TEI: Should the email discussions of the TEI Board be publicly accessible?

Lou BurnardTEI Consortium Board of DirectorsBW 10

Draft working paper: no source

First complete draft circulated to Board list

Background and opinions

The Board’s internal discussions have always been facilitated by means of a closed email list, a practice which was maybe taken over unthinkingly from its predecessor, the TEI’s Steering Committee. There is of course a difference between the internal debate of a small management committee overseeing a research project, and that of the publicly-responsible Board of a not-for-profit enterprise. In both cases, however, there is a clear requirement of accountability, expressed by the formal record of activities and decisions which are communicated to funding bodies in the first case and the Consortium membership in the second, even though this requirement does not figure in the Board’s by-laws — presumably because it is considered self-evident. Following the events of August 2011 however, it became evident that the Board was widely perceived in some quarters as failing in its duty of accountability and transparency, leading to a demand for better communication of its decision making procedures and decision. Amongst other measures, it was proposed that the mailing list used for Board communication should be publicly archived, in the same way as that of the TEI Council has been since its inception.

As noted in the Minutes of the TEI Business meeting held in Wuerzburg last November, the majority of those questioned before that meeting felt that “in most circumstances” the email discussions of the TEI Board should be publicly accessible, though “three people indicated they did not think this was a good idea.”

The question was subsequently reviewed in some detail on the TEI Board list. In section 4 below we quote relevant passages from postings between September 2011 and May 2012. (As of this writing no member has requested redaction of any one of these comments, though they were clearly intended for Board use only)

To summarize the debate, it seems clear that

  • The major concern is one of accountability: the Board is anxious to demonstrate that its proceedings are transparent, particularly to the TEI membership, but also more generally, as befits an open source project.
  • There was no objection to making all formal discussion documents (minutes, working papers, etc.) public by default, within a reasonable time period of their completion.
  • However there are serious objections, both practical and principled, to retrospectively making the Board’s internal email archive open.
  • A majority preferred the idea of making a new publicly visible discussion list for Board use.
  • Against this proposal, a minority argued that some Board discussions (notably those about on-going or proposed negotiations with third parties, or touching on personal or financial matters) would of necessity be private, and were concerned that Board communications should not be fragmented.
  • It was noted that some discussion (e.g. within nominations committees) was already handled privately outside the Board list and also that other comparable public institutions did not share their internal debates.
  • A variety of other ways of achieving better transparency were also proposed (newsletters, regular reports, etc.).

The following recommendations are made to the Board as a means of resolving this issue.

  • The Bylaws should be extended to include a formally stated Communications Policy, the gist of which is proposed below.
  • If this policy is agreed, then it should be adopted as soon as possible, so that it may be announced along with other accompanying measures well before the next Members Meeting.
  • On adoption of this policy,
    • the existing Board discussion list should be closed and archived;
    • a new publicly readable list should be set up for Board communication;
    • only existing Board members and officers will be subscribed to the new list with write access;
    • those subscribed to the list should remember that matters considered confidential or controversial may require special “off-list” treatment, where this is in line with the Communications Policy
  • The Board secretary takes responsibility for ensuring that all communications of the Board (minutes, discussion documents, reports etc.) are made accessible in line with the Communications Policy, by means of posting them on the Consortium’s website and announcing their availability via TEI-L, the Consortium RSS feed, or such other mechanisms as may be appropriate.
  • The Board should consider as a separate exercise the evolution of an Archival Policy, the goal of which would be to ensure proper preservation of and future access to all of its records

Draft Communications Policy

To ensure accountability of its proceedings, and in line with appropriate Freedom of Information legislation, the TEI Board undertakes :

  • to make available without formality to the public all official records of its deliberations and decisions published as Minutes, Working Papers, Reports etc.;
  • to maintain and publish an up to date list of such documents;
  • to ensure that all such documentation is published without undue delay : in principle immediately after the Board has adopted the document concerned, or within 10 days thereof;
  • to open and maintain for public reading an archive of all of its internal discussions, excluding only discussion considered confidential.

Confidential discussion relates to topics such as

  • selection of individuals for office;
  • selection of organizations for partnership or awarding of contracts;
  • matters of serious political or personal controversy.

In case of doubt, the Chair of the Board will determine whether a topic should be considered confidential, and may also mandate means to ensure that is dealt with in confidence, for example by setting up a private list for discussion. Such private lists will be typically set up for a specified period only and archived after conclusion of that time.

Quotes from the Board Archive

  • I think the reality on this one is that if the list is public, then some discussions may migrate off-list. In general, I think that would be a bad thing–better to have all-to-all discussions on the board list, esp. with difficult topics, but I do think there’s something to be said for having people take positions on this in the context of the election, so that if the board list, in the future, remains private, it’s clear why.
  • Two unresolved questions that need to be handled are whether to continue charging membership fees and whether or not to make the Board archive public. These questions will be resolved by the end of January.
  • As promised, here are a couple of notes concerning the TEI Board email list and the practicalities of changing access to it.

    • As a reminder, archives and personal configuration for the tei-board list are available at http://lists.village.virginia.edu/mailman/listinfo/tei-board. A password is necessary to access the archives, meaning that at any given time, only current Board members can access them.
    • I am not sure how we could legitimately open those archives to the public, given that (1) there was an assumption of confidentiality at the time that email was sent, and (2) there is sensitive material in past messages, e.g. the exchanges last year related to the Board chair position. (But should they be made public after a certain number of years?)
    • If the Board votes to make the list archives accessible to the public from now on, by far the simplest way is to discontinue the existing list and create a new email list with open archives. It could be hosted at Brown, or (my suggestion) migrated to the list software that the University of Virginia now uses (Sympa as in “sympathique”, http://www.sympa.org/). I can create a Virginia-hosted Sympa list that would be operational immediately.
    • If we agree to open the list, we should decide on a policy for archiving the old tei-board messages. For example, place them as text files in a password-protected directory under www.tei-c.org/Vault, then share the password with Board members at the start of each year.
  • David, your plan sounds perfect: migrate to a new system so that the exchanges can be open, announce the openness of current and future discussions to the membership, and then generate password-protected archives. Best, Laura”
  • …We are currently discussing the possibility of a relationship between TEI-C and an external entitity, a discussion that has both organizational and financial implications for us and the external entity.

    If the Board email list archives become public, all such discussions become instantly accessible to the external entity under discussion (I’m not worried about Julia, just talking about the general case), and to anyone else. But surely there is a need for confidentiality in cases like this for honest discussion to occur. Suppose we wanted to discuss bids from vendors on membership management, for example?

    Something to consider if the Board wants to take a formal vote on any changes to the Board email policy.”

  • Regarding the archives of the list prior to the decision to make them public (if we finally make this decision), I think it is only reasonable to leave them private, since the discussions that happened there happened under the agreement that they were privy to the Board members. It would be difficult (maybe even legally) to open these archives without the agreement of all the persons involved.

    Regarding the potential problem of discussing sensitive issues on a public list, my opinion is that we have the “face-to-face” (virtual or not) meeting for that.

    I suggest that we have a formal vote on 2 things:

    • 1) Should the tei-board list be made public?
    • 2) If so, should the archives, prior to this decision, be made public?

    I don’t feel that the correlated technical decision that might be the consequence would need a formal vote (how to operate the change, how to deal with the old archives of the tei-board list, etc.).

  • Should the correspondence of the Board be open to the members and/or the public? In my view that would be a more appropriate question for the members than for the Board to decide. It certainly would not hurt to consult the members and ask what forms of openness and confidentiality they are most comfortable with.
  • About the disclosure of the mailing list: I’m not sure to be honest in the sense that a good part of me wants to have our exchanges made public as the fact that they are password protected has generated all sort of conjectures and uneasiness int eh community. But I take David’s point: there are some topics that require a bit of privacy.

    Perhaps the point here is to be more transparent and this can be achieved not necessarily via opening the mailing list, but perhaps involving members with newsletters or votes (which brings me to Majorie’s and Martin’s suggestions).

    I think we can all agree on two points:

    • the Board has been called by the community to a greater transparency on its actions
    • The members and the community need to be more involved

    Marjories suggests votes, Martin seem to suggest a privileges channel of communication with the subscribers. These two proposal do not seem to be in conflict, but could be complementary.

  • With regard to making the Board minutes public, let me make the case (which I happen to believe in) that this is not a good idea and that there are better ways for the Board to give an account of its deliberations and decisions to its members. Some version of a public/private opposition is built into just about any model of human communication. You can’t eradicate the private. It will retreat into some other space where it may be even harder to recover. It is a perfectly ‘natural’ thing for any group to want a space for informal deliberation before sharing its thoughts and choices with others. If the group needs to talk about individuals or money the need for recognizing such a space is even more imperative. In the flow of email correspondence it is quite difficult to maintain a clear separation between what is or is not confidential. The institutional members that account for 95% or more of our revenue are certainly not in the habit of sharing all their emails with everybody.
  • With regard to II.3 I think the consensus is that the Board needs to be more open about its workings, but that the specific detail of how to do that is not (as Martin Snr implies) universally agreed. So here are two specific proposals:

    • a) the TEI Board minutes and discussion papers should be publicly available within 30 days of their publication to the Board
    • b) consortium members and subscribers should on their request be added to the email circulation list for the Board (but with read only access)
  • I would recommend continuation of the policy that only current and newly elected TEI Board members should be subscribers to tei-board and have access to the archives. The need to permit confidential discussions is a reason not to allow full public access. As the administrator of the tei-board list, I would not be happy with suggestion (b) because it would be an administrative headache figuring out which non-Board members should continue from year to year. It is much cleaner to have a defined list of subscribers that changes annually.
  • I should make clear that these proposals were meant as compromise positions in response to the strong opposition to the original idea of making the Board’s proceedings entirely open. I would much prefer that the Board’s proceedings were entirely open. We could also argue about whether they should be retrospectively open (i.e. the archive) or whether there should be some kind of statute of limitation, but it’s much simpler to say, OK the archive is open. Live with it.”
  • Finally, with respect to the board email list, and the openness of its archives, I think we should make the list archives open going forward–not going back, because people participated in those archived discussions under the understanding that the board list was accessible to subscribers only. Going forward, I think board email discussions should be public. This won’t prevent private discussions from taking place outside the list, nor should it: a nominations committee, for example, should be able to conduct its business in private, either by cc list or by having the TEI set up a separate mailman list. But the proceedings of the board of a non-profit are almost certainly a matter of public record if anyone cares to ask, at least when they don’t concern personnel matters: it would be better in my view for us to be consciously public in our communications than to be unconsciously so.”
  • This would be technically and administratively the easiest change, if the Board wants to open the list. I can set up a new list with the existing subscribers, with public archives. Then we would just need to decide what to do with the old archives–store them on tei-c.org in a password-protected directory, for example, and provide access to current Boar members.”
  • I doubt whether email exchanges by trustees of Northwestern or any other similar not-for-profit operation are open to the public, and openness to that degree is probably not required by “making the proceedings of the board of a non-profit” a “matter of public record.” Keeping our members informed of what we’re up to and engaged by involving them in deliberations may or may not be advanced by having an open listserv. Beware of unintended consequences. There is much to be said for a relatively protected space of communication in which individual don’t have to watch or mince their words for fear of being quoted out of context. And having such a space is entirely compatible with good democratic procedure as long as reasons and decisions are communicated to members in a forthright and thoughtful manner.”
  • Speaking for myself, I like the idea of multiple mailing lists. Continue with this one and its archives for conversations/individual messages that board members feel really need to be private. Create a new one which is publicly archived but only board members can post to. That way going forward the majority of board work takes place in the light of public view, and only ad hominem or sensitive financial or similar discussions take place in private.”
  • I think the mailing list should be open. Perhaps there are reserved items, so the double mailing list could make sense, but the risk of replying to the email and be carried on in the discussion in the cover or in the open, is actually problematic and requires a lot of discipline in the Board members in carrying on discussions in the right channel. Once said it, I don’t have an alternative proposal. While I understand the reasons why you need to be able to discuss freely about things, you also need to make your process more transparent. I’d like to have the archives opened, but I might be convinced if we commit in more transparent work via other channels such as the one suggested by Lou.
  • I agree with Martin M. that the Board emailing list should be private and that we should seek alternative and potentially more effective mechanisms for openness and for engaging with the community and our membership. But I don’t feel particularly strongly about it, and I would be happy to join in a consensus to open up the list. And if we decide to open the list, I prefer we just open it completely. Of course, as others have noted, we will still need a private back-channel for confidential discussions. ”
  • “the TEI Board minutes and discussion papers should be publicly available within 30 days of their publication to the Board” Agree to this. “consortium members and subscribers should on their request be added to the email circulation list for the Board (but with read only access)” As others said, the board also needs to discuss private matters freely. Multiple channels of communication might be an idea but if this doesn’t explode into too many channels…”
  • “the TEI Board minutes and discussion papers should be publicly available within 30 days of their publication to the Board” Ok for minutes and papers “consortium members and subscribers should on their request be added to the email circulation list for the Board (but with read only access)” I share some of the arguments against a total accessiblity. Mainly: sometimes a board must have only internal discussions. On this point of view, adding those who want with only “read access” permission does not seem to me a good compromise. But more accessibility (not a total one) would also be a good thing. Because of the many emails about this subject, the different stakes (now / in the past ; old/new policies), and the differentiated solutions we could propose, we could first list the different levels and identify what will be required to move forward (for example, for the past, to ask the former representatives if they agree with this accessibility).”