WordPress contributors are weighing in on a proposal for the formation of a nomination-based advisory board with set term limits for its members. Josepha Haden, the project’s Executive Director, published a first draft two weeks ago with ideas for how the board might operate and feedback is rolling in.

WordPress experimented with a growth council three years ago that Haden said was disbanded in December 2018 due to logistics and too much analysis causing paralyzed decision-making. The proposed advisory board would exist to provide “information on industry trends and risks as well as non-binding strategic advice to the Project Lead and Executive Director.”

“I am not proposing that this group would function as a final-say, decision-making body for the WordPress project,” Haden said. “It should serve as a collection of bright, insightful people who have contact with clients and end-users of WordPress. This removes the ‘analysis paralysis’ challenge that the growth councils faced.”

Haden proposed that WordPress use a traditional board process of nomination and self-nomination to form the group, where existing members would select candidates from nominees. Previous members of the growth council would be invited to be part of the first iteration of the Advisory Board with a 12-month term. New members would be incorporated in 2020 with an emphasis on creating a diverse group of advisors. Haden plans to publish a list of previous members of the growth council.

“At the moment, I find that I’m hovering around 12-15 to allow for as many clear subsets of our community/users as possible,” Haden said when asked how many people would be on the advisory board.

Advisory Board Proposal Discussion Surfaces Concerns Regarding its Impact, Diversity, and Corporate Influence

The proposal has so far garnered support and positive feedback, but some participants in the discussion have questioned the impact of an advisory board that lacks any decision-making capability. The structure is not like a Board of Directors where members have authority to vote on matters and bear legal responsibilities. Board members may become frustrated if their advice has no real impact on important project decisions.

“My eyebrows raised at the specific inclusion of the phrase ‘non-binding strategic advice to the Project Lead’ as a way of essentially giving (before the board starts) a feel that this might be just more of the same, where we in the community are asked for our opinion, but then fairly routinely feel ignored or condescended to by the project lead,’ WordPress developer Ben Meredith commented the proposal.

“So my main concern would be how this is going to be different? At the end of the day, it’s still Matt’s party, and he can do what he wishes. I’d love to see true governance here, where Matt submits a bit more officially to the board.”

Others are concerned about balancing the diversity of the board using a nomination process, although Haden said she reserves the right to invite nominees for diversity and representation purposes. WordPress developer Pat Lockley suggested board members be paid in order to prevent them from trying to gain economically from their position. One byproduct of having unpaid board members is that participation might then exclude those who cannot afford to offer their time without compensation.

Several participants in the discussion advocated for the inclusion of people representing users who are not enterprise or industry professionals. If the first iteration of the Advisory Board is comprised of former members of the Growth Council, it’s possible that the board’s advice would be skewed towards corporate interests, since it was originally formed for the purpose of marketing WordPress against direct competitors.

“I think we could do a lot to figure out a roadmap for countering this huge marketing spending being directed against us, because we are the big guy here,” Mullenweg said when first floating the idea of the Growth Council during his WordSesh talk in 2016. “We are the 26% and they are like a 1%. But even though they’re smaller, they might be cannibalizing some of the most valuable aspects of the WordPress customer base.”

Sé Reed, one of the members of the Growth Council, said that she and at least one other member were not representing a corporate interest. Overall, the council’s focus was “truly was on the WP Project as a whole, and not focused on the needs of any individual company.” She reported that conversations were open and everyone seemed to be personally passionate about the project and willing to share information. The breakdown was in the execution of their plans and decisions.

“Unfortunately, and possibly because of the obscured profile, the conversations and actions we attempted to take didn’t really go anywhere within the project,” Reed said. “The entire council was frustrated by this. It’s possible that some of those conversations were integrated into the strategies of some of the companies represented, and I personally feel in some cases it was, but I could not say for sure.”

Reed said the general consensus was that there was “no clear path to integrate the council’s conversations into the WordPress project, and indeed not a clear role for the council within the project.” Members were able to speak candidly, knowing the conversations were confidential.

“These are important discussions to have, but when held publicly, in the Make channel for example, people can’t be, or won’t be, as frank or as honest as they would be in a confidential conversation, especially if they are representing companies,” Reed said. “That was, to my understanding, the impetus for the Advisory Board – to create a space where the difficult confidential discussions can be held, but there is also a clear and public role for the results of those discussions.”

Reed said she thinks it makes sense for the Growth Council members to be the starting Advisory Board, since the group already has a shared history and a year of conversations under their belts.

“We all feel strongly about creating a space for this type of bigger picture conversation, so we can hit the ground running,” she said. “The first members will likely set the stage for the Advisory Board’s bylaws and elections and such, and then move out of that role once that structure is in place. I think the experience of the council members will facilitate a streamlined process for this, and I think it’s a logical group to start with. It has to start somewhere if it’s going to start at all, and if it is not the Growth Council then it would have to be just Matt and Josepha deciding where the start is. And honestly, that’s just as controversial within the community as having the Growth Council do it.”

Haden proposed that the advisory board meet using video calls with high level notes published afterwards. One participant in the discussion said he would prefer full transcripts. Simon Dickson, Director of Platform Services of WordPress.com VIP at Automattic, said he would like to see some clear examples of the tasks the board might take on.

“For example, would the Project Lead or Executive Director be required to present an annual strategy to the Board, and take their questions? Could release leads be required to present a retrospective after each release? Would the Board sign off on ‘State Of The Word’ each year? Would the Board have a role in endorsing key appointments, such as the Executive Director?”

Dickson also suggested that board members be encouraged to act as representatives of the community.

“I hope Board members will be tasked with acting as representatives, bringing not only their own personal thoughts, but those of the diverse communities they come from,” he said. “They should be encouraged, perhaps even required to blog, tweet, speak and engage; and to reflect back what they hear.”

With strong user representation and more transparent communication, an advisory board has the potential to be an organization that the WordPress community can feel invested in, if their experiences and opinions are included in important conversations. If ex-Growth Council members are going to be its charter members, the group may have some challenges in assuring the community that they are representing community interests to WordPress’ Project Lead and Executive Director.

“I absolutely think users need to be represented, and I attempt to represent that viewpoint in all of my community participation, but I also think sometimes we forget that even the larger companies have invested heavily in WordPress and they have an interest in the WP Project’s success,” Reed said. “They are the face of WordPress to hundreds of thousands of users who don’t even know the community exists. For better or worse, our fates are intertwined.”