Benevolent dictator governance model
by Ross Gardler and Gabriel Hanganu on 15 February 2010 , last updated
A benevolent dictator project is steered by a unique leader. Perhaps the most commonly cited example of the benevolent dictator model is the Linux Kernel project, which is run under the direct decision-making leadership of Linus Torvalds. Being a benevolent dictator is not an easy job. It requires diplomacy and community building skills, in-depth technical knowledge of all aspects of the project, and exceptional levels of commitment and dedication. However, as the Linux Kernel project illustrates, it can be very effective. At the other end of the ‘control’ spectrum is the meritocratic governance model, in which participants gain influence over a project in recognition of their contributions.
The way in which a project is organized is described in a governance document. In section 2 we provide a template for projects wishing to adopt the benevolent dictator model and create their own governance document. This template can be reused in its entirety or modified to suit individual needs. Like most of our materials, it is available under a Creative Commons licence (see footer for details), and can therefore be reused and modified, as long as attribution to OSS Watch is displayed. For information about the purpose of governance models, or for a discussion of the benefits of one model over another, please see our introductory document on governance models.
Despite the apparent structural differences, the meritocratic and benevolent dictator models subscribe to the same open source principles of sharing the code and encouraging everyone to contribute back to the community. It is therefore no surprise that both benevolent dictators and management committees of meritocratic projects exercise their decision-making power through loyalty rather than legality. They all know that members are free to take the code and create alternative projects. In fact, this ability to fork is very important to the health of open source communities, as it ensures that those involved in project governance strive to make the right decisions for the community, rather than for a single individual or company. However, there are notable differences between the two models, particularly with regard to how decision-making within the community is carried out.
Template for a benevolent dictator governance document
This project is led by a benevolent dictator and managed by the community. That is, the community actively contributes to the day-to-day maintenance of the project, but the general strategic line is drawn by the benevolent dictator. In case of disagreement, they have the last word. It is the benevolent dictator’s job to resolve disputes within the community and to ensure that the project is able to progress in a coordinated way. In turn, it is the community’s job to guide the decisions of the benevolent dictator through active engagement and contribution.
Roles and responsibilities
Benevolent dictator (project lead)
Typically, the benevolent dictator, or project lead, is self-appointed. However, because the community always has the ability to fork, this person is fully answerable to the community. The project lead’s role is a difficult one: they set the strategic objectives of the project and communicate these clearly to the community. They also have to understand the community as a whole and strive to satisfy as many conflicting needs as possible, while ensuring that the project survives in the long term.
In many ways, the role of the benevolent dictator is less about dictatorship and more about diplomacy. The key is to ensure that, as the project expands, the right people are given influence over it and the community rallies behind the vision of the project lead. The lead’s job is then to ensure that the committers (see below) make the right decisions on behalf of the project. Generally speaking, as long as the committers are aligned with the project’s strategy, the project lead will allow them to proceed as they desire.
Committers are contributors who have made several valuable contributions to the project and are now relied upon to both write code directly to the repository and screen the contributions of others. In many cases they are programmers but it is also possible that they contribute in a different role. Typically, a committer will focus on a specific aspect of the project, and will bring a level of expertise and understanding that earns them the respect of the community and the project lead. The role of committer is not an official one, it is simply a position that influential members of the community will find themselves in as the project lead looks to them for guidance and support.
Committers have no authority over the overall direction of the project. However, they do have the ear of the project lead. It is a committer’s job to ensure that the lead is aware of the community’s needs and collective objectives, and to help develop or elicit appropriate contributions to the project. Often, committers are given informal control over their specific areas of responsibility, and are assigned rights to directly modify certain areas of the source code. That is, although committers do not have explicit decision-making authority, they will often find that their actions are synonymous with the decisions made by the lead.
Contributors are community members who either have no desire to become committers, or have not yet been given the opportunity by the benevolent dictator. They make valuable contributions, such as those outlined in the list below, but generally do not have the authority to make direct changes to the project code. Contributors engage with the project through communication tools, such as email lists, and via reports and patches attached to issues in the issue tracker, as detailed in our community tools document.
Anyone can become a contributor. There is no expectation of commitment to the project, no specific skill requirements and no selection process. To become a contributor, a community member simply has to perform one or more actions that are beneficial to the project.
Some contributors will already be engaging with the project as users, but will also find themselves doing one or more of the following:
- supporting new users (current users often provide the most effective new user support)
- reporting bugs
- identifying requirements
- supplying graphics and web design
- assisting with project infrastructure
- writing documentation
- fixing bugs
- adding features
As contributors gain experience and familiarity with the project, they may find that the project lead starts relying on them more and more. When this begins to happen, they gradually adopt the role of committer, as described above.
Users are community members who have a need for the project. They are the most important members of the community: without them, the project would have no purpose. Anyone can be a user; there are no specific requirements.
Users should be encouraged to participate in the life of the project and the community as much as possible. User contributions enable the project team to ensure that they are satisfying the needs of those users. Common user activities include (but are not limited to):
- evangelising about the project
- informing developers of project strengths and weaknesses from a new user’s perspective
- providing moral support (a ‘thank you’ goes a long way)
- providing financial support
Users who continue to engage with the project and its community will often find themselves becoming more and more involved. Such users may then go on to become contributors, as described above.
All participants in the community are encouraged to provide support for new users within the project management infrastructure. This support is provided as a way of growing the community. Those seeking support should recognise that all support activity within the project is voluntary and is therefore provided as and when time allows. A user requiring guaranteed response times or results should therefore seek to purchase a support contract from a vendor. (Of course, that vendor should be an active member of the community.) However, for those willing to engage with the project on its own terms, and willing to help support other users, the community support channels are ideal.
Anyone can contribute to the project, regardless of their skills, as there are many ways to contribute. For instance, a contributor might be active on the project mailing list and issue tracker, or might supply patches. The various ways of contributing are described in more detail in our roles in open source document.
The developer mailing list is the most appropriate place for a contributor to ask for help when making their first contribution.
The benevolent dictatorship model does not need a formal conflict resolution process, since the project lead’s word is final. If the community chooses to question the wisdom of the actions of a committer, the project lead can review their decisions by checking the email archives, and either uphold or reverse them.
The benevolent dictator governance structure is not an easy one to manage and requires a very special person in the role of the project lead. However, it can work extremely well because it is simple. The template provided in this document defines a reasonably manageable model that identifies the main roles, activities and decision-making process undertaken in an open source project.
When creating a benevolent dictator governance document, projects need to ensure that it provides the necessary information about the roles of the project lead and the other contributors, clearly indicating how newcomers can contribute and how their contributions will be recognised.
- Linux Kernel website [http://www.kernel.org/]
- Linus Torvalds Wikipedia page [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linus_Torvalds]
- Can I be a good benevolent dictator? [http://producingoss.com/html-chunk/social-infrastructure.html#benevolent-dictator-qualifications]
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