Why I haven’t given up on Fedora (but won’t run for election)

I’ve been asked by several people to run for the Fedora Board and after a lot of wrangling with the issue, I’ve decided running for election to the Board or FESCo is the last thing I should do with my Fedora presence right now.  Since I’ve been asked to run, I feel I owe those people an explanation of why I won’t.  Luckily for me, a few messages have crossed the mailing list recently that express a large part of why it’s a bad idea for me to participate in this way.

At first, I told people that I’d consider running if we had a slate of like minded people running for election because, as I put it, I wouldn’t want to just be another Kevin Kofler — marginalized because I disagree and increasingly frustrated because people don’t feel the need to come to any sort of compromises about the issues that I raise.  Jef Spaleta and Kevin Kofler both echo the same idea of running with a slate of candidates with a similar platform, for instance this quote:

But I think your entirely correct about an organized slate of candidates being the correct path to take to address the expressed general concern. This is typically how changes in direction in brick and mortar general election scenarios are carried forward. An organized slate of candidates with a stated agenda.

- Jef Spaleta, May 3, 2010

Kevin Kofler’s Open Letter: Why I, Kevin Kofler, am not rerunning for FESCo, message has a lot of the platform that I would run under:

Any attempts to discuss those issues where everyone was against me went nowhere. In most cases, people rushed out a vote without even considering the real issue at hand and then shot down any discussion with “we already voted, we want to move on”. In those few cases where there actually was a discussion, my position was always dismissed as being ridiculous and not even worth considering, my arguments, no matter how strong, were entirely ignored.

- Kevin Kofler, bullet three, sub-bullet two

  • FESCo currently values expediting decisions over coming as close to consensus as possible.  I would reverse those values.  Valuing decisions that work hard to satisfy people is one of the things that I really liked about decisions made when Thorsten Leemhuis was the FESCo chair.  Everybody was heard to the extent that we could state what the differences in viewpoints were and we often made changes to proposals to make them more palatable to people — even if those changes didn’t affect the final vote.  You can’t make all of the people happy all of the time but you can work to address as many of the individual concerns as possible.  The cloture rule that FESCo recently passed is detrimental in my view.  Instead, if a discussion is contentious, points and counter points should be written down in the wiki so we don’t keep rehashing old arguments but we do address as many of the issues as we can before a final policy is passed.
  • There’s currently too much Label and Dismiss going on.  Saying something is “ridiculous” or saying that what someone says is “rehashing old arguments” is ignoring whatever it is that they think they’re adding to the discussion.  Wiki documentation of contentious issues would help with the rehashing portion of this and realizing that label and dismiss is destructive to constructive discourse would help people to listen to what others are saying.

Maintainers are continuously being distrusted.

- Kevin Kofler, bullet four, sub-bullet one

  • I would emphasize a slightly different aspect of this in my platform:  We should be worrying more about education of contributors  than enforcement of rules upon them.  Although one of the values to contributors of Fedora is that they can use the distribution they produced a much bigger value is that they learn a lot from contributing.  Learning to package, for instance, helps you to build software from source, learn how to write good build scripts, think from a system administrator viewpoint when you write software, understand the way pieces of a typical Linux system interact, understand the importance of API and ABI stability, and more.  We should be teaching people about the tradeoffs in the decisions they make rather than enforcing a single decision upon them.

All the power in Fedora is being centralized into 2 major committees: the Board and FESCo. FESCo is responsible for a lot of things all taking up meeting time, leading to lengthy meetings and little time for discussion. Many of those things could be handled better in a more decentralized way. Power should be delegated to SIGs and technical committees wherever possible, FESCo should only handle issues where no reponsible subcommittee can be found or where there is disagreement among affected committees.
– Kevin Kofler, bullet four, sub-bullet two

  • Why do I contribute to Fedora and not Ubuntu/OpenSuSE/etc?  It’s because Fedora positioned itself as being more open to contributors influencing where the distribution will go.  Decentralizing most decisions and striving to concentrate FESCo and the Board’s efforts on conflict resolution puts more power back into the hands of contributors who are doing the work.

The prevailing opinion of the electorate of Fedora contributors keeps getting ignored. Feedback on the Fedora devel mailing list is never seen as in any way binding, it’s often dismissed as noise or “trolling”. The predominant opinion in FESCo is “you voted for us, now we get to do whatever we want”, which is flawed in many ways:

  • It assumes there were true alternatives to vote for instead. This
    assumption does not look true to me.
  • It assumes the voters were aware of the positions of all the candidates.
    I’m fairly sure this was not the case. While I appreciate what has been
    done in an attempt to solve this issue (questionnaire, townhalls), this
    has proven by far insufficient to build an opinion on the candidates. I
    think there’s a reason representative democracies normally work with
    parties/factions and I think something like that might help a lot,
    depending on what kind of factions would show up.
  • It assumes representative democracy is a well-working model in the first
    place, especially in its most hardcore form (“now we get to do whatever we
    want”). I believe elected representatives should really REPRESENT the
    people who voted them. I realize politicians aren’t doing that, but are
    they really a good model to follow?

I believe listening more to the feedback on the devel ML and taking it into
account during decision-making would reduce frustration with FESCo a lot.

– Kevin Kofler, bullet four, sub-bullet three

  • In the last two FESCo elections combined, I voted for only seven people.  Of the five people who got in those elections, only two turned out to agree with my platform after I elected them.  So, for me, the first two bullets were accurate.
  • The last bullet is more of a judgement of what is expected of someone elected to FESCo and it’s not what I think the expectation should be.  They should be consistent with their stated platforms, not necessarily with the will of who elected them.
  • However, I also agree with the opening and closing paragraphs of Kevin’s point.  FESCo and the Board are not currently responding to the desires expressed by people not in the decision making bodies.  I go a little farther than Kevin in saying that the desires of the majority of contributors is not the only thing being missed here, but also the desires of important minorities (“important” defined as, if the minority group were to stop contributing to Fedora, how much would we suffer?) Three solid ideas that could help are the wiki consolidation of contentious points mentioned earlier, delegation of powers as Kevin mentioned earlier, and non-binding referendum for Board level decisions which would help the Board evaluate how many contributors are negatively impacted by a decision.

Now, with all this said about what a platform would look like, here’s why I’ve changed my mind and decided running for the Board or FESCo, even as part of a group of people working for changing the status quo would be a mistake.  Jef has a quote that sums up my feelings nicely:

It’s difficult being cast into the role of loyal opposition (whether by choice or by calculation.) especially when you don’t enjoy that role and being in that position burns you out.

- Jef Spaleta, May 3 2010

This is the heart of the matter.  I have put a great deal of myself into making Fedora a good place to contribute.  I’m loyal to Fedora because it’s one of my children; a project that I’ve worked to shape, nurture, and grow from before the time that it even had a name.  However, I am in opposition to many of the recent decisions made for Fedora by the Board and by FESCo.  Even though I’m not currently a member of these groups, I’m feeling burnout from discussing the points of dissention with them.  I can’t attend a FESCo meeting or read the minutes of the Board without feeling my heart rate speed up, my jaw tighten, and a nervous tenseness build up that demands to be released.  This level of trauma is bad in multiple ways:

  1. It is bad for my well being
  2. It makes me want to stop contributing to Fedora
  3. I can’t make good decisions about what is mandatory to get changed, what is important to get changed, and what, even if I disagree with, doesn’t cause too much damage to the overall picture.

So until I stop feeling this badly about where Fedora is going, I’m going to stay away from the decision making process in Fedora and just deal with the portions that are not causing me this kind of grief: coding things that help Fedora contributors get their jobs done, working on problems being experienced in Fedora Infrastructure, packaging and reviewing when I have a need to.

One further note, specifically about running for the Board.  FESCo is a body 100% elected by the participants in the project.   As such, it may take a concerted effort by people wanting a different vision than the current members to work on building a platform and slate of candidates but effecting change only requires you to fill half of the available seats with people who agree with you.  The Board, on the other hand, is only 50% +1 elected.  The remaining seats are appointed by the Fedora Project Leader.   Additionally, the Fedora Project Leader is the leader of the Fedora Board and is able to add his opinion at the Board Meetings.  This makes for a large hurdle for anyone looking to shift the Board’s vision in a direction that is radically at odds with the FPL’s.  People who agree with your platform have to win election to all of the available seats in two election cycles to even have an equal number of voices on the Board.