Meritocratic governance model
by Ross Gardler and Gabriel Hanganu on 15 February 2010 , last updated
Meritocratic governance is a commonly found model in which participants gain influence over a project through the recognition of their contributions. The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) is perhaps the most famous example of a large-scale meritocratic community. The foundation operates with an almost completely ‘flat’ structure, which means that anyone willing to contribute can engage with their projects at any level. At the other end of the ‘control’ spectrum is the benevolent dictator governance model, which is led by one individual.
The governance model under which a project is run is described in a governance document. In this document we provide a template for projects wishing to adopt the meritocratic model and create their own governance document. This template can be reused in its entirety or edited 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 maintained. For information about the purpose of governance models, or for a discussion of the benefits of one model over another, please see our general document on governance models.
Despite the apparent structural differences between meritocracies and benevolent dictatorships, both subscribe to the same open source principles of sharing the code and encouraging everyone to contribute back to the community. It is no surprise, therefore, that meritocratic project management committees and benevolent dictators both exercise their decision making power through loyalty rather than legalities. 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. This is because 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. At its most extreme, a meritocratic governance model appears to give away control to community members in response to their contributions to the project. But in reality, control is not handed out without due consideration. A meritocracy is not a democracy; that is, not everyone has a binding vote. Only those who have earned it through positive contribution to the project have a binding vote. This allows project leaders to ensure that only those that share a common vision and, just as importantly, are willing to work towards that shared vision, are given decision making authority.
The ‘flatness’ of a meritocratic project’s structure comes from the fact that once someone has decision making authority, they have exactly the same authority as everyone else. Another aspect of this flatness is that decision making responsibilities are usually reserved for those willing and able to understand, and appropriately represent, the views of the wider community. So, when an important decision is to be made, those with a vote are expected to represent the views of those who have yet to earn a vote.
Meritocratic projects, like all projects, usually start life with a small number of decision makers, possibly even a single person. Consequently, the early stages of project management are little different from those found in the benevolent dictator model. The key difference is that the initial team provides a mechanism for the distribution of control from the ‘dictator’ to a flat structure in recognition of contribution.
In the next section we provide a template for a meritocratic governance model, which projects can use as a basis for drawing up their own governance document. OSS Watch can help you fine-tune the model to suit your specific needs.
The template is based on the meritocratic model used in The Apache Software Foundation. It should be noted, however, that individual ASF projects are free to design their own bylaws. Therefore, this model is not likely to be identical to that employed in any given ASF project.
Template for a meritocratic governance document
This is a meritocratic, consensus-based community project. Anyone with an interest in the project can join the community, contribute to the project design and participate in the decision making process. This document describes how that participation takes place and how to set about earning merit within the project community.
Roles and responsibilities
Users are community members who have a need for the project. They are the most important members of the community and without them the project would have no purpose. Anyone can be a user; there are no special requirements.
The project asks its users to participate in the project and community as much as possible. User contributions enable the project team to ensure that they are satisfying the needs of those users. Common user contributions include (but are not limited to):
- evangelising about the project (e.g. a link on a website and word-of-mouth awareness raising)
- informing developers of strengths and weaknesses from a new user perspective
- providing moral support (a ‘thank you’ goes a long way)
- providing financial support (the software is open source, but its developers need to eat)
Users who continue to engage with the project and its community will often become more and more involved. Such users may find themselves becoming contributors, as described in the next section.
Contributors are community members who contribute in concrete ways to the project. Anyone can become a contributor, and contributions can take many forms, as detailed in a separate document. There is no expectation of commitment to the project, no specific skill requirements and no selection process.
In addition to their actions as users, contributors may also find themselves doing one or more of the following:
- supporting new users (existing users are often the best people to support new users)
- reporting bugs
- identifying requirements
- providing graphics and web design
- assisting with project infrastructure
- writing documentation
- fixing bugs
- adding features
Contributors engage with the project through the issue tracker and mailing list, or by writing or editing documentation. They submit changes to the project itself via patches, which will be considered for inclusion in the project by existing committers (see next section). The developer mailing list is the most appropriate place to ask for help when making that first contribution.
As contributors gain experience and familiarity with the project, their profile within, and commitment to, the community will increase. At some stage, they may find themselves being nominated for committership.
Committers are community members who have shown that they are committed to the continued development of the project through ongoing engagement with the community. Committership allows contributors to more easily carry on with their project related activities by giving them direct access to the project’s resources. That is, they can make changes directly to project outputs, without having to submit changes via patches.
This does not mean that a committer is free to do what they want. In fact, committers have no more authority over the project than contributors. While committership indicates a valued member of the community who has demonstrated a healthy respect for the project’s aims and objectives, their work continues to be reviewed by the community before acceptance in an official release. The key difference between a committer and a contributor is when this approval is sought from the community. A committer seeks approval after the contribution is made, rather than before.
Seeking approval after making a contribution is known as a commit-then-review process. It is more efficient to allow trusted people to make direct contributions, as the majority of those contributions will be accepted by the project. The project employs various communication mechanisms to ensure that all contributions are reviewed by the community as a whole. By the time a contributor is invited to become a committer, they will have become familiar with the project’s various tools as a user and then as a contributor.
Anyone can become a committer; there are no special requirements, other than to have shown a willingness and ability to participate in the project as a team player. Typically, a potential committer will need to show that they have an understanding of the project, its objectives and its strategy. They will also have provided valuable contributions to the project over a period of time.
New committers can be nominated by any existing committer. Once they have been nominated, there will be a vote by the project management committee (PMC; see below). Committer voting is one of the few activities that takes place on the project’s private management list. This is to allow PMC members to freely express their opinions about a nominee without causing embarrassment. Once the vote has been held, the aggregated voting results are published on the public mailing list. The nominee is entitled to request an explanation of any ‘no’ votes against them, regardless of the outcome of the vote. This explanation will be provided by the PMC Chair (see below) and will be anonymous and constructive in nature.
Nominees may decline their appointment as a committer. However, this is unusual, as the project does not expect any specific time or resource commitment from its community members. The intention behind the role of committer is to allow people to contribute to the project more easily, not to tie them in to the project in any formal way.
It is important to recognise that commitership is a privilege, not a right. That privilege must be earned and once earned it can be removed by the PMC (see next section) in extreme circumstances. However, under normal circumstances committership exists for as long as the committer wishes to continue engaging with the project.
A committer who shows an above-average level of contribution to the project, particularly with respect to its strategic direction and long-term health, may be nominated to become a member of the PMC. This role is described below.
Project management committee
The project management committee consists of those individuals identified as ‘project owners’ on the development site. The PMC has additional responsibilities over and above those of a committer. These responsibilities ensure the smooth running of the project. PMC members are expected to review code contributions, participate in strategic planning, approve changes to the governance model and manage the copyrights within the project outputs.
Members of the PMC do not have significant authority over other members of the community, although it is the PMC that votes on new committers. It also makes decisions when community consensus cannot be reached. In addition, the PMC has access to the project’s private mailing list and its archives. This list is used for sensitive issues, such as votes for new committers and legal matters that cannot be discussed in public. It is never used for project management or planning.
Membership of the PMC is by invitation from the existing PMC members. A nomination will result in discussion and then a vote by the existing PMC members. PMC membership votes are subject to consensus approval of the current PMC members.
The PMC Chair is a single individual, voted for by the PMC members. Once someone has been appointed Chair, they remain in that role until they choose to retire, or the PMC casts a two-thirds majority vote to remove them.
The PMC Chair has no additional authority over other members of the PMC: the role is one of coordinator and facilitator. The Chair is also expected to ensure that all governance processes are adhered to, and has the casting vote when the project fails to reach consensus.
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 community member. 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 a separate document.
The developer mailing list is the most appropriate place for a contributor to ask for help when making their first contribution.
Decision making process
Decisions about the future of the project are made through discussion with all members of the community, from the newest user to the most experienced PMC member. All non-sensitive project management discussion takes place on the project contributors’ mailing list. Occasionally, sensitive discussion occurs on a private list.
In order to ensure that the project is not bogged down by endless discussion and continual voting, the project operates a policy of lazy consensus. This allows the majority of decisions to be made without resorting to a formal vote.
Decision making typically involves the following steps:
- Vote (if consensus is not reached through discussion)
Any community member can make a proposal for consideration by the community. In order to initiate a discussion about a new idea, they should send an email to the project contributors’ list or submit a patch implementing the idea to the issue tracker (or version-control system if they have commit access). This will prompt a review and, if necessary, a discussion of the idea. The goal of this review and discussion is to gain approval for the contribution. Since most people in the project community have a shared vision, there is often little need for discussion in order to reach consensus.
In general, as long as nobody explicitly opposes a proposal or patch, it is recognised as having the support of the community. This is called lazy consensus - that is, those who have not stated their opinion explicitly have implicitly agreed to the implementation of the proposal.
Lazy consensus is a very important concept within the project. It is this process that allows a large group of people to efficiently reach consensus, as someone with no objections to a proposal need not spend time stating their position, and others need not spend time reading such mails.
For lazy consensus to be effective, it is necessary to allow at least 72 hours before assuming that there are no objections to the proposal. This requirement ensures that everyone is given enough time to read, digest and respond to the proposal. This time period is chosen so as to be as inclusive as possible of all participants, regardless of their location and time commitments.
Not all decisions can be made using lazy consensus. Issues such as those affecting the strategic direction or legal standing of the project must gain explicit approval in the form of a vote. Every member of the community is encouraged to express their opinions in all discussion and all votes. However, only project committers and/or PMC members (as defined above) have binding votes for the purposes of decision making. A separate document on the voting within a meritocratic governance model describes in more detail how voting is conducted in projects following the practice established within the Apache Software Foundation.
A clear and transparent governance document is a key part of any open development project. It defines the rules of engagement within the community and describes what level of influence a community member can expect to have over a project. In addition, it enables members to decide their level of involvement with that community. In the case of a meritocracy, it also provides a clear way to contribute and a highly visible reward system.
This example governance model comes from the more democratic end of the spectrum of control found within open development projects. At the other end, the benevolent dictator governance model describes a model in which a single individual takes the task of maintaining consensus within the project, and if necessary has the final say in the decision making process.
- The Apache Software Foundation [http://www.apache.org]
- The Apache Software Foundation meritocratic model [http://www.apache.org/foundation/how-it-works.html#meritocracy]
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