Meritocracy in Open Standards: Vision or Mirage

Few would argue for privilege over merit in general terms and the idea of “meritocracy” is close to the heart of many in the Open Source Software (OSS) community. How far can the ideal of meritocracy be realised? Are attempts to implement meritocratic principles in the development of open standards (using “standards” to include virtually any documented set of technical conventions) visionary or beset my mirages?

What follows is a first pass at answering that rather rhetorical question. I have avoided links as I’m not trying to point fingers (and you would be wrong in thinking there are any between-the-lines references to organisations or individuals).

A meritocracy requires both a dimension of governance and a dimension of value. The latter, “value”, incorporates both the idea that something should be measurable and that there is consensus over desirable measure and its association with positive outcomes of the endeavour. In the absence of the measurable quantity that could be applied in a bureaucratic way we have a hegemony or a club. The Bullingdon Club is not a meritocracy. I suggest the following questions should be asked when considering implementing a meritocracy:

  1. Have we recognised that a meritocracy must be situated in a context? There must be some endeavour that the system of merit is supporting and the suitability of a meritocratic system can only be judged in that context. There is no universal method.
  2. Do we understand what success looks like for the endeavour? What are the positive outcomes?
  3. Is there a human behaviour or achievement that can be associated with realising the positive outcomes?
  4. Are there measures that can be associated with these behaviours or achievements?
  5. Can this/these human endeavours be dispassionately evaluated using the measures?

Clear and coherent answers can be provided to these questions for OSS endeavours focussed on fixing bugs, improving robustness, improving performance etc. The answers become rather more vague or contentious if we start to include decisions on feature-sets, architecture or user interface design. Many successful OSS efforts rely on a different approach, for example the benevolent dictator, alongside some form of meritocracy.

So: what of “meritocracy in open standards”? Posing the five questions (above), I suggest:

  1. The context is open standards development. There are differing interpretations of “open”, generally revolving around whether it is only the products that are available for use without impediment or whether participation is also “open”. It only makes sense to consider a meritocracy in the latter case so we seem to have a recognisable context. NB: the argument as to whether open process is desirable is a different one to how you might govern such a process and is not addressed here
  2. Success of the open standards endeavour is shown by sustained adoption and use. Some people may be motivated to participate in the process by ideas of public good, commercial strategy etc but realising these benefits are success factors for their participation and not of the endeavour per se. I would like to place questions of morality alongside these concerns and outside consideration of the instrument: open standards development.
  3. This is where we start running in sand inside an hourglass. Anecdotes are many but simple relationships hard to find. Some thoughtfully constructed research could help but it seems likely that there are too many interacting agents and too many exogenous factors, e.g. global finance, to condense out “simple rules”. At this point we realise that the context should be scoped more clearly: not all areas of application of open standards have the same dynamics, for example: wireless networking and information systems for education.  Previous success as a contributor to open standards may be a reasonable indicator but I think we need to look more to demonstration of steers-man skills. The steers-man (or woman) of a sail-driven vessel must consider many factors – currents, wind, wave, draught, sea-floor, etc – when steering the vessel. Similarly, in open standards development we also have many factors influencing the outcome in our complex system: technical trends, supplier attitudes (diverse), attitudes of educational institutions, government policy change, trends in end-user behaviour…
  4. Not really. We could look to measures of approval by actors in the “complex system” but that is not a meritocratic approach although it might be a viable alternative.
  5. Not at all. Having stumbled at hurdle 4 we fall.

It looks like meritocracy is more mirage than vision and that we should probably avoid making claims about a brave new world of meritocratic open standards development. Some anti-patterns:  “Anyone can play” is not a meritocracy; it depends on who you know, its not a meritocracy. The latter, cronysim, is a dangerous conceit.

There are many useful methods of governance that are not meritocratic; i.e. methods that would satisfy an “act utilitarian”. I suggest we put merit to one side for now or look for a substantially more limited context.

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