Quo vadis with the Document Foundation?

Posted by Bjoern Michaelsen on 28 July 2023

Quo vadis with the Document Foundation?

"Where do you want to go today?"

Microsoft Commercial 1998

At the Document Foundation -- the entity behind LibreOffice -- the board is currently considering introducing a staff policy, and is asking for ideas, comments and feedback.

tl;dr: Starting from the foundations statutes and organizational setup, I will be pointing out some easy to make common mistakes (some literally lost in translation) in finding the foundations core values. I believe only with that, a constructive discussion of how trustees, board and staff of the foundation can improve their interactions and alignment. I also made a concrete proposal on board-discuss to start a discussion on possible concrete measures there -- this post provides the more abstract background going along with that.

There seems to be quite some confusion about how the different bodies of the foundation should interact with each other. The different bodies being:

  • the staff of the foundation
  • the board of directors
  • the membership committee
  • the trustees of the foundation

To summarize as short as I can: The trustees are those who contributed to the projects of the foundation and thus gain active voting rights. The membership committee has been elected by the trustees to be the judges on those contributions: they decides who is and will continue to be a trustee. The board of directors is elected by the trustees too. This grants them special privileges and duties: The most important privilege is to control the foundation resources, consisting mainly of two groups: funds created from donations and salaries to pay staff. While staff or directors not being trustees is possible, for the most part they are likely privileged trustees: Unlike other trustees staff are paid for their contributions and directors can allocate the foundations resources.

Now, one might think both the board and the staff are purely bound by the statutes of the foundation and their conscience. However, for directors this is clearly not the only limit on their decisions, at least if they want to be reelected by the trustees again. For the staff, there are also limits: The directors -- who have the duty to control the resources of the foundation need to be convinced that spending donations on staff salaries is the best use for the goals of the foundation as set in the statutes and understood by the trustees.

Now, the foundation is older than a decade by now and its goal are both quite broad and ... partially outdated. This makes "statutes and conscience" alone not a good guideline to achieve focused progress. What to focus on?

As a starting point, lets have a look at the preamble of the foundations statutes, which starts with this paragraph:

The objective of the foundation is the promotion and development of office software available for use by anyone free of charge. The foundation promotes a sustainable, independent and meritocratic community for the international development of free and open source software based on open standards.

This is one of the shortest possible descriptions of the foundations goal. And even with this it requires some explanation and amendments:

  • The translation to promotion is a bit misleading. It is still the most likely word to use in this context for the "Foerderung" in the German original, but it loses a lot of additional meanings that are still there in the German context. Namely it also means: advancement, furtherance, boost and funding.
  • Likewise, the translation to free of charge is misleading. The German original says "zur freien Nutzung" which does not have to specifically mean "free as in beer". It can also mean "free as in freedom" -- especially in this context.
  • Finally, this paragraph cannot really be split and cherry-picked even in its two sentences: The first sentence alone does not describe the goals of the foundation at all. For example, it would apply the same way to e.g. onlyoffice these days. This is because second sentence contains the core of what is supposed to set LibreOffice and other projects of the foundation apart: sustainable community, international development, open source and open standards are core to the foundations mission -- as are independence and meritocracy(*).

The second paragraph is mostly redundant: It clarifies what "office software" means ("repertoire ... of tools") and what "open source" means ("openly available for free use") and also talks about "distribution" ... which is a bit funny as software distribution mostly stopped being a problem quickly even while foundation was created: even Canonical stopped shipping Ubuntu CDs in 2011 and today everyone can distribute software of epic sizes via Docker hub or quay.io or ghcr.io.

Ok, so ... the first paragraph of the statutes of the foundation (mostly the second sentence) are a great starting point to define the goals of the foundation. Good! Does this mean using this as a first principle means trustees, board members and staff are aligned and focused on the same goal? Unfortunately not.

Even with the extensive comments given above, the goals of the foundation are so broad compared to the resources of it, that they will never ensure alignment by themselves -- much less an strong focus and effective effort. Do not get me wrong: Compared to other open source NGOs, the Document Foundation is quite rich -- but its goals are still overwhelmingly broad and diverse. Is this a problem? In a way, yes: It means two trustees can work on the goals of the foundation and still consider the work of the other ... not that important.

Between volunteers that might be somewhat acceptable: who is to judge contributions of others if they were volunteered? But with both directors and staff its ... different. Both have been trusted by the other trustees with additional privileges: The staff with the privilege to be -- unlike others -- to be paid for their project contributions. The directors are mostly graced with the privilege allocate funds (which ultimately includes staff salaries). So both directors and staff need to answer to a higher standard than other volunteers (who are judged by the membership committee). And here is where a need for alignment and focus comes in.

And that brings me back to the opening of this post: staff policy. I wonder if transparency about the focus, alignment of goals and allocation of resources (namely: funds and work time) would be helpful when it allows:

  • directors a way to report to the trustee on how they intend to allocate and focus resources of the foundation, and the latter to gain better understanding on whom to vote for in upcoming elections.
  • staff a way to report to the directors and the latter (as representatives of the trustees) way to guide and align the former.

This alone would not solve all problems with alignment, but it would be a start. One medium to bring about such transparency could be Objectives and Keyresults (OKRs).

How would OKRs help at TDF? Well, OKRs should generally be set in a way that they are assumed to be on average 70% complete by the end of the period. Evaluation at the end of the period will allow to:

  • help build a shared understanding between all trustees of what goals are under- or overestimated in how hard they are to achieve.
  • help to reallocate resources to areas that are promising faster.
  • help reduce frustrations about impossible goals or underappreciated work.

A concrete draft proposal for how that could be implemented has been suggested here.

Comments? Feedback? Additions? Most welcome here on the fediverse !

(*) Urgh, long footnote incoming on why I will leave aside discussing these latter two hot button topics in this post as (in summary):

  • meritocracy has been justly criticized to deepen inequality -- there are books about it: "merit" is way easier to establish for the privileged. So when judging merit, privilege (or lack thereof) has to be taken into account.
  • independence has recently been often used in populist claims of "conflict of interest" to subvert individuals of merit in the LibreOffice community -- that is: those that did contribute to the advancement, furtherance and funding of open source, open standard office software development.
  • now "conflicts of interest" clearly should not be ignored, especially if they counter the foundations goals. However, when doing so, its wise to start with those that receive the biggest net benefit from the foundations use of its resources (and note in this that e.g. volunteer development contributions and trademarks likely provide widely bigger benefits than a few tenders the foundation might have offered).