By Dawn Walker

About governance

👋 You: When you're just getting started, there may be only one person filling all the roles (e.g., you!). At some point, you may be working with a few people or a small group.

❓Why: When considering how any project will run, you typically need to understand the roles that project members play and how decisions are made. These aspects comprise the governance model, or framework.

🤷🏽 What: There are many potential governance models used in the open source/science/scholarship space. The consortia model has been taken up for many scholarly and academic projects that span academic and non-academic spaces. Some models of operation include:

These models for governance in open source can be placed on a spectrum based on how open they are to participatory decision making (from “dictator” to “meritocratic.”) They are also often categorized based on how open they are to external contributions and newcomers. The two ends of the spectrum for the latter categorization are the “cathedral” model, in which code under development is embargoed until each update, to the “bazaar” model in which code is developed online in public view.

Despite the utility of the “dictator,” “meritocracy,” “cathedral,” and “bazaar” classifications, they aren't always defined consistently and can fail to address embedded assumptions around how power structures operate. Alternative models emphasize small “d” democratic structures through cooperatives, consensus-based collectives, and consortia.

Questions common to many projects

1. When do you need a governance model? When do you grow beyond managing the project by yourself? How and when do you grow?

Answer: It depends! But it doesn’t hurt to think about it early. While you are still small it may seem too soon to know the answers. There are benefits to seeing how your community develops before writing an inflexible plan. (See “Do I need governance docs when I launch my project?”) If you chose to implement a governance model early, include a review process and plan to iterate as you find what works for your community.

Even if your project is running just fine being governed by a group of people who all know each other, as it matures you'll likely need to bring on new people. Transparent governance is key to enable new people to join and stay involved, and in order for your project to reach new communities. Show new people how they can participate, how their contributions will be included, and how they might start on a path to leadership within the project.

2. How do people handle making decisions collaboratively?

Answer: Open communication within teams can be supported through a variety of frameworks and facilitation methods, as well as tools and platforms. Groups and projects have documented their open company operations as well as more specific decision-making frameworks.

3. What are the types of documents that describe governing structures within a project?

Answer: Mission, vision, and values documentation; code of conduct; contributor guidelines; and community standards.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What is the current form of governance for your project?
  • How was this governance model developed?
  • What's working? What's not working? Answer honestly!
  • Are there anticipated upcoming changes that might impact the effectiveness of your governance model?
  • What are the various roles that your project/community includes? Where are there gaps?
  • Who are the current decision-makers in your project? What are the blind spots of the decision-makers? Could decision-making be expanded to include more folks?
  • Is the power and decision-making hierarchy of your project explicit or implicit? How would a new person find this information?
  • Who currently sets the direction of the project but does not have an official role?
  • Is there a person who does a lot of work in an area but does not have an official role, such as someone who does a lot of community engagement and management?
  • How have frameworks and models helped you stay organized in the past? What was challenging about adopting a framework or model?