The Balance of Power in Gentoo
The recent concerns with the request to re-populate QA have re-opened a debate that is a few years old now. I’ve already made some specific recommendations on the lists, but I wanted to step back and explain why I feel the way I do.
Gentoo’s system of governance has some internal ironies – ones which occasionally even lead to calls to establish a benevolent dictator position. I think the mistake that Gentoo makes is that the problem is perceived as being democracy, when in reality the problem is with competing governance bodies with differing constituencies…
The greatest irony is that the same organization that contemplates appointing a supreme dictator often recoils from centralizing power in committees.
Please note that nothing I write here is really directed at any particular project/org/etc within Gentoo, or at any individuals who have served in governing roles in the past/present. My intent is to focus entirely on the system of governance that Gentoo uses, and to explain how the kinds of conflicts we deal with are basically designed into the organizational structure.
Degrees of Centralism in Governance
Before talking about Gentoo I want to contrast a few forms of democratic governance and the role of centralism in avoiding or fostering stalemate. Democratic governments vary greatly in the number of centers of power with different constituencies.
The most extreme centralization of power lies in states that use a unicameral unitary parliamentary system, such as Norway (and most corporations/organizations). In such a state the people vote for parties to form a parliament, and that parliament in turn exercises nearly complete control over all aspects of the government. They appoint ministers, and any governance bodies in the state derive their power from the parliament. Such organizations tend to have little internal division, as the legislature has the power to overcome almost any stalemate (the courts are usually an exception which I’ll set aside for now). Some definitions:
- Unicameral – power is invested in a single legislative body.
- Unitary – a single layer of government exists.
- Parliamentary – the executive power is appointed by the legislature.
An example of a very decentralized system of government is in a bicameral federal presidential system, such as in the United States. In such a state there are many somewhat independent governance bodies which have differing scopes of power and constituencies. No single legislative body has the power to create laws, the executive power is independent, and even acting together these do not have absolute sovereignty over all aspects of the operation of the state. For example, in the current US government different parties hold sway over each of the legislative bodies and the executive branch, and a recent court case upheld the power of states to choose to not enact some elements of the Affordable Care Act. Individual US voters have differing levels of power in electing officials to each governing body based on geography and state population. Such organizations tend to have quite a bit of internal division. Some definitions:
- Bicameral – power is invested in two legislative bodies which usually have to collaborate to pass a law.
- Federal – multiple layers of semi-independent government exist.
- Presidential – the executive power is directly elected.
Governance Bodies in Gentoo
Now let’s examine the governance bodies that exist within Gentoo.
There are 5 special projects and a large number of general projects. Here are the scope and constituencies of each of the special projects:
- The Council is tasked with decisions that affect the technical design/operation of the distribution. It is elected by all developers annually. It is the court of appeals for QA and Comrel.
- The Trustees are tasked with the legal operation of the Gentoo Foundation, which owns the IP of Gentoo and manages the money. It is elected by all foundation members biannually.
- QA is tasked with the quality of the distribution and has enforcement powers. Its lead is elected annually by its members, and members are appointed by the lead.
- Comrel is tasked with dispute resolution and discipline and has enforcement powers. Its lead is elected annually by its members, and members are appointed by the lead.
- Infra is tasked with keeping the lights on, both for Gentoo-owned hardware and coordinating/managing resources donated to our use. Its lead is elected annually by its members, and members are appointed by the lead.
Then there are a multitude of normal projects. Anybody can join a normal project, and they all elect their leads annually. In addition to anybody being able to join a normal project, anybody else can also start a competing normal project.
I’ll set aside the normal projects, because for the most part I don’t think they are the cause of many governance issues. Their power is very limited, and they are very open for any developer to join. Instead I’ll focus on the special projects.
If you look at the 5 special projects, every single one of them has a different constituency. Three have a constituency consisting solely of their own members, and the two elected bodies have largely overlapping but not identical constituencies. Since they have different constituencies, it is entirely possible for them to be in long-term conflict. Since no one body has power over the others, there is also the potential for stalemate.
Where We Should Be, and How to Get There
I would advocate that Gentoo would be better served if it had fewer independent governance bodies, and if there were clear hierarchy between them. Less independence means that there is less potential for conflict, and hierarchy means that when there is conflict there is less potential for stalemate.
That said, I still think it makes sense to preserve these organizations – they really do have different roles in sustaining Gentoo and different skill-sets are needed to make them work. I also don’t think that we need to change everything in the span of a day.
Here is my outline of how I think Gentoo should operate, eventually:
- The Trustees are the legal board of directors for the distribution. The Foundation owns everything about Gentoo that can be legally owned. Legally the Foundation IS Gentoo. In practice I would not suggest changing the scope of their operations, but legally they would have the power to resolve any matter as long as they are consistent with the Charter/Bylaws.
- The Council is tasked with leading the technical operation of the distribution. It would be legally subordinate to the Trustees in the event that the Foundation believes that the Council is causing Gentoo to violate the law or its Charter, but it would be otherwise self-governing and elected by the developers. The Council would be the court of appeal for any enforcement action, and would additionally have the power to step in and resolve disputes among projects. All projects are sub-ordinate to either the Council, or directly to the Trustees.
- QA, Devrel, and Infra would continue to appoint their own members and elect a lead, and would maintain the same scope/powers. However, the leads of each would need to be confirmed by the Council, and could be replaced by a decision of the Council. The leads would also be required to report status periodically to the Council.
- Individual projects are all subservient to the Council/Trustees in principle, but would be largely hands-off as long as they allow for open membership, do not interfere with each other, and elect their leads annually.
I could see debate over whether Devrel or Infra should report to the Trustees directly vs to the Council. I really don’t have a strong opinion there and you could make a good case for either.
In the short term I see QA as the best place to start as it is an organization that is going to be reconstituted in any case, and the new membership could help set a model for the other special projects to follow. Infra is functioning very well currently and would probably be the last thing I’d advocate touching, with the goal of minimal disruption. Devrel falls somewhere in-between, but in my proposal all special projects still select their leads and it is the role of the Council to accept them – the Council stepping in and interfering with the constitution of a special project should be used only to resolve serious disputes.
So, that was long-winded as usual. I’d be very interested in reactions/thoughts. I’d also be interested in examples of how models like the one I propose have been successful or have failed.