Transparency and Confidentiality

I’ve been elected to the OSMF board, and within the board been appointed to the position of “secretary”. My first board meeting (telephone conference) and a couple email exchanges on the board mailing list have come and gone and my impression that many things need changing has hardened.

The first thing I noticed is that there’s no established culture or mode of email discussion and decision making. I had, perhaps naively, assumed that board members would of course discuss all the important issues facing OSM(F) on the board mailing list and hammer out board positions together, with one guy suggesting A, the other preferring B, a third suggesting a compromise, and so on. I had expected email, and the board mailing list, to be an important tool of board decision making but it doesn’t seem to be – those who occasionally read my mailing list contributions will perhaps not be surprised that I have already been asked to use up less bandwidth on the board mailing list. The best we’ve managed so far is to agree that we shouldn’t rush something and rather discuss at the next board meeting. As soon as anything sounds remotely contended, the knee-jerk reaction is “let’s discuss that at the face-to-face meeting” (which will take place early November in Berlin). It’s going to be my first meeting of that kind so I’ll give the old-time board members the benefit of doubt; maybe those meetings are really the magic pill that makes any future discussion unnecessary because we’re all on the same page. We’ll see.

One issue that has popped up and that I can’t quite get my head around yet is confidentiality. It seems that not everyone on the board is sure whether they can trust the full board with sensitive information because technically none of us has signed any agreement saying they’ll not publish the lot. This has even led to the strange situation that I, the organisation’s secretary, have not been given access to the list of members when I requested it.

If you read back on the election manifestos of the current board members, transparency or accountability has featured in most of them. I feel very strongly that the board must have a close and trusted relationship with the OSMF members, and the OSM project community as a whole. Such a relationship cannot flourish if information only flows on a “need to know” basis; a terse list of meeting minutes once a month is certainly not enough to know what the board is up to, or to judge if those board members that you have elected are actually living up to your expectations. So we need to find ways to let the community follow our work as OSMF board.

I think there are many good reasons for making all board work public – mailing list, internal documents, transcripts of all meetings. In my opinion, many of the less fortunate board decisions in the past could have been avoided if those who drove them had known that the project would be pointing the finger at them for what they said later. I tend to be especially sceptical of any kind of secret negotiations between OSMF and external entities; I think that the first thing you have to understand about OSM is that it is a mass movement and you cannot negotiate in secret with a mass movement. It should be OSMF’s role to educate people about this, and not take part in some press circus where information is carefully shaped for greater effect.

On the other hand, I’ve read through a number of statutes, articles, and rules that govern various organisations I consider similar to ours, and most of them actually swear their boards to secrecy. Even in organisations like Wikimedia that support open projects, all “board stuff” is confidential by default. And I can see confidentiality being required in a delicate case, for example where privacy is involved. Or during initial contact with a business who might come to us asking not to be identified. (I think any detailed negotiations with unnamed third parties must be avoided but as long as we just spend a couple minutes writing an email back, maybe that doesn’t mean we need to publish who they were.)

Secrecy and confidentiality do have their place in OSMF board work, but they must always be weighed against the cause of transparency. Anything we keep secret from our members and from the OSM project increases the distance between us, and therefore we must only keep things secret if there’s a very important reason to. Confidentiality must never be used to cover up a blunder or to keep our membership from asking uncomfortable questions – it must be the exception, not the rule.

Some people would probably favour blanket board confidentiality rules that would make even this blog post impossible, in which I have said a few things about board work. Others would like all board work to be public. In my election manifesto I said that board would do well to give themselves some rules, and I am in the process of drafting just such a document, one that would also try to strike the necessary balance between transparency and confidentiality. I hope it’ll be ready in time for discussion at the Berlin meeting.

There's 3 Comments So Far

  • Ed Loach
    October 5th, 2012 at 10:59

    The discussion sounded familiar.


    I believe that according to the UK company act the register of members should be available for members to inspect at the registered office address, which being in Birmingham, UK (according to http://www.osmfoundation.org/wiki/Incorporation ) might not be very handy for you. This of course has to be also considered with reference the Data Protection Act which would probably not allow the list of members to be distributed, at least without each members prior consent. The general guideline is that people can see the minimum information needed to do their job, I think. In CAMRA we can only contact branch members who have consented to do so, and only the branch membership secretary has access to the list of members and whether they have consented or not (and every contact needs the option for them to opt out of future contacts). I have to assume that Board Secretary isn’t the same as Membership Secretary (perhaps a job handled by the Treasurer?), or you’d need the list of members to chase renewals.

  • Arnulf
    October 5th, 2012 at 11:21

    thanks for this post and welcome to a more open form of communication. As an ex board member of the OSGeo Foundation I can relate to what you say and want to assure you and the whole OSMF board that transparency is possible. It should also and very naturally be a primary objective for an open minded organization. At OSGeo we and especially Frank Warmerdam (who is also our current president) have always insisted to communicate openly. Obviously there are privacy related issues which must be treated privately. But experience shows that most topics which were started on our secret mailing distributor (not even a list and without archive, so really private) eventually ended up on an open list. I wish you all the sensibility and diplomacy needed to anchor this understanding in the roots of OSMF.

    Cheers, Arnulf

  • Steve Doerr
    October 5th, 2012 at 15:28

    The list of members must normally be available to anyone: