraction of it. Last I looked Steve posting (this one we are discussing) had not even cracked 1,000 unique visitors yet Joomla is downloaded, last count, 624,000 times a month. Like I said to Brian, you need to balance satisfying people’s curiousity (more information than they need) with accountability (enough to keep “us” honest). Remember asking for more and more information means either more volunteer time is required which may or may not be available, or OSM just out-sources it to the accountant, thus increasing that line item in the budget. Nothing comes without a time or financial price.

    That said, we all make mistakes and say the wrong things at the wrong times in the wrong way. I reminded myself only this week about taking Europeans the wrong way because they tend to use the aggressive form of verbs rather than the passive. I guess the moral of the story is treat others how you want to be treated.

  • Don’t forget all statistics lie and the Joomla hit counter doesn’t include all those people who read via rss etc ;)

    It’s not about keeping things “honest” it’s about being a community and in a community you talk to each other. Reports like the excellent one from Ryan today are what many of us have been asking for for many years. They take 10 minutes to write etc and ensure engagement and to quote Ryan enourage “transparency + accountability + empowerment”

  • Compared to the legal budget for OSM and the fact that a PR firm is getting involved, that accountant is making a pittance ;). And considering the number of questions and stories floating around about how OSM handles money, hiring out the accountant for a few more hours is going to be a worthwhile expense.

    And like Brian said, it’s not solely about honesty and integrity: it’s about making the needs and desires known so that people are motivated to step up to the plate.

    The actions we’ve seen out of OSM this week have been encouraging and I hope we continue to see the budget results posted regularly. Andrew, this conversation has been helpful for me; thank you for taking the time to talk. I think I have a more realistic idea of the level of communication OSM and the community at large can engage in, even if we don’t agree on some of the specifics. I’ll let you wrap this up with anything you’d like to add, but I’m going to give it a rest now.