A philosophy of project governance

Published 2020-01-17 on Drew DeVault's blog

I’ve been in the maintainer role for dozens of projects for a while now, and have moderated my fair share of conflicts. I’ve also been on the other side, many times, as a minor contributor watching or participating in conflict within other projects. Over the years, I’ve developed an approach to project governance which I believe is lightweight, effective, and inclusive.

I hold the following axioms to be true:

  1. Computer projects are organized by humans, creating a social system.
  2. Social systems are fundamentally different from computer systems.
  3. Objective rules cannot be programmed into a social system.

And the following is true of individuals within those systems:

  1. Project leadership is in a position to do anything they want.
  2. Project leadership will ultimately do whatever they want, even if they have to come up with an interpretation of the rules which justifies it.
  3. Individual contributors who have a dissonant world-view from project leadership will never be welcome under those leaders.

Any effective project governance model has to acknowledge these truths. To this end, the simplest effective project governance model is a BDFL, which scales a lot further than people might expect.

The BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life) is a term which was first used to describe Python’s governance model with Guido van Rossum at the helm. The “for life” in BDFL is, in practice, until the “dictator” resigns from their role. Transfers of power either involve stepping away and letting lesser powers decide between themselves how to best fill the vacuum, or simply directly appointing a successor (or successors). In this model, a single entity is in charge — often the person who started the project, at first — and while they may delegate their responsibilities, they ultimately have the final say in all matters.

This decision-making authority derives from the BDFL. Consequently, the project’s values are a reflection of that BDFL’s values. Conflict resolution and matters of exclusion or inclusion of specific people from the project is the direct responsibility of the BDFL. If the BDFL delegates this authority to other groups or project members, that authority derives from the BDFL and is exercised at their leisure, on their terms. In practice, for projects of a certain size, most if not all of the BDFL’s authority is delegated across many people, to the point where the line between BDFL and core contributor is pretty blurred. The relationships in the project are built on trust between individuals, not trust in the system.

As a contributor, you should evaluate the value system of the leadership and make a personal determination as to whether or not it aligns with your own. If it does, participate. If it does not, find an alternative or fork the project.1

Consider the main competing model: a Code of Conduct as the rule of law.

These attempt to boil subjective matters down into objectively enforcible rules. Not even in sovereign law do we attempt this. Programmers can easily fall into the trap of thinking that objective rules can be applied to social systems, and that they can deal with conflict by executing a script. This is quite untrue, and attempting to will leave loopholes big enough for bad actors to drive a truck through.

Additionally, governance models which provide a scripted path onto the decision making committee can often have this path exploited by bad actors, or by people for whom the politics are more important than the software. By implementing this system, the values of the project can easily shift in ways the leaders and contributors don’t expect or agree with.

The worst case can be that a contributor is ostracized due to the letter of the CoC, but not the spirit of it. Managing drama is a sensitive, subjective issue, but objective rules break hearts. Enough of this can burn out the leaders, creating a bigger power vacuum, without a plan to fill it.

In summary:

For leaders: Assume good faith until proven otherwise.

Do what you think is right. If someone is being a dickhead, tell them to stop. If they don’t stop, kick them out. Work with contributors you trust to elevate their role in the project so you can delegate responsibilities to them and have them act as good role models for the community. If you’re not good at moderating discussions or conflict resolution, find someone who is among your trusted advisors and ask them to exercise their skills.

If you need to, sketch up informal guidelines to give an approximation of your values, so that contributors know how to act and what to expect, but make it clear that they’re guidelines rather than rules. Avoid creating complex systems of governance. Especially avoid setting up systems which create paths that untrusted people can use to quickly weasel their way into positions of power. Don’t give power to people who don’t have a stake in the project.

For contributors: Assume good faith until proven otherwise.

Do what you think is right. If someone is being a dickhead, talk to the leadership about it. If you don’t trust the project leadership, the project isn’t for you, and future conflicts aren’t going to go your way. Be patient with your maintainers — remember that you have the easier job.

According to your subjective definition of dickhead.

  1. Note that being able to fork is the escape hatch which makes this model fair and applicable to free & open source projects. The lack of a similarly accessible escape hatch in, for example, the governments of soverign countries, prevents this model from generalizing well. 

Have a comment on one of my posts? Start a discussion in my public inbox by sending an email to ~sircmpwn/public-inbox@lists.sr.ht [mailing list etiquette]

Are you a free software maintainer who is struggling with stress, demanding users, overwork, or any other social problems in the course of your work? Please email me — I know how you feel, and I can lend a sympathetic ear and share some veteran advice.


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