Ubuntu Community Health

Recently Jono Bacon, Senior Director of Community at the XPRIZE Foundation, talked about an Ubuntu Governance reboot. In his blog post he questioned the “purpose and effectiveness” of the governance structure; specifically the Community Council and Technical Board.

Ubuntu governance has, as a general rule, been fairly reactive. In other words, items are added to a governance meeting by members of the community and the boards sit, review the topic, discuss it, and in some cases vote. In this regard I consider this method of governance not really leadership, but instead idea, policy, and conflict arbitration.

Let us look at the word governance:

1. government; exercise of authority; control.
2. a method or system of government or management.

What Jono described fits the definition. The Ubuntu Governance structure are exercising authority, control and trying to manage a community. Jono notices that ‘leadership’ is missing, but by definition that is not part of governance.

What saddens me is that when I see some of these meetings, much of the discussion seems to focus on paperwork and administrivia, and many of the same topics pop up over and over again. With no offense meant at the members of these boards, these meetings are neither inspirational and rarely challenge the status quo of the community. In fact, from my experience, challenging the status quo with some of these boards has invariably been met with reluctance to explore, experiment, and try new ideas, and to instead continue to enforce and protect existing procedures. Sadly, the result of this is more bureaucracy than I feel comfortable with.

I can understand what Jono is saying in this quote as I have experienced putting forth ideas that I thought were great ideas that would provide transformational change leading to a better community. Oddly, Jono was one of the people who resisted the idea and showed a reluctance to ‘explore, experiment and try new ideas’. My purpose here is not to challenge Jono’s observations, but to point out that with the presentation of any ‘great idea’ there are two perspectives. If you believe the idea is a poor one and will not help the community you are not being reluctant, but prudent. As a person who has both challenged the Ubuntu Governance structure and been a member of two councils I can tell you that my perspective changed once I was sitting on a council. The vast majority of ‘disputes’ I was part of resolving involved two parties that had not come to a fundamental agreement that there was a problem to be fixed. Every potential change was painfully examined to ensure that the change had a high chance of improving the community and low chance to causing damage. Often there are multiple effect paths that were explored that were not envisioned by anyone when the change was first proposed. As a member of the Community Council I am much more cautious, because I know the decisions that I help to make can have unintended consequences. I feel it is my duty to consider things carefully and not ‘leap to conclusions’. I appreciate the impact of cultural differences such as: the fact that many people from Europe do not truly appreciate how large Texas is or how spread out Alaska is. On the flip side, not many Americans understand some of the regional issues in Europe. They are unaware of the independence votes in Catalonia or Scotland. These differences, and others, make it challenging for the people who sit on Ubuntu Governance boards. Suggested changes that solve a problem for one problem may create more problems.

I believe we need to transform and empower these governance boards to be inspirational vessels that our wider community look to for guidance and leadership, not for paper-shuffling and administrivia.

I agree with Jono that there is a need for leadership and inspiration. I felt a malaise slip over a large portion of the existing Ubuntu community when Canonical’s focus adverted to the Ubuntu phone. I think a significant portion of the community feels at odds with Canonical’s direction as evidenced by some of the recent tension with Kubuntu, and discussions about copyright and trademark.

I think part of the issue is that the Community has primarily looked to Canonical employees (Jono and Mark) for inspiration and leadership. Another issue is that the current Ubuntu Governance depends on Canonical to provide answers to a great many questions. For example Mark promised that Canonical was going to publish clarifications on trademark, copyright and patent agreements. In June the Community Council was asked for an update and sent a quick message to Canonical asking for an update. They received confirmation that Canonical was currently working on an update. Each month the Community Council reached out to the same contact and the only information we have is that they are working on it and do not have an estimate as to completion. It is difficult to provide leadership or inspire when there is no ability to get better information than ‘trust us we are working on it’. This particular issue has great importance to the community and while I understand that the current Community Council does not have the legal background to craft an official statement I do think that it is reasonable that we should be able to see the work in progress and be involved in crafting the clarifications.

We need to change that charter though, staff appropriately, and build an inspirational network of leaders that sets everyone in this great community up for success.

This statement raises a few questions for me:

  • Do the community council and technical board require change or should their be a different structure for leadership and inspiration?
  • Is the current environment, produced by the relationship between Canonical and the community, conducive to fostering inspirational leaders?
  • Are there issues with the way Ubuntu events are taking place that inhibit or discourage the community?
  • Does the press cover the community or just Canonical?

Change in Structure:
Governance is not leadership. I do not think the need for governance and arbitration will go away so I think one should consider if one group should both lead, inspire and judge. As an example think of government structures where there is separation of powers (executive, judiciary, legislative). I do not have an answer, but I think it should be considered and discussed.

Inspirational Leadership:
Do Ubuntu community members have the ability to make inspirational statements that exert leadership? When Mark announces something ‘big and exciting’ it has often been planned and worked on over an extended period of time. The current community leadership is often finding out about these announcement at the same time the rest of the community is. The community is also focused on items that are less glamorous, but no less important like documentation and end user support. (Let us not get hung up on the use of the word user; OK Randall?)

Ubuntu Events:
UDS used to take a great deal of planning and effort when it was both physical and virtual. Now that it is virtual it seems to be less organized and people have less time to plan for the event. Most members of the community would benefit from having more time to plan for involvement with vUDS. Events like the Ubuntu Global Jam need to be designed to be more beneficial and more accessible to local teams. LoCo teams that are comprised of people with school work, jobs and families need time to secure a venue, advertise the event and ensure they have the necessary support to hold a quality event.

Examples of Press Coverage:

Headline: Canonical Drops Ubuntu 14.10 Dedicated Images for Apple Hardware
Body: The Ubuntu devs marked this interesting evolution in the official announcement for Ubuntu 14.10, but it went largely unnoticed.

Was the community involved in this decision? Was there technical leadership from the community involved? I do not know the answer to that question, but this does illustrate how press coverage can impact how people perceive things.

Moving Forward:
The first step is to agree there is an issue and then once there is an agreement on that work towards a solution. You can not jump to a solution without agreeing on the issue first. If you would like to help lead change in the Ubuntu Community please add your thoughts to the ongoing discussion in the Ubuntu Community Team email list. Let us all focus on positive outcomes and actions over words without action.

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6 Responses to Ubuntu Community Health

  1. Pingback: Charles Profitt: Ubuntu Community Health - Bartle Doo Articles

  2. I want to thank you for sharing your thoughts first off because I think its healthy for members and governance to speak how they feel.

    I want to comment on a few things you said..

    “I think a significant portion of the community feels at odds with Canonical’s direction as evidenced by some of the recent tension with Kubuntu, and discussions about copyright and trademark.”

    I agree but I also think a significant portion of the community already felt at odds by the continued isolation of information and decision-making. I remember at one UDS I attended community members were in the roundtable and were very upset that Canonical was not being forthcoming about the Ubuntu TV and Phone project and at that point Jono promised Canonical would do better and communicate better. They never did really.

    I remember some months later there was continued sentiment that there was disconnect between the community and the Canonical Community Team and myself, Lyz and some others jumped on a call with Jono and others and there were some promises made about being better about communicating again and promise of weekly meetings etc. Guess what? Never followed through.

    Honestly it was about that time that I started to withdraw in my participation level because I felt like I was contributing but Canonical was not giving me or other contributors the same level of respect other companies that support Open Source projects do.

    “The current community leadership is often finding out about these announcement at the same time the rest of the community is. The community is also focused on items that are less glamorous, but no less important like documentation and end user support. (Let us not get hung up on the use of the word user; OK Randall?)”

    That really drives to exactly what I said above so glad I’m not the only one who feels like the community is left out of the loop and not being treated like a stakeholder and partner. Also the hang up on words that Randall has been on IMHO has been very frustrating because I do not think it brings a lot of value and it seems like he is out of touch with the history of our community. LoCo is not a bad word it is a abbreviation for “Local Community” and nobody in any spanish speaking company in the years I have been part of the project has ever complained about it.

    I think this really speaks to how Canonical has embraced certain people or hired people who are toeing the line in terms of having the same thinking that is at odds with the community but in sync with Canonical. I mean the fact that Randall got hired as a Community Manager after a year ago insulting the Ubuntu Community suggesting the community needed to basically blast off and leave behind anyone who disagreed with Canonical speaks volumes.

    “The first step is to agree there is an issue and then once there is an agreement on that work towards a solution. You can not jump to a solution without agreeing on the issue first.”

    I think we all agree there is a problem or problems and have been for sometime but we have never been able to fix them because commitments are made and ignored. I think we all need to be onboard on a solution if we want to empower the community and improve the health.

    I am happy that you and other members of the governance have spoken out… Your advocacy for the community is amazing.

    • Oh and I wanted to add that while I have felt at odds with Canonical and some community members who I feel are fanboys I have always supported the greater community and am saddened to see people leave our community because of our sometimes issues around health.

  3. Pingback: Charles Profitt: Ubuntu Community Health | Hi-tech news

  4. Pingback: DD Quits systemd, Fedora Ponders Firefox, and Rolling Releases | PHP World

  5. mattdm says:

    You might find the discussions we had recently in Fedora to be interesting; we wrestled with many of the same concerns, including the distinction between governance and leadership, and considered a two-body system (see https://fedorahosted.org/board/ticket/9, and posts linked from there). In the end, we decided that having two separate bodies here introduced more extra overhead than we want; you can see the final approved structure at https://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Council. (Note that we have a separate Engineering Steering Committee and an Ambassadors Steering Committee (which may expand to “outreach” in general)).

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