Question: Adoption of a Freedom of Information policy

As with any democratically legitimated body, transparency is essential to ensure that all parties can both participate in and comprehend the decision making processes. I believe that the GNOME community and Foundation share these values. But I think it would be even better if we had a strong public statement and policy that turn the Foundation into a role model for other organisations.

One example of a regulation like this is https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32001R1049 which states in the preamble:

(2) Openness enables citizens to participate more closely in the decision-making process and guarantees that the administration enjoys greater legitimacy and is more effective and more accountable to the citizen in a democratic system. Openness contributes to strengthening the principles of democracy and respect for fundamental rights as laid down in Article 6 of the EU Treaty and in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

The GNOME Foundation itself has a similar statement in its founding charter https://wiki.gnome.org/FoundationBoard/Resources/Charter :

This principle has real, concrete meaning for the foundation: All discussions must be publicly viewable, any person must have the opportunity to contribute to the decision-making process, and every GNOME contributor must have the direct ability to influence the decisions which are made. The foundation must be democratic and friendly to those responsible for making GNOME what it is.

This shows that transparency and openness are some of the core principles that the GNOME Foundation was built on from the start. But I don’t think these roots are well known and I feel that it would be great to have a renewed and strong public statement that shows GNOME’s commitment to these values.

I don’t expect it would need to be a very long document overall. But I do reckon it needs to be more than just a statement of values. By backing it up with a strong policy, that ensures the availability of and access to information, the Foundation can really show that it is taking these matters seriously.


How do you as Candidates feel about adopting such a policy inside GNOME to make a strong statement of commitment to values of transparency, openness and community participation?

Thank you for the thought-provoking question. I’m no political scientist (which I don’t think should be a requirement for the role) but I will attempt an answer. :slight_smile:

It’s not clear from your request what you think a strong policy around access to information would look like, but my initial sense is that applying and comparing government-level Freedom of Information laws to the GNOME Foundation is too high a bar to expect the staff and volunteers to clear. We are a non-profit corporation, and whilst that obligates us to act (and demonstrate that we are acting) in the public interest, that is significantly different from being a public body ourselves.

To me the most substantive difference is that broadly, the Foundation holds no intrinsic authority over its participants - people are free to decide, independently, whether they participate in the project, support the Foundation’s goals or initiatives, donate time or money, become a member or not, etc. Citizens within a state rarely have any realistic alternatives to being subject to the laws of that state, paying the taxes, relying on public bodies etc and so it’s unavoidable that you become a party to the decisions made by the government. Demanding a very high bar of transparency, down to the “document by document” level of a FOI law, seems commensurate with a citizen’s right to hold these bodies to account as they have no choice but to live with the outcomes.

Secondly, and somewhat related, I struggle with the concept that we should behave like a representative democracy, because unlike an elected legislature, the board of directors lacks “primacy”. The legal duty of the directors is set out in law at the federal and state level, and they are bound to implement the mission of the Foundation as set out in its articles of incorporation and its bylaws. Members are not voting in order to have arbitrary personal views represented, they are voting for directors to perform a specific job in that process, the true authority of which rests elsewhere (primarily the State Attorney General of California). Members exist in the bylaws as a more diverse and neutral mechanism to hold the directors to account on their specific jobs - ie those fiduciary duties, protect the Foundation’s interests and prioritise the allocation of resources in pursuit of the mission.

My concern is that by essentially placing everything “on the record” represents an administrative and cognitive burden on the staff and volunteers. During even the most mundane meetings, any part of the Foundation, including places formerly thought of as informal such as the committees, release teams, etc would have to think about what should and should not be recorded, possible adverse effects of later publication. Staff would need to be trained, legal counsel retained, and time and resources spent (which could otherwise be spent on the mission) to screen and redact materials where publication may have adverse legal, financial or personal consequences. I don’t believe the cost/benefit analysis would support burdening volunteers so, and being subjected to constant and increased scrutiny would surely discourage contributions.

That said, I fully support transparency at the right level and appreciate how that makes it easier for members and potential donors and contributors to decide if and how they wish to participate. It’s well-known and proven that non-profits which are more transparent with how they conduct their purpose, and allocate their resources, are more successful at raising money with potential donors. So, it’s “good business sense” for the Foundation to do this, and as you say, on the whole I think it does a good job:

  • Budgets and financial results are published to the members and publicly shortly after the end of each fiscal year.
  • The board of directors are readily available for public enquiry both at AGMs and on forums such as this one.
  • The minutes of every board meeting are published.
  • An annual report to members, donors and the public details the programs that the Foundation has been involved with.

Over the past two board terms where I have been a member, the board has also made steps to improve transparency:

  • Publishing the strategy and priorities of the Foundation at the AGM.
  • Approving and implementing a policy to ensure the timely and accurate publication of minutes from board meetings.
  • Moving matters of the board in to GitLab so that people can submit and inspect items which are in process and under consideration.
  • Implementing committee guidelines, including extending the requirements to have a chair who reports back to the board and hold regular minuted meetings of the committees.
  • Although not completed, starting up the process to define a clear mission statement for the Foundation, so that the board has a published framework to set and measure the strategy and its effectiveness. (And for holding the ED to account against such goals.)

Based on the above, I don’t feel at present it’s necessary to significantly deviate from the current practice and direction of travel, which is consistent with best practices as set out by other non-profits.

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Thanks for your detailed response!

I intentionally left this an open question. I do have a few ideas, but nothing very concrete. I am happy to share those after the election period is over, right now, I would like to hear about the candidates thoughts and do not want to steer them more into one direction or another.

That said, I feel that you are taking a view on the matter that does not appreciate the principle that I voiced.

The core principle that should guide this is that Foundation members should be able to understand the reasons behind decisions where this is possible. I feel you are implying a different standard where almost everything is under scrutiny. But, for example, there is no need to keep details from discussions that happened during working meetings or even through private channels. The only important thing is that a summary of the main arguments that lead to a decision is recorded at the end.

I don’t think that actually changes much in practice. All it does is acknowledge that general good practices around documentation of decisions are also beneficial for and important to members. It is already essential that such records are kept as a reference, in order for future Directors to be able to understand and reassess old decisions. While the specific purpose of informing future Boards is quite different from the idea voiced here, the required standards with regard to detail and completeness are identical.

As such, I am unable to understand or follow your arguments that seem to imply excessive scrutiny. I simply can’t see any such conflict arising from a policy like this. I do believe it is possible to write a policy, that ensure good organisational practices, without creating excessive overhead or overly aggressive publication requirements.

I don’t disagree with this principle at all; as stated I believe that transparency is the fastest way to ensure that the trust required for a healthy member, donor and contributor base is earned and retained. As a director whose position is dependent on members trusting that I am complying with the legal requirements of the role and have the best interests of the Foundation in mind when I act as a director, I am happy that we have good transparency in these areas, and continue to improve it as I’ve described. The board is already the most scrutinised part of the Foundation, as it should be.

Perhaps it’s my mistake but from your explicit reference to state-level freedom of information legislation, and statement about “strong policy around access to information”, I have inferred something much stronger than something at the “top level” of the organisation. Typically such FOI legislation is very, very far-reaching, and can “touch” any public body - or even in the US anyone who receives funding from a public body - is subject to receive requests.

With such a “anyone can ask to see anything” policy in place across the Foundation, it would necessarily include our committees who are delegates of the board, all of our staff, any volunteers involved in receiving disbursements, etc. This means that you must implement policies regarding the retention of data at every level of such organisations, everyone must be aware that “the tapes are rolling”, training around legal and other liabilities must be given to people who might be subject to such requests, and administrative support is necessary to receive them and decide what information is appropriate to be shared.

Whilst I absolutely respect and appreciate the need for the overall organisation, board and leadership to be pro-active and transparent about the high-level decisions, strategy, resources, etc, I can’t pretend that it doesn’t consumes mental and emotional energy. I don’t want us to implement a policy that imposes this burden for committees, staff, volunteers, etc that makes any kind of informal decisions. I think it would discourage participation - ie that the cost outweighs the benefit.

To @mollydb’s question at Question to the ccandidates: Vision, leadership training, and transparency, I think the right path to build this transparency in the organisation is follow best practices of the non-profit sector rather than inventing our own policies - something like GuideStar’s Seal of Transparency seems like a great initiative, for instance.

I don’t think I implied a disagreement. I felt that your answer doesn’t appreciate certain ideas. I meant this in the sense that you appeared to me to focus on different aspects of transparency.

The GuideStar’s seal for example is certainly about transparency. Its rules ensure the accountability of spending, that the organisation has defined goals and ways to self-assess its success. These metrics are extremely relevant to donors. However, they are not at all concerned with how the Foundation interacts with its community. This makes completely sense in that context as community interactions are outside of the scope of GuideStar’s seal.

I do appreciate that you are trying to give a wider context to the problem. This makes sense, and shows that you are engaging in a thoughtful way.

I was simply trying to point out my (possibly subjective) impression that you are approaching the issue with a very different perspective and focus. A focus that in my personal view may result in some aspects–that are important to me–to not be fully considered.