Committee risk: A governance challenge for Open Source

Community participation and engagement in corporate Open Source projects is valuable, yet difficult to foster. Many companies supporting popular Open Source projects develop diverse communities across different employers, nationalities, genders, educational backgrounds, and more. Increased diversity brings perspective about who finds a product useful. It also gives you the opportunity to help your product be more useful for that audience. But if you’re building a diverse community around your enterprise project, where do you begin?

Many have started on this same path before. Several communities form a committee as a governance model for important decision-making. Usually committee membership is chosen through an election process. Paid employees, or sometimes, members of the community comprise the elected committee membership. This meritocratic approach is believed to bring in diverse representation and participation of highly-engaged people. After all, who better to represent contributors of a project than a committee of folks elected by their own peers?

Sometimes, committees do accomplish this lofty goal. My argument is that sometimes they don’t – especially if your committees are designed in a way to disable participation.

Context brief: what is a committee?

Frequently in this post, I refer to committees. But what are committees? I see a committee as a I see a committee as holding the following characteristics:

  • Fixed group of individuals charged with important decision-making privileges
  • Appointed or elected members with fixed term periods (i.e. an end date)
  • May perform their work in a public and transparent way

Challenges of a committee

If designing a community for participation and engagement, a committee can do the opposite by pushing people away. It can be difficult for non-members to participate in important decisions. When building the foundation of a community on volunteerism, expecting others to give time in huge quantities is a false expectation. An active, long-term commitment as a committee member may be a big ask. Yet even if an individual wants to contribute, their company may not support such policy. So, this person is unable to contribute fully in the committee. Therefore, the opportunity is lost to include their voice as a representative of a larger community.

Furthermore, a committee depends on the engagement of its members to be effective. Committees are limited by the amount of time individual members actively contribute. Committees lose their effectiveness when:

  1. Individual committee members practice poor time management, or are simply overloaded with too many responsibilities
  2. Inclusion of others with valuable perspectives have no pathway to being heard or represented, unless they are on the committee

Committee members participate for a fixed amount of time as regular participants. This can be good for a healthy turnover rate, but it becomes bad when the same people are running over and over again. Often described as burnout!

What is a better design for community engagement?

A fatal flaw in community management is being too hands-off or too hands-on from a corporate context. I look back at 2018 in the difference of roles in Fedora Mindshare vs. Fedora CommOps. Red Hat strives for participation beyond paid Red Hat employees, yet the volunteer-driven community struggles at times for participation of any Red Hat employee.

The Mindshare Committee is the community body that leverages power in the community. These are tasks that could have been designed by CommOps too. I think the format and spirit of CommOps encourages collaboration and invitation to contribute. On the other hand, if you are not an elected or appointed member of the Mindshare Committee, there is not much in the ways of contributing. Even if that is more a belief than a fixed rule.

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