Governance Open Discussion: Why and When?

Why is governance important?

These are notes on a discussion on 21 January, 2016, at Open Tools and Infrastructure for Biology 2016 held at Newcastle University.

  • Governance is for a common goal.
  • Provide structure and effective coordination – trying to reduce the “cost” of conflict resolution (conflict reduction). It is important that all know that there is a way things are supposed to work within the community.
  • It increases efficiency and decreases friction. Poor governance results in the opposite effect, and there does need to be iterative development of the governance methodology itself (the governance itself needs to be evaluated and modified).
  • It is an expression of the values within your community (e.g. how the community is represented and structured).
  • An open governance model means that feedback from within the community (3 people in a pub creating an add-on) can be quickly incorporated and made use of. It aligns well with modular design principles.
  • If the solution space is limited, then you don’t actually need much governance. If your goal is focused (and therefore so is the solution space), then a lack of governance might be best.
    • Governance provides a socio-political framework. If you don’t have many social or political requirements, you may not need governance.

As an example, the SBOL governance process has changed over time. One of the useful things it has provided is a framework of expectations and responsibilities of the various academics and companies. SBOL seems to be getting more open over time, and the changes in governance method has likely helped increase this openness.

If a community is too small, it could become closed because of “accidental obscurity”. You don’t want the governance structure to become an excuse for the standard not progressing.

Is it helpful to have a benevolent dictator?

Perhaps a better question than “Do we need governance” is “When do we need governance?”

In projects that are open and have more than one person, how do these people interact – what are the rules of interaction?

  • What does “open” mean, and who gets to choose its definition?
  • With “open”, you have to find the appropriate mixture (for you) of freedom and community consensus.
  • Does openness need to be imposed upon a newcomer? When someone wishes to participate in a group, you let them know what the rules/governance of the community are, and ask if they want to be a part of it. There is a distinction here in that people make the choice to be part of a community, and therefore the openness is not an imposition, as such.

For open science, we need governance. Openness implies some restrictions or rules, even if it’s just to state the (type of) openness itself. Governance doesn’t mean you are mandating behavior (necessarily). For instance, in SBOL you can extend it however you like (the freedom to extend) but you gain additional benefits if you follow the rules (a privilege if you follow the rules rather than using governance to mandate the use of the rules).

Example: Governance states a list of recommended formats. Users create open data files – if they are not in a format from the list, they don’t get the benefits of the other tools in the community which follow the governance policies. If they do use the format, you get immediate benefits wrt reproducibility and community.

What happens when there are multiple governance frameworks? The way you set up your governance may be incompatible for some people who are under a contradictory governance framework.

Do you need metrics to figure out how well your governance model is working as well as how well your community is developing? Or should such metrics be closely aligned / identical?

Who are all the players that have a say in governance? What do we exclude? Governance is ultimately the definition of who is the “in” group and who is the “out” group. The “in” group are the community, defined by their agreement to be governed according to the governance framework. However, a community needs to remain open to external input, otherwise bad decisions may be propagated.

How does governance began and how does it change over time?

  • How do decisions get made? You can organize your project to disperse your decision making to a greater or lesser extent. This results in either greater or lesser exclusivity of such decision making.
  • Various government strategies are dependent upon time and money resources – so some form of governance are only available to certain types of people.
  • How does governance pursue openness? There are very few ways in which communities devoted to openness actually get (monetary, social) credit for such commitment.
  • Different groups of people prefer different methods of communication, and this may have an effect on the governance method.
  • You need to have a singular goal or view, or it doesn’t matter what the governance method is, you will not be able to resolve anything. Deciding what the problem is, is a deeply social issue – without this, you can’t decide what is valuable and what your goal should be.

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the discussion. I may have made mistakes: these notes are not guaranteed to be correct. Unless explicitly stated, they represent neither my opinions nor the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can assume to be m


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