Koha ILS

KohaCon10: Koha Governance

Bob Birchall stepped up next to talk to us about his observations and options for Koha governance. Governance is not management! I love that way of thinking of it. Governance is generally run by a board. The role is to set policy, guide, coach, monitor, and spot problems.

How is Koha governed now? As we all know (those of us who are part of the community) Koha’s governance is open and informal. There are no offices or employees – only individuals (some of which are part of corporations) discussing things and making decision. These discussions happen on the main Koha mailing list or on IRC. Finally, the community property is held by HLT (a non profit organization) in NZ as the result of an election in 2009.

The discussions that happen on IRC happen during the monthly meetings which are held mid-week and scheduled in rotating times to accommodate the worldwide community. Attendance at these meetings are open to all – if you want a say in Koha’s governance, turn up at the meetings. Meetings are usually chaired by the release manager (but this documentation manager has been the chair a time or two as well – all part of the open and flexible environment). In addition to these meetings there are sometimes supplemental meetings to discuss one specific topic.

When it comes to assets, as stated before HLT (a trust) holds those. There is a committee within HLT to manage these assets and this committee exists to advise the trustees regarding acquisition, protection and disposal of Koha community assets. This committee is expected to consult the community on any contentious issue before providing advice to the Trustees.

One role that seems to have been less active recently is the Kaitiaki (the Maori term for ‘guardian’). This role has existed since the open release of Koha. In addition to this role, there is a release team made up of the release manager, release maintainer, translation manager, and a documentation manager. The people in these roles are elected by the community before each release cycle begins.

Given all that how has this very informal model worked (or has it worked). Bob feels that it has of course worked – just look at the software. Can the governance be improved though? Of course, but let’s not lose what we already have.

So how can we improve? Bob took us on a tour of how a few other open source projects and how they are governed.

Apache: Open source web server with 70% market share. Apache is governed by the Apache Software Foundation which is a non profit organization. The members of this foundation are individuals (mostly developers) – not corporations – and in 2007 there were 156 such members, all of whom were invited to be members (by other members – the members control their own membership). The main criteria for being invited is merit (a term we have seen come up a bit in the Koha community recently). This is almost the complete opposite of what we do with Koha which follows a model of complete openness. The members then elect a board of 9 members.

Drupal: Open source content management system with millions of installations worldwide. Drupal is governed by the Drupal Association a non profit in Belgium. The association supports and promotes the project (including the website). They do not control development though – they specifically say it is the responsibility of the community of developers to control the direction of the software. This association is controlled by ‘permanent members’ who are admitted by invitation only. In addition to the association is the DrupalCon Inc. also a non profit, this one based in the US, that is only in charge of organizing the conferences.

Sugar CRM: Customer relationship management software. Sugar is managed by a for profit organization – SugarCRM Inc. Sugar CRM is available in several flavors: community, professional and enterprise editions – of these only the community version is open source. The license associated with the software is creative commons – so it is not actually ‘free’ (as in freedom) software. To Bob’s mind (and mine too) this is a project that is only open source in name – and this is not the model for Koha.

OpenOffice.org: “Free and open” productivity suite. Was developed by Sun which was purchased by Oracle which has actually led to the developers leaving and creating Libre Office. Libre Office is managed by The Document Foundation – more details will be coming, but since this is so new there isn’t much to say yet.

Umbrella Organizations: Another option that is popular is to have an umbrella organization that is a non profit provide governance services. The two ones we know of are Software in the Public Interest and Software Conservancy. These were considered as holders of the Koha assets instead of HLT. They were not chosen because of the fear of ‘asset lock’ which states that they cannot pass their assets on to anyone but another 501 c 3.

Back to Koha governance. What are the strengths of the way we do it now?

  • Mature robust software
  • strong user focus
  • property held in trust
  • open and democratic
  • attracts developers and supporters with amazing commitment and skill
  • support companies around the world with competition in many markets (competition is a good thing)

And the weaknesses?

  • insufficient focus on policy, strategy and risk
  • no code of conduct
  • roles of elected officers are onerous
  • not all property is held closely
  • competing projects have same or similar names
  • perception of disunity

What are the tasks of governance in a free software project then? When talking about developing policy an strategy Bob is not talking about the software itself. Officers need to be appointed (now done in IRC – is this something we want to continue or pass on)? There is of course the management of the license and property, managing relationships, enhancing public reputation and preventing fraud and dishonesty.

FLOSS contribution model


The above model put together by Brenda Chawner shows that management and governance are two different things focused on two different areas. Management is focused on project fitness versus governance which is charge of project viability. A nice bit of the model is that the spirit of the project includes the community!

It’s also important to talk about values, what are the things that we hold dear and must retain.

  • software freedom
  • open governance
  • end user focus
  • respect, quality and transparency

What then are our options going forward? First of all, why are we talking about this just a year after making the decision to hand the assets to HLT? Have we even given this model a fair go? Our first option is to do nothing, leave things as they are – they’re working aren’t they? Other options are to strengthen the role of the HLT committee, join an existing non profit umbrella, or establish a Koha foundation.

Some things we need consider if we’re revisiting our decision of last year include our values, the needs and aspirations of libraries, the models of other projects and the involvement of librarians in the governance. It’s important to look at the pledges made by support companies to the community and the principles of free software. It’s also important to note that the community is a dynamic being – developers, users and support companies will come and go.

One of the hardest issues to resolve is going to be the jurisdiction of a new organization (if we were to found one). France, NZ and the US all have valid claims to housing the foundation in their countries. We need more data on this – and possibly legal advice. Another thing to think about is corporate version individual memberships and the role of the board versus our existing general meetings. Finally we need safeguards against takeover/domination by any one entity.

In short, this is going to be a long process – no one should expect a quick solution. Our primary focus should be the creation of great software!! An awesome talk by Bob (who warned us that this wouldn’t be exciting – and while it wasn’t it was very very very insightful).

“Dream as big as we can dream and together we can achieve anything!”


Read more by Nicole C.

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