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Re: Draft GR for permitting private discussion

Stefano Zacchiroli <leader@debian.org> writes:

> But I still find interesting that in an example that you use to argue
> for transparency, a private mail exchange has played a relevant role.

I don't find this at all surprising.  In fact, I would be stunned if this
isn't the case in most such situations.

I probably should save this for the main discussion in -vote or -project,
but since I'm thinking about it right now, I may as well say it here so
that I have it all written down.  I will plan on rewording and repeating
this later as part of the broader discussion.

> This is why I'm worried about this specific GR: it seems to go in the
> opposite direction. I think that the present situation, i.e. "thou shalt
> not do that", is a moral check on the desire of discussing matters
> privately with and within the tech-ctte. Those private discussions will
> happen [1], but the fact that they are considered socially wrong will
> limit them to cases that are considered "extreme", even for tech-ctte
> issues (which are already extreme per se). I fear that legitimating
> private discussions will remove this useful moral check.

There are two different things that you can happen when you say something
that's obviously infeasible in a procedural document like the
constitution.  One is, as you say, that it will serve as a moral force to
make violations of that principle rare and "extreme."  The other is to
make the rules of the document look ridiculous and cause them to lose all
moral force entirely.

I believe the current situation is the latter, not the former.

The idea that any decision-making body would avoid all discussions in
private is, to me, completely contrary to how people interact and how
every decision-making body that I've ever heard of functions.  I've never
heard of a body akin to the technical committee that operates under those
sorts of absolute constraints: not corporate boards, not project oversight
groups in corporations, not free software governance organizations, not
governments, not non-profit committees.  The only exception that I can
think of off-hand are Olympic judges, where the point of that sort of rule
is to prevent collusion between the judges to generate a particular
outcome.  I certainly hope people don't think that's analogous to the work
of the technical commitee!

The current wording, read literally, means that if I happened to run into
Steve Langasek, say, at a social occasion, I am not permitted to mention
network-manager and GNOME to him, because that conversation isn't public
and that's an issue currently before the technical committee.  I'm not
allowed to talk about network-manager in a private Usenet hierarchy that I
happen to know that Colin Watson and Ian Jackson also read because that's
not public.  It feels like I'm expected to act like a prospective US
Supreme Court judge whose nomination is before Congress: I must not say
anything about anything, ever!

I don't believe that technical committee members have ever actually
behaved this way.  By the very nature of the role, the people on the
technical committee generally know each other and generally have other
contact outside of committee work, and the topics that come before the
committee are generally topics of considerable discussion in the project.
They are therefore natural topics of discussion, and this sort of absolute
ban is horribly distortive and very difficult to achieve.

And to what end?  Certainly, this sort of extreme limitation on discussion
isn't going to result in better decisions.  Part of my decision-making
process, and I don't think this is unique to me, is to mull something over
from multiple angles, bounce it off of people, and seek out different
perspectives.  Depending on the issue, or depending on simple
*convenience*, some of those discussions will be effectively private.  It
helps in getting as broad of input as possible, including from people who
may not be comfortable expressing their opinion in public when they
believe their opinion to be unpopular or when they feel like they'll get
shouted down.  (And yes, to me this does go to honoring diversity.)

I believe the underlying goal here, which we need to preserve, is that the
reasons for the decisions of technical committee members must be made
public: that we state our reasoning for our votes for the record and in a
forum where other people can see and comment if they believe that
reasoning is ill-considered.  I also think that enough of the
deliberations need to be public for the project as a whole to monitor and,
if necessary, check committee members who are making decisions on bases
that might harm the project.  We certainly do not want to be in a
situation where the committee hands down unjustified opinions, where the
only public artifact of the decision is a vote.  And I support finding
some way to say that in the constitution.

But this sort of outright ban is not how one does it.  Rather, I would
instead look to a model where there are formal meetings and informal
meetings, the formal meetings have to happen in public, and all committee
members are expected to bring into a formal meeting any information or
discussion from informal meetings that has a substantial effect on their
position.  This is akin to the sorts of rules that I've sen in other
deliberative bodies; not everything is on the record, but there is an
expectation that the formal business is always on the record.

Russ Allbery (rra@debian.org)               <http://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>

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