Over the last few months, the topic of community governance has come up multiple times in our community of practice Slack workspace. So, we decided to dedicate our November community call to discussing the pros and cons of various governance models. In this blog post, we share a brief recap of the call, along with some additional resources to help you go deeper on this topic on your own or with your team.
The discussion during the last 30 minutes of the call felt like the beginning of what could be a much larger conversation, and so if you are interested in a follow-up call or other means of keeping the conversation going, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why does community governance matter?
We started the call by considering some definitions of governance and how it’s more nuanced than simply a set of rules that might be outlined on a website. Instead, it reflects norms, behaviors and the ongoing negotiation of how decisions get made in a group setting – where the emphasis is on ongoing relationships around power dynamics rather than a single, rigid structure. Building a community around a common purpose or goal will inevitably require, or result in, some sort of governance. Whether imposed on the community intentionally by leadership or built from the ground up by enthusiastic volunteers, the need for decision-making processes will ultimately result in an overall governance structure, or combination of structures.
Different models of governance, however, can seem antithetical to community building and function. For example, when a founder member or group of super-users assume power over a group, it might subsume an initial intention to be consensus-driven. In practice, how a community is governed is a balancing act between equity for members and accountability for leadership.
Whether your community arrived at a mode of governance through trial and error, employs multiple modes depending on the setting, or is intentionally transitioning from one model to another, there are myriad things to consider. Walking through the pros, cons, whys, and why nots is a valuable exercise, and one that’s likely to have different outcomes as your community grows and evolves.
Exploring discrete models: Community Rules
For our November call, and in collaboration with Alycia Crall, Director of Community at The Carpentries, we turned to a resource that came out earlier this year called “Community Rules: Simple Templates for Great Communities” by Cassandra Dana, Drew Hornbein, Vincent Russell, and Nathan Schneider. This free eBook consolidates a large swath of history and research on governance models, presenting and describing eight discrete types.
We selected five of these to dive into in more detail:
- Benevolent dictator – one person, often a founder, has ultimate decision-making power but is guided by, and sympathetic to, the feelings of community members.
- Do-ocracy – those who take on more responsibility and get things done end up making the decisions for the group as a whole.
- Jury – randomly selected people are appointed to make decisions on behalf of the group.
- Consensus – everyone in the group has a say in decision making, and progress is not made until all are in agreement.
- Elected board – members of the community can stand for election, with members voting for who ultimately sits on the board.
We chose these models because they are common models within the STEM ecosystem, with the exception perhaps of “jury.” Jury, however, is a particularly interesting model when looking at governance through the lens of equity and inclusion. And consensus also appealed to us because of its idealistic yet complicated and time-consuming nature.
After some time in breakouts to talk though the different models in small groups, we reconvened and covered a lot of ground. We considered how communities can move from benevolent dictator to more distributed governance, if at all (see the case of the BDFL: benevolent dictator for life), and what that looks like in the case of founder-leaders. We also considered the complications that arise when sub-communities within a larger community adopt their own governance models – and how the perceived efficiency of other models can lead people away from consensus-building, which takes more time but also increases member buy-in and leads to easier/earlier adoption of new policies or procedures.
To facilitate the discussion, we created a worksheet based on the five Community Rules we focused on. For the call, the worksheet existed as a collaborative Google doc, but we have also created a downloadable PDF for anyone to take and reuse under a CC BY-SA license. You can download a copy here.
Alycia and Katie also put together a spreadsheet of resources containing a variety of papers, articles, blog posts, and example governance documents that were shared in the CSCCE community of practice. You can access the spreadsheet here, and you are welcome to add additional resources if you would like.
A big thank you to Alycia Crall for the time she spent working with Katie and Lou ahead of the call and for her presentation on Wednesday. We’d also like to thank everyone who participated in the spirit of us all learning together.