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Drupal and Governance

October 1, 2018
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Way back in January 2005, I posted a proposal to improve the governance of the Drupal project and help make it "fully 'community-driven'". In response, one commenter wrote:

Yesterday evening on the #drupal channel there was a trial vote casting for "Leave Dries alone" and unamiously everyone voted +1 on this...

Looking back at this long ago exchange, it seems to me to say something about what were and were not considered acceptable ideas in the community, and also about socially expected behaviour when there was a perceived threat to authority.

The issue of Drupal project governance has been returned to many times in the 13+ years since, but when it comes to the parameters of debate I don't know that so much has changed.

Why? Context is important. The Drupal project is structured as a centralized hierarchy--a dictatorship. While Dries Buytaert is often referred to as the project "lead", his formal, self-appointed position as noted in the project's governance documentation is "Benevolent Dictator For Life". Those skeptical of the claim that any dictatorship is benevolent - I'm certainly one - may reasonably shorten that to "Dictator For Life".

Now yet another group is tasked with producing recommendations for improving governance in the project. I have to say, I feel for them.

Because I've been there. I served for years as an elected permanent member of the now defunct Belgum-based Drupal Association (DA), and stayed on as an advisory board member for the DA in its current, US-based incarnation. From all those hundreds (probably, thousands) of hours of work, I can point to the occasional change that seemed at the time like progress, such as the process I co-led to design a community election system. But mostly in those years I learned the hard way just how difficult it is - futile might be more accurate - to try to fix a broken system from within.

The governance group itself, along with its assignment, is a product of the very power structure it's tasked with reworking. The task force was personally approved by the dictator for life. It reports to the dictator for life. Any decision on its recommendations will be made by the dictator for life.


There's the challenge of scope. They're tasked with coming up with recommendations for the governance of the Drupal "community". But, according to their charter, that community excludes all technical and code-related decision making and groups, as well as the Drupal Association.

So the assignment is to talk about open source governance without talking about open source governance--did I get that right?

There's the challenge of existing networks of influence, themselves deeply shaped by the project's centralized structure.

I've been particularly struck by contradictions baked into the project's supposed "Values & Principles". That document presents as the shared commitments of a very large community--and yet it's written in the first person singular? "Leadership is not something that is appointed", the document claims; but, um, isn't personal appointment by the dictator for life precisely how leadership positions are created and filled? Community members are to be treated with "dignity and respect"; and that's somehow perfectly consistent with a structure in which "The values and principles are maintained by me, Dries Buytaert"?

And so on.

Per the task force charter, a governance proposal must include "Implementing of the Drupal Values & Principles"--which themselves both reflect and encode a very specific form of governance, a dictatorship.

Anyone else got that "let me off this merry-go-round" feeling?

As far as I can tell, pretty much every previous governance exercise has produced some variation on the fantasy world in which (to quote again from the "Values & Principles") the ideals of "diversity, equity, and inclusion" magically turn out to be ideally met by a few tweaks to the cosy male dictatorship we already have.

But there's also a lot pushing in quite a different direction. Part of that is definitely the influence of the Me Too movement. Now is a time of deep scrutiny of structures of male, cis-gender dominance. Community members may be taking a long, hard look at the list of supposedly "benevolent" dictators for life and asking: is this a model we as a community would consciously choose to adopt? And if we're skeptical, what form of governance would reflect our shared values?

And part of the push for change is the state of the Drupal project itself.

Take the bold and transformative steps the project needs--but do so within the strictures of the current power structure? Sure, no problem.

But critique is easy. What about alternatives?

Well, for one, we could do a lot worse than look at a parallel process in the Backdrop CMS project (a conversation I participated in). How did that governance decision making process play out? What options were considered? What governance model did they choose, and why? How well does the current Backdrop leadership realize the values of diversity and inclusion?

What can we learn there about what it takes to achieve meaningful change?