Asking the wrong question

I'm posting way too much to debian-vote right now, which I realize and which I'm going to try to cut back on. (I at least did start the lintian.d.o upgrade process today, so I got non-discussion Debian work done.) The reason why I keep reacting, though, is that I'm finding it frustrating that people seem to be asking the wrong question for resolving the firmware freeness argument.

We currently have a strong disagreement over what the implications of the Debian Social Contract and DFSG should be for our release process. Some Debian Developers believe that releasing lenny as-is requires a special exception to the Social Contract. Some Debian Developers believe that releasing lenny as-is is consistent with the Social Contract.

We've tried and failed to achieve consensus. That's the first point of my frustration: some people don't seem willing to accept that this has happened. They are apparently having a hard time understanding how anyone couldn't agree with them, and are therefore repeatedly reopening the discussion on which we don't have consensus. Once it's clear that consensus doesn't exist, this is very counter-productive. The discussion is futile, which frustrates people, and then in that frustration they become increasingly angry and harsh.

Once consensus fails, all interesting decision-making processes start. A decision-making process basically reduces to "who decides?". When you have a dispute and consensus is not possible, some body has to make a decision. If people believe in the decision-making process, they can then support, or at least live with, the decision because they respect the process, even if they disagree with that particular outcome. The most important output of a decision-making process is closure: you stop debating and move on. If that doesn't happen, the decision-making process has failed, even if it makes a decision.

Why does this all matter and why am I going on at such length about it? It's simply this, which I think is so important I'll highlight it:

Even people who strongly disagree on some issues can work together cordially and well in the same project provided that they can agree on a decision-making process in those areas where they disagree.

Agreeing on how decisions are made in Debian is important because that's how we continue to work together when we disagree (and we will disagree). If we can agree on how disputes are resolved, we can all respect and honor the outcome even if it isn't what we would have wanted, and then move forward. If we don't agree on how disputes are resolved, we'll keep re-arguing them rather than accepting the outcome. The discussions will get more heated, more people will get upset, and more people will not have fun working on Debian.

What I've been trying to analyze on debian-vote is the "who decides" part of this question. We have a decision-making process outlined in the Debian constitution for non-technical decisions (of which this is one). That process is somewhat scattered through the document, but bringing it together in one place, it seems to go like this:

  1. Developers are empowered to make decisions about their own work. That means that, according to the constitution, the primary people who get to decide how the SC and DFSG should apply are every Debian Developer in the tasks on which they're working.

  2. The project leader can define an area of ongoing responsibility and delegate to a developer or a group of developers responsibility for making decisions in that area. There are two relevant delegations here. The ftp team has the delegated authority to determine what packages may enter Debian given, among other things, licensing and DFSG issues. The release team has the delegated authority to decide what goes into the next stable release and when that release happens. (Let's put aside quibbles over whether or not that authority was formally delegated; I think that we can all agree in practice that it's close enough.)

    The ftp team has accepted the relevant firmware packages into Debian main and hence have made a decision in their area of responsibility. The release team, through the lenny-ignore tag, has decided that the relevant packages can be part of the next release. Those are delegate decisions that have already been made, and neither of those teams seem to want to change their mind.

  3. The final decision-making body in this case, therefore, is the developers at large, who can override any delegate decision via a GR. That's what Robert Millan proposed, although he doesn't seem to have realized he was doing that, and it's not marked as such on the ballot.

Now that this has happened, we all vote whether or not to override the delegate decision. The only option on the ballot that does so, by my reading, is the first one, so if the first option does not win the GR, the delegate decision is not overridden and both the ftp-master and release team decisions stand.

This is why Further Discussion means we continue the release as previously planned. We have a decision-making process, which has been followed, and the current decision is to release including those packages. In order to change that decision, it has to be overridden. A result of Further Discussion on a GR means that GR does nothing, and hence the decision stands.

The second point of frustration is the decision that option four on the ballot (delegate to the release team the power to make decisions about how DFSG issues affect what is included in the release) needs a 3:1 majority. They have already been delegated the authority to do that as part of their delegated authority to manage the release. The effect of option four on the project is therefore identical to Further Discussion; the only difference is whether we make a positive statement or fail to make a negative statement. It makes no sense to treat it as supersession of a foundation document when it just supports the existing decision-making process in the constitution.

A third point of frustration is the apparent feeling that foundation documents like the DFSG are outside of the normal decision-making process described in the constitution. I can find no evidence of this in the constitution, but more fundamentally, the people arguing this are not stating what decision-making process they believe does apply other than "my view of the DFSG is obviously the only reasonable one and hence you should follow it." This reduces to a plea for consensus, which we've already established that we don't have, and hence, as mentioned above, is horribly unproductive to keep raising.

There will never be a policy document that is so clear that everyone will agree on its implications in every situation. I find it much more useful to analyze governance processes by looking at who decides disputes rather than looking at position statements. The decision-making process is what will determine the outcome of all the really interesting cases.

Posted: 2008-12-16 23:37 — Why no comments?

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04