Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Leadership Crisis at the Wikimedia Foundation
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2016 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
This week, the Wikimedia Foundation, the main organization supporting Wikipedia and several other free knowledge projects, is at the peak of a leadership crisis more than a year in the making. Molly White's timeline of the crisis is a useful guide to the facts, and I feel compelled to speak publicly for the first time about the problem, and share my personal perspective, with a bit of context to help non-Wikimedians understand.
I left the Wikimedia Foundation in September 2014 after four years. I mentioned the reasons then, in that post, around learning new things and working on projects with less of a public spotlight. I'm happy with my new direction, Changeset Consulting LLC, but still have so many fond memories of working with fantastic people and making a difference.
I left WMF thinking that it was fine -- in fact, that's a reason I felt okay about deciding to leave a place I cared about so much, because I thought WMF could cope without me. As I perceived it, former Executive Director (nonprofit-speak for "CEO" basically) Sue Gardner had led the organization to a stable enough place that she felt free to move on. For years, when I was at Wikimedia Foundation, our top priority was reversing the decline in the number of active Wikipedia contributors and other Wikimedia contributors; Sue Gardner articulated this priority and ensured everyone knew what we were aiming at and why. Lila Tretikov, the new executive director, was settling in and I perceived WMF to be on the right track, iteratively moving closer to reversing the editor decline, with solid management and plans in place to keep positive momentum going. I thought the conflicts and stumbles from summer 2014 were normal temporary pains, not unusually worrying.
A few months after I left, when I caught up with old Foundation colleagues, I started hearing wariness about the new high-level management (the ED and some other newer executive hires). The worries progressed into stronger and stronger concerns, getting more and more disturbing. For instance, in November 2015, a committee that disseminates Wikimedia funds to budget other Wikimedia institutions (such as chapters) wrote a scathing critique:
...the [Funds Dissemination Committee] laments that the Wikimedia Foundation's own planning process does not meet the minimum standards of transparency and planning detail that it requires of affiliates applying for its own Annual Plan Grant (APG) process....
The FDC is appalled by the closed way that the WMF has undertaken both strategic and annual planning, and the WMF's approach to budget transparency (or lack thereof).
I nearly could not believe my eyes when I saw this. For those of you who don't follow these bureaucracies, let me assure you that the FDC does not throw around words like "appalled" lightly. (Followup on the FDC recommendations.)
Early this year, it became public knowledge that the conflicts within the Foundation had led to an employee survey with a 93% response rate. The results included:
I have confidence in senior leadership at Wikimedia: 10% agree
It is a miracle if 90% of Wikimedia Foundation personnel agree on anything beyond the fact that WMF's commitment is to "a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge." And to be clear, "confidence in senior leadership" here means that the employees trust that the C-level executives have the basic competence to run the organization. This isn't about agreeing or disagreeing on particular choices of method; when I was at WMF, the Executive Director and the Chief ____ Officers made decisions that some employees disagreed with, but they explained their reasoning, they encouraged feedback and responded to it (example), and we fundamentally knew they were aiming to collaborate with us in achieving the mission. It sounds like some big pieces of that trust are now missing.
1. In late December the Board of Trustees dismissed a well-liked community-elected trustee, Dr. James Heilman, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious...
3. Revelations about newly appointed Board trustee Arnnon Geshuri's involvement in an illegal anti-poaching scheme while at Google has drawn community outcry
4. Besides failing to vet Geshuri, the WMF's increasing tilt toward the Silicon Valley and focus on (perhaps) the wrong technology projects have come into sharper relief
So, Arnnon Geshuri. You know that scandal where it came to light that big Silicon Valley tech firms were colluding to suppress wages and reduce employee mobility with illegal "no-poaching" agreements? With evidence including super damning emails? Guess who sent some of that email, perpetuating that pact? Arnnon Geshuri. The WMF Board of Trustees appointed him as one of the trustees. He's since stepped down but the incident damaged already-shaky trust between the Board and the larger Wikimedia community.
And as of last week it's clear that the situation's gotten even more dire. Fantastic colleagues are voting with their feet and leaving (and do you know how hard it is to find and hire the right people for an org this weird and this important?). People who would rather walk with rocks in their shoes than throw their coworkers under the bus are compelled to speak in public about dysfunction at the top: Ori Livneh, Anna Stillwell, and Greg Grossmeier, for instance, and Brion Vibber, who was the first employee the Foundation ever hired. Faidon Liambotis, Principal Operations Engineer at the Foundation & a longtime Debian Developer. Gayle Karen Young, former WMF Chief Talent & Culture Officer, who has a world-class ability to fuse compassion and systems-level thinking in the management of people processes, writes publicly about "dysfunction at the top" and "the enormous toll" it's taking on the staff. Erik Möller, who served on the Board of Trustees before he served as WMF second-in-command for more than seven years and then left in April 2015, a guy who has seen a thousand Wikimedia thunderstorms come and go and could probably charge for calm-as-a-service, says that "the situation is very much out of control" and "this is a crisis". This is not just the ordinary grumblings of a transparent organization. This is dire.
Executive Director Lila Tretikov said on Monday that Wikimedia has now managed to stem the editor decline. Möller replies and asks: is that so? and reviews the current stats, which do not reflect this claim.
But overall, it seems premature of speaking of "stemming the decline", unless I'm missing something (entirely possible).
There have been a thousand thunderstorms before. The Image Filter, SOPA, the transition from Toolserver to Tool Labs, Narrowing Focus, paid editing, the first VisualEditor rollout, the India Education Program, I could keep going and the point is that we Wikimedians have big ideas and big passionate arguments and we know some things about how to get through them. The movement, thank goodness, is bigger than the Foundation. The volunteers, the chapter staff, the teachers and photographers and coders and editors and everyone in the hundreds of subcommunities in our ecology have some buffers against the ripples coming out of the Foundation. There's frustration, sometimes, in how hard it can be for one subcommunity or organization to persuade or lend a hand to another, but right now it's a good thing because there is short-term resilience in that loosely federated structure.
This has been a singularly destructive time, but we still have time to keep the leadership problem from further damaging the Wikimedia movement.
As I said back in September 2014,
One of the things I admire about Wikimedia's best institutions is our willingness to reflect and reinvent when things are not working.
I don't know what the answer is.
The choice between exit and voice is conditioned on loyalty. We know that Wikimedians have been exercising the "voice" option; the Board and the ED have heard these criticisms loud and clear. And we know they've witnessed the stream of talented employees exiting, their steel-clad loyalty finally succumbing to the pressure. If unaltered, this is the kind of dynamic that leads to schisms and forks. I would hate for the movement to have to pay that kind of cost but, unless the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees and Executive Director change course, I think that's a potential outcome.