Time to vote

This editorial of mine appeared in the Wikipedia Signpost this week. Feel free to translate/repost.

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Time to vote

Phoebe Ayers has been a Wikipedian since 2003 and is a science and engineering librarian at UC Davis; she was appointed to the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees in 2010.

It’s time again for the Board of Trustees elections for the Wikimedia Foundation. This year, 19 candidates are running for three open seats. If you are an active editor (with more than 300 edits before April 15, and 20 recent edits – a threshold determined by the independent elections committee) you are eligible to vote, and can do so from whichever wiki you edit most; directions are here. You can vote up until the end of June 12 (UTC), so do so soon.

But wait, let’s back up. Elections for what now? And why should you vote? What’s going on?

The Board of Trustees is the governing body for the Wikimedia Foundation. Here’s what that means: the Board is entrusted with the ultimate legal responsibility for and authority over the Foundation’s $20 million annual budget, and with setting the direction for the Foundation along with the Executive Director, Sue Gardner. The Foundation provides the hosting and technical infrastructure to run almost 300 Wikipedias, plus Wiktionary, Commons, Wikiquote, Wikinews, Wikibooks, Wikiversity, Wikispecies, and MediaWiki projects; the Foundation also provides press, legal, financial, and outreach support for these projects.

The Board of Trustees annual Q&A panel at last year’s Wikimania. I am standing and introducing myself to the attendees, shortly after being appointed and announced.

Does the Board intervene in Wikipedia editorial decisions? No. Do we have much to do with daily decisions on the projects? Not really. It’s much more high-level than that. If you’ve seen the fundraising banners on the projects – well, the Board doesn’t design or approve the banners. We don’t specify in what manner the banners are rolled out. We don’t even hire the fundraising staff, or say that the fundraiser should start in November. All of that comes under the authority of the Executive Director. What the Board does do is give the Executive Director the authority to raise and spend this money in the first place.

The Board is also the body ultimately responsible for taking the long view of all the projects: where are we going to be in ten, twenty, a hundred years? What’s our mission, and will it stay the same? What kind of a body do we want the Wikimedia Foundation to be, and what direction do we want the Wikimedia movement to go in?

There are ten Board members, all with two year terms. Three members are directly elected by the editing community, two are appointed by the chapters, one is the “founder” seat occupied by Jimmy Wales, and the remainder are appointed by the Board itself to ensure we have a good mix of expertise. Having half of the seats community-selected (community-elected and chapter-appointed) helps to ensure that the Board always has a community perspective and orientation.

It’s important to note, however, that Board members aren’t direct representatives. I was put on the Board last summer through the chapter-appointment process, but I don’t specifically represent the chapters in Board discussions; although I’m a long-time Wikipedian, I’ve never even belonged to a chapter myself. The point of the Board is to keep all of the interests of the Wikimedia Foundation – including our mission, our projects, and our global community – central to what we do. So the people elected to the Board should possess general qualities (some of which are laid out in the Board manual), as well as an understanding of Wikimedia and the challenges we face, and relevant skills and experience that can be brought to the table. And Board members should be dedicated: this is a demanding position that requires a serious commitment of time and energy, an occasional thick skin, and belief in Wikimedia’s mission.

That commitment isn’t necessarily visible. For one thing, the Board is international, and the position requires a fair amount of travel: three to four in-person meetings a year, held in San Francisco and in other countries with the Chapters meeting and Wikimania. Added to that is a time commitment for online meetings, reading emails (there’s a lot of reading – and writing!) and generally staying abreast of the movement. But the commitment of energy is substantial as well: the questions the Board faces aren’t easy and don’t have pre-determined outcomes, and figuring out the future of the most important online project of our time is not something that has been done before. Thankfully, it’s a collaborative position: the Board is supported by the hard work of the staff, the Executive Director, and the many Wikimedians who hash out difficult questions of projects, languages, chapters, outreach, and development. And we rely on each other, as colleagues, to approach our task with good faith and good judgment.

“Huh,” you might be thinking to yourself. “So who’s running then, exactly?”

Of the 19 people running for those three community-elected seats, three are incumbents (Ting, SJ and Kat), who were voted in two years ago. Some candidates have held or currently hold community-elected positions in chapters; a few have helped found chapters. Several of the candidates have had long-standing involvement in Wikimedia committees and governance activities, and some long-term editors are running. In other words, this year there’s a great field of devoted Wikimedians.

“Ok, that’s all fine and good,” you might say, “but I don’t know any of them. Who should I vote for? How do I decide?”

Each candidate has a statement up here, and each has answered questions (you can still ask further questions). Here’s my advice: look for traits of outstanding leadership, good judgment, and collaboration. Has the person shown evidence of being able to thoughtfully consider issues, to listen to diverse views, and to build consensus in a small (and a large) group? Have they done cool projects? Do they have outside skills or an important perspective they can bring to the board? Do they understand the job of a Board member, and the Wikimedia Foundation? And finally, do you agree with where they think Wikimedia should go, and with what issues they consider important?

Once you decide who you want on the board, you can vote by ranking candidates; make sure you rank all of the candidates you want to see elected higher than those you don’t want (1 is highest). Only around 1,500 people or so have voted so far, compared with around 3,000 to 4,000 in years past. But there’s still time to vote! You have the chance to help shape Wikimedia governance, and I encourage you to take advantage of it.

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