3 min read

Governance vs politics in interest based communities

In small communities, especially ones with some sort of steering group, you tend to find you come up against a few larger issues every year or so.
Governance vs politics in interest based communities

My thoughts here simply represent my thoughts at the time of writing. I often change my mind, and I'm sure I've still got a lot to learn. In addition, the scope of this post is limited to "interest based communities". I do not claim that this works in all types of communities. Take this article at face value, and feel free to disagree (as I likely will in 5 years time).

I've been leading and participating in tech communities since university. Recently I've taken a step back from leading and it's provided some really great perspective. During this time I've been lurking in the GitHub Campus Expert slack channels and seeing how the students of today deal with issues within their communities. It's given me a lot of time to reflect on community models and dealing with issues. I could talk for days on the topic of small communities but for this essay I want to focus on one area in particular.

In small communities, especially ones with some sort of steering group, you tend to find you come up against a few larger issues every year or so. These could be anything from an external relationship that goes sour, to someone getting the wrong end of the stick at a meeting. These sorts of issues are particularly prevalent in communities with high membership churn, such as student groups. They often take root without you noticing, but they can quickly spiral. Before you know it, people can get hurt and community leaders end up stressed.

I tend to classify issues like this into one of two buckets. Bucket number one is "governance issues", and bucket number two is "political issues". The governance bucket is for issues that concern the running of the community, they often benefit from wide debate and are usually centered around values, goals, and the future of the community. Political issues are very different, they are often people focused and don't feed into discussion of the long term vision of the community. It is important that each large issue is classified correctly as they demand very different responses from your community leaders.

Lets say you have an issue where a member of your team is feeling overworked, they committed to overseeing a big event, didn't pull in enough help early on, and now they're drowining in the workload. This issue goes into the "Governance" bucket, it's something everyone needs to be aware of and work to help resolve. The problem also has some lessons that the whole community need to learn together. This bucket should be resolved by discussion amoungst the whole steering team, and possibly the whole community.

To take another example, perhaps a member of your steering group had a tough meeting with a regular community sponsor. Communication broke down and both parties ended up leaving feeling unhappy with the exchange and as if they were not valued. This sort of issue is relational, and to date I've never seen these sorts of issues successfully resolved by a committee vote.. This sort of issue should be resolved in a smaller context, one-on-one if possible. Incidentally these are the issues the president / committee chair should be on the look out for.

Tackling political issues one-on-one can instinctively feel odd in a community, shouldn't everything be open at all times? 90% of the time, yes you want your community to be transparent and open. But there is the 10% of times where you want to report back to the community after an issue has been resolved. This 10% of cases are usually where peoples feelings and wellbeing are at risk. The skills a good community leader should develop are knowing when an issue is in this 10%, and knowing how to report this back to the community once the issue is resolved.