So You Want to be an OSMF Board Member

(I am currently a member of the OSMF board but this is my personal opinion. I have circulated it by my peers on the board to hear if they had objections to me publishing it and they had none, but of course that doesn’t mean they share my ideas.)

Another OSMF general meeting will be coming up in a couple of months, and there will be a few seats on the board of directors looking for people to occupy them. Are you thinking of standing for election? That’s great to hear! New people can bring new ideas, different viewpoints, and above all, fresh energy to the cause.

In order to give you a better picture of what kind of job awaits you once elected, and to avoid some relatively common misunderstandings, let me share a few things about the work on the OSMF board.

1. We are the OSMF board – we are not OSM

The OSMF “supports but does not control” the OSM project. If you want to change something in OSM, then it is rather unlikely that the OSMF board is the right place to start effecting that change.

We’ve occasionally had people stand for the OSMF board with grand ideas about how everything in OSM should change, and when I read such statements I always thought: That’s all nice and well but why do they need to be on the board for that? Even if the board wanted to introduce sweeping changes in OSM, neither they nor the OSMF would have the means or the mandate for that.

If you want to campaign for change, being a board member can actually make you less effective because you don’t want to offend your peers on the board and you’re likely to be weighed down with lots of other work.

2. We are the OSMF board – we are not the OSMF

The things that the OSMF does feel responsible for are often handled by working groups. Sometimes people believe that the OSMF is run like a business – the board commands, and the working groups follow. But this is not the case.

While the board does have some emergency powers that could be used to stop a working group that was up to something silly, this doesn’t work in a positive fashion. Board cannot decide to have Communications Working Group start an outreach campaign or produce a monthly newsletter; board can at best suggest that to the CWG and then hope for the best. If you want the OSMF to produce a monthly newsletter, the most powerful thing you can do is join CWG and start working on it – don’t join the board. If you want the OSMF to campaign for members in hitherto underrepresented regions – don’t join the board, join the membership working group. If you want to re-shape the State of the Map conference, the board is the wrong place but the SotM group is desperately looking for people. If you think that all our servers should move to some cloud platform, this is never something that the board would force on the operations team – join OWG instead and prove your salt there. If you want to strenghten OSM in your country, start a local chapter…

I’ve said something along these lines many times, and people have often misread that as an attempt to turn them away. “Fred thinks I’m not good enough for board, he wants me to settle for a lesser job in a WG.” – But I assure you, that’s not the case; the working groups are where the important decisions are made and executed. If you believe that by being on the board you get the last word on anything the working groups do without actually having to, well, do the “working” part, then you’re not only sorely mistaken, you’re also not a good fit for the OSMF board because…

3. We do actual work

Some people suffer from the misconception that “board” is something where a few important people meet from time to time to smoke cigars and make important visionary decisions for the future. I’m sure such boards do exist but if you want to be a visionary, I suggest you find another place to apply that to. Sure, you can have visionary ideas on the OSMF board – but having ideas is cheap. It’s the execution that counts, and the execution will not be helpfully taken out of your hands by hundreds of paid workers whom you direct (being a director and all).

Instead, you will personally be writing documents, getting buy-in from other board and community members, liaising with working groups, seeking funding, or whatever it is that your idea requires. Plus, there’s only limited room for visionary ideas when you “support but not control” the OSM project; getting the project and the community to adopt something that you have come up with will always be a long and labour-intensive process that isn’t necessarily any easier if you’re on the board.

If you want to get an idea of the kind of things the board works on, read up on some of our past meeting minutes here: https://wiki.osmfoundation.org/wiki/Board_Meeting_Minutes

Most of what I’ve written above is reflected on https://wiki.osmfoundation.org/wiki/Mission_Statement, however I find myself not fully agreeing with the second-to-last bullet point there (“OSMF board does not do day-to-day OSMF work”); there’s quite a bit of that, too, especially if you hold one of the three special roles of chair (often asked for soundbites, conference keynotes etc), secretary (does part of the recurring administrative work), or treasurer (pays invoices and works with accountant).

4. We’re not a parliament

Sometimes people say: “I want to go on the OSMF board and represent the interests of…” their country or peer group or special interest group. But the OSMF board is not a parliament where different interests are represented; the moment you become a board member, your duty is to the OSM Foundation, not to some group or special interest that you want to represent.

Of course people with different interests, outlooks, and ideas will (and should) be on the board, but when acting as board members, they all have to act in the best interests of the organisation. That is actually a legal requirement; if you, as a director, knowingly do something that is bad for the organisation as a whole (but good for the particular interest you have), then you are acting against the law.

5. We speak English (and we are English)

Everyone talks about diversity, and we would certainly like to see a wide array of people on the OSMF board – old and young, male and female, from different regions. But there are practical limits to diversity; one of them is that we hold regular voice meetings in English. This might change at some point in the future, but currently, you do need to be technically and cognitively able to participate in such meetings in order to be an effective board member. This means that being severely hearing or speech impaired, not having a reliable Internet connection, or not being able to follow and participate in spoken English discussions will reduce your chances for equal participation.

The “we are English” bit is a bit tongue-in-cheek; none of our current directors is actually English. But the OSMF is a company under English law and that means that the UK government also has some ideas about who can and who cannot be a director. Being a foreign national is not an issue, however personal bankruptcy or being convicted for certain offences, even outside the UK, could be a problem. Read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Company_Directors_Disqualification_Act_1986 or consult a lawyer if you think it might be relevant. There’s also the legal requirement that you must be a member of the OSMF in order to stand for election to the board.

Still interested?

I have one last thing of which I know it’s a bit controversial. In my opinion, if you want to be on the OSMF board, you must have experience mapping stuff in OSM. You don’t need to be a power mapper, a JOSM guru, or a developer. But if your attitude towards mapping is “I don’t think that’s a good use of my time”, then that is like an atheist applying to be a director of a religious foundation. They might have excellent qualifications for the job, but they’re still not a good fit, and you wonder why they would do that to themselves.

All that notwithstanding, being on the OSMF board of directors can be interesting, even exciting at times. There may not be money or fame in it, but the OSMF is a young organisation and we’re all still trying out how things work best. In the near future we’ll see how we can engage with corporate members through the newly created Advisory Board. We’ll have more local chapters and we’ll work out how to relate to them. We’ll face the challenge of converting ever-rising business interests in OSM into something that actually benefits the project rather than just hitching a ride. And much more.

If my post hasn’t deterred you, please come and throw your hat in the ring when we publish the call for candidates in the run-up to our next AGM. Or why wait – our board meetings are open to visitors so you can fire up your “mumble” client and join the next meeting right away!

The next OSMF board meeting is scheduled for 21st September 2017, 21:00 London time.