F/OSS project governance models
Various governance models exist for free and open source software projects. Most of those happen naturally, some of them are chosen… Which one is the best ? Is there a best ? How could we judge the best ? Like any ecosystem, I’d postulate that F/OSS project communities should have long-term survival as their main goal: the ability to continue operation as the same community over time, without fracture of fork.
The “benevolent dictator for life” model usually happens naturally. The project is often originally the brain child of a single, talented individual, who retains final say over everything that happens to their project. This usually works very well: the person is naturally respected in the community. It also naturally allows for opinionated design, and people who sign up to the project can’t ignore what they sign up for.
The main issue with that setup is that it’s not replicable, it can’t be dictated. It either happens naturally, or it will never happen. You don’t choose someone to become your dictator-for-life after the fact. Any attempt to do so would fail to get enough legitimacy and natural respect to make it last. The second issue with that setup is that it’s not durable. If the dictator stops being active in the community, their opinion is not as much respected anymore (especially by new contributors), which usually triggers a painful fork or governance model switch (that’s what happened in Gentoo). Even in the rare cases where the original dictator manages to retain interest and respect in the project, it’s inherently brittle: the “natural” dictator can’t really be replaced in case something bad happens. Succession is always dirty. So from a long-term survival standpoint, this model is not that great.
Aristocracy is used to solve the perceived drawbacks of the dictator-for-life model. Instead of focusing on one person, let’s have a group of people in control of the project, and let that group self-select successors in the wider pool of contributors. That’s the role of “committers” in certain projects, and it’s also how Apache project management committees (PMCs) usually work. It also works quite well, with self-selection usually ensuring that the members share enough common culture to reach consensus on most decisions.
The drawback here is obviously the self-selection bias. Aristocracies all fall after getting more and more disconnected from the people they control, and revolution happens. Open source aristocracies are no different: they fall after gradually growing disconnected from their project contributors base. Whenever contributors to an open source project feel like their leaders are no longer representative of the contributors or relevant to the present of the project, this disconnect happens. In mild cases, people just go contribute somewhere else, and in difficult cases this usually triggers a fork.
Direct democracy / Anarchy
The obvious way to solve that disconnect is to give the power directly to the contributors. Direct democracy projects give ultimate power to all the contributors. Anarchy projects let contributors do whatever they want. Debian is an interesting mix of the two: developers vote on general resolutions, but maintainers also have a lot of control on their packages.
While these models have a certain appeal, those projects usually have a hard time taking necessary decisions that affect the whole project, so they tend to linger not taking any critical decision. It’s also a model that is difficult to evolve: when you try to add new layers on top of it, they are never really accepted by the contributors base.
That leaves us with representative democracy. You regularly designate a small group of people and trust them to make the right decisions for the governance of the project. It can happen in cases where there was no natural dictator at the beginning of the project. It’s different from aristocracy in that they are chosen by the contributors base and regularly renewed — ensuring that they are always seen as a fair representation of the contributors to the project. It’s more efficient than direct democracy or anarchy in making clear and opinionated decisions.
Now it’s far from perfect. As Churchill famously said, it’s the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. It also only works if the elected people are seen as legitimate and representative, so it requires good participation levels in elections. So here is my plea: the OpenStack Technical Committee, which oversees the development of the OpenStack open source project as a whole, is being partially renewed this week. If you’re an OpenStack contributor, please vote: this will ensure that elected people have the legitimacy necessary for making the decisions that need to be made, and increase the health of the project.