Alex Tischer 2015 Q&A: Conflict Resolution, Group 2

According to the 2014 Strategic Planning retreat summary, Board has difficulty “recognizing the positive aspects of people they have had complex relationships with”. Do you believe this is a current problem in the OTW? What do you think can be done to create a more professional environment?

Considering the 2014 SP retreat summary made this point in particular about one of the committees I work with, I would say that yes, this is a current problem in the OTW, whose consequences I have witnessed closely. To create a more professional environment, the first step should be to ask people to behave professionally: this is a work environment, after all.

The bare minimum of professionalism to me includes: answer emails in a timely manner, attend the meetings regularly and on time and have discussions in the open where people have the chance to call you out on any inappropriate behaviour. It’s important to be able to take criticism of your work, conduct and ideas without taking it personally. In my work in the OTW so far, I’ve had countless disagreements with people in my committees, and everyone involved moved on after the discussion ended. That is how a professional discussion should go, in my opinion, but that hasn’t been the case with regards to the Board.

Several of the Board’s minutes for their closed sessions this year had items like this: “Discussion of how to proceed in a complaint against a staffer.” Under what circumstances do you think it appropriate for the Board to file complaints against individual staffers? Do you foresee any potential problems or conflicts of interest with regards to something like this?

I don’t think there are circumstances where it is appropriate for Board to file complaints against individual staffers. Due to the inherent power imbalance, it is next to impossible for a staffer to break the Code of Conduct against Board collectively as the injured party, and Board should acknowledge that power imbalance by following the simple principle of not punching down, ever. The fact that volunteers have no recourse themselves and are powerless against Board makes matters even worse. They may be able to file official complaints (harassment, bullying, anything) but there are no consequences. Board members are immune. It’s an extremely unequal atmosphere, so I can’t imagine any fair situation in which it might be acceptable for Board to complain collectively against one person.

The Board has retained an outside lawyer on a pro bono basis to advise them on various issues, including the involuntary removal of volunteers from the Org. What impact do you think this decision has had on the Org’s culture? Do you believe this is a useful tool for conflict management? Under what circumstances do you think external legal counsel specifically retained by and for the Board alone, in opposition to other volunteers in the Org, might be an appropriate step to take?
I think the general idea of having outside legal counsel is not a bad one; our Legal department is by definition mostly focused on copyright law. I do question the fact that the existence of this outside legal counsel was never mentioned until the run up to these elections. Having an outside lawyer available to advise the Board and any committee that might need it (Elections and Communications come to mind first, but Legal themselves probably could benefit from it) sounds reasonable. Having external legal counsel specifically retained by and for the Board alone, sounds unnecessary and underhanded.

I certainly don’t believe that outside legal counsel is in any way a useful tool to internal conflict management. If internal conflicts have escalated to a point where legal expertise is required (for example, to have a volunteer removed against their will, as was the case last month), we have to take a hard look at what exactly we are doing and how far this is from the ideals the org was founded on. I would imagine outside counsel working for the Board would only intervene to terminate the conflict, and I’m not sure I would trust them to act as a neutral third party.

There have been repeated complaints about the behavior of Directors toward staff and volunteers who have expressed that they have no avenue for addressing this sort of behavior. While Directors may now remove each other, most of these reports indicate that the rest of the Board was either dismissive of the concerns or actually supported the abusive actions of their colleagues. What are your feelings about exploring and instituting a process by which a requisite number of chairs, staff, and/or volunteers can call for a vote of the membership to consider the removal of a Director who has engaged in unprofessional conduct, abusive behavior, or otherwise violated the organization’s Code of Conduct?

I would support instituting such a process and would do my best to make sure that any group attempting to explore the possibilities with a view to suggesting it be implemented would be supported in their research and not hindered in any way by Board. We need more checks and balances in our setup, and the power imbalance between Board members and other members of the org has been a concern of mine for a while – especially given that we don’t select for qualifications at most levels of the org and thus being elected/appointed to Board in most years requires little but a pulse, stubbornness, and hanging around, nominally doing minimal work somewhere in the OTW.

Alex Tischer 2015 Q&A: Other Questions, Group 2

Can you say something positive about three of your fellow candidates?

I can say lots of positive things about my fellow candidates. I’ve worked with Kati and Aline in Translation for over a year now, and with Lady Oscar just a little bit shorter in Support.

Kati is an amazingly prolific podficcer; how she juggles work on the Translation and Abuse committees with participating in podficcathons I don’t know, but she manages and manages brilliantly. She’s also Finnish, wonderfully laconic, and always happy to confirm any Scandinavia and the World stereotypes you throw at her. (Ask Kati about her puukko sometime.)

Aline will tell you she is culturally predisposed to procrastinate, but she always follows through on any job she says she’ll take on. She can keep a clear head in any situation and will not let frustration and anger cloud her judgment in any way. In addition to all that, she’s one of my favourite sources for badwrong!recs.

Lady Oscar is a fountain of knowledge about the Archive. There’s nothing too obscure she doesn’t know about. She answers such a massive amount of Support tickets while at the same time manning the testing team nearly on her own, it’s unbelievable. And she likes aardvarks!

I feel bad for leaving Matty out, because there are so many good things to be said about her, but this was only supposed to cover three, so there you have it.

A lot of the current problems seem to come back to a lack of scalability, especially with the massive growth of the Archive. A) What are your short-term plans to make this growth spurt work, B) What are your long term plans to avoid this problem in the future, when there’s another massive increase (of traffic, users, and/or fanworks etc.), a.k.a what structural changes would you strive for to make the OTW, and especially the Archive more sustainable.

I think to answer this question we have to draw a clear distinction between the Archive and the OTW first. I am not aware of any specific scalability problems concerning the OTW itself. The Archive is another matter, but dealing with those problems is not the Board’s job. That lies in the hands of AD&T, the committee that maintains and develops the Archive, as well as Support, Abuse and Tag Wrangling, each of which deal with the workload increase in its own way, like recruiting for more people, creating clearer guidelines, finding better tools, improving internal workflows and so on. From what I’ve seen in my role as liaison to AD&T, the problem of keeping up with a project of this scale from a coding perspective is something they are well aware of and working on. They have just recently received permission to hire a contractor to work on major improvements, which should help immensely with tackling a number of issues that have been waiting for someone with the time to handle for a while. Now that this proposal, which has been keeping the committee busy for a while, is dealt with, they will most likely focus on further steps to make the Archive more sustainable.

Whenever internationalisation is brought up in relation to fandom, I often hear the argument that it’s not needed yet, since there isn’t an “insert country/language/non-English fandom” presence in the OTW/on the Archive. Personally I feel like this is a chicken/egg situation. Is the OTW/AO3 so American/English language focussed because there isn’t enough of a non-English fandom interest, or is there no interest because there’s not enough non-American/English accommodation?

A) Where do you fall on this? What should come first?

B) If the next growth spurt is of a non-English, different fandom culture nature, how will you accommodate that?

I must be listening to different people, but I’ve never heard the argument that internationalisation isn’t needed, let alone that it isn’t needed because there’s no non-English fandom presence on the Archive. To begin with, there are fanworks in over 20 languages on the Archive, a good number of them in fandoms that do not have an English fandom presence. The FAQ have been translated in over 15 languages, and Support and Abuse answer tickets in roughly the same amount of languages, so international users are able to ask questions and get instructions a little more every day.

Having a more international org and making the Archive more useable for international users are things that we already strive for, and I’m certainly not proposing we stop any time soon. I can pretty much guarantee that the day the translatable interface is finally a possibility arrives, Translation will have it translated and double betaed in at least five languages within the first week.

With regards to the actual question, I don’t see how deciding what should come first will do any good. Fandom develops mostly without outside planning or control. The OTW is not Fandom’s guiding light, and it’s not meant to be the be-all end-all of fandom. We’re just a small part of it, and we’re doing our best; there are countless fans out there who’ve never heard of the OTW, and countless other archives that I hope will continue to thrive. Fandom being so plural is part of what makes it brilliant..

We don’t (and shouldn’t) try to direct fandom, we are here for when it wants to come our way. And while we do that, we will continue to work every day to make the org more international and the Archive more useable for international users.

Alex Tischer 2015 Q&A: Election Process

After a few years of uncontested elections (including one which garnered 0 candidates initially), there are now more candidates than ever before for the smallest number of seats ever up for election. To what do you attribute this sudden surge of candidates, and what would you do during your time on the Board to promote consistent contested elections for Board seats?

I think the sudden surge of candidates is due to the Board making a number of very controversial decisions in recent terms while simultaneously not being open to feedback from any side. This is basically a matter of “if they won’t listen to anyone lower than Board, we’ll have to become Board so they’ll listen”, if you will.

This question is a bit of a Catch 22 in that it is much more likely that there will be enough candidates for a contested election if the Board has done a number of contentious things in the last term, but I wouldn’t want to make controversial decisions just for the sake of promoting contested elections. Basically, a good way to ensure contested elections is making everyone hate you enough to want to replace you. And while I don’t mind making unpopular but necessary choices, I draw the line at mismanaging so people are rattled enough to step up.

While the current election process is more independent than it was in previous years, it is still subject to some decisions made by the Board, which can be passed at any time without input from volunteers. It’s possible for the Board to even change the rules while an election is in progress to exclude some candidates or voters or to punish volunteers for visibly participating in the process. If elected, how would you ensure that each future election is unaffected by interests within the sitting Board?

I would want the Election committee to become much more independent than it is even now. There should be no Board interference in the election process whatsoever. The highest instance on Elections questions should be the Elections committee, not the Board. If the Board has a legitimate complaint about a candidate or volunteer, they should have to resolve it like everyone else, by addressing the Elections committee and awaiting their decision. Elections should be able to request legal counsel in particularly tricky cases, but it should never be the Board that notices the problem, consults on the legal implications and then puts a rule in effect that affects how the elections are run. For me this is the textbook definition of a conflict of interest, especially if there are members of the Board that are running for re-election.

What do you think about the fact that two changes to the bylaws (reduction in size of board from seven to nine [sic], and the ability of two-thirds of the board to vote off another member with or without cause) means the board could dilute the election process? Effectively, the standing board could vote off any candidate who wins and with whom they disagree until they reach a candidate of whom they approve. Are you concerned about this?

I am very concerned about this. While I am willing to believe that both bylaw changes have been made without malicious intent, the net effect is that the Board can now circumvent the Election process and seat people on the Board as they choose. In my opinion, this goes against everything the Elections were set up to achieve.

Alex Tischer 2015 Q&A: Conflict Resolution, Group 1

Please describe your approach to conflict resolution.

I approach conflict resolution in a very straightforward way. Get everyone together, state all the facts clearly and only then start your discussion, after clearly defining the terms and what you’re actually trying to achieve.

If attempting to resolve a conflict I have no personal stakes in, I try to stay objective and help the involved parties reach a point where they can at least see where the other party is coming from, even if they don’t necessarily agree. Once that has been achieved, I will try to work towards a compromise that all parties can live with.

If trying to resolve a conflict I am personally involved in, I force myself to take a step back and look at the issue as objectively as possible, to see if I can find places where compromise would be most easily found.

What do you feel the Board’s role should be in staff and volunteer performance issues and/or disputes, if any? What guides your opinion on this topic?

I feel the Board’s role in those subjects should be as minimal as possible. I especially feel that Board should not take the initiative to involve themselves in any of those issues unless the involved parties approach them. Small issues should be dealt with at a committee level; if they have to be escalated out of the committee, it should be VolCom’s job to deal with them. The cases where Board would become involved should be so limited as to barely exist at all. Board doesn’t have the background, the experience or the neutrality to solve these issues satisfactorily.

Throughout the years, the Board as a whole has had a reputation for personal conflicts with some OTW chairs, staffers and volunteers, as well as among themselves. Have you ever witnessed this during your years in the OTW? What do you think might fix this?

Yes, I have witnessed this, in recent years, in a variety of ways. And the ability to behave like a professional adult might fix this: leaving personal feelings aside when one is discussing a work issue, for example. You don’t have to get along with everyone, but you do have to be able to work with people you dislike. Sure, don’t have a drink with them when you’re in town, but reply to their question or email with basic politeness.

In a hypothetical situation where you believed your fellow directors were behaving with hostility towards an OTW staffer’s request due to a personal grudge, how would you react? / How would you address a fellow Director who has been disrespectful or abusive to someone else in the organization? What if they refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for their behavior?

I would directly address the matter as it came to my attention, hopefully during the incident in question. I would clearly state that they are or had been behaving hostile towards someone and that I didn’t think this was appropriate and that I would expect them to apologise to the staffer in question. If they refused to take responsibility for their behaviour, I would make very clear that I considered that inacceptable. With all those discussions hopefully happening in a public space, I would hope that there would be other people who would voice the same opinion. I would then attempt to take official measures against the fellow director, but in the meantime would apologise to the wronged staffer and let them know that I was working on a solution.

Alex Tischer 2015 Q&A: Finances, Group 2

Can you describe your ideal setup for OTW finances going forward, given that many of you flagged the current situation as an issue?

The setup I would like to see established is a fairly basic, yet functional one that has the option of being improved on and fine-tuned in the future.

We need to make finances a job for more than one person again: having a single individual as the lynchpin for all our financial transactions is irresponsible, and provides too many chances for things being perceived as dodgy, even if everything is completely above board.

I would like to see the finance committee reestablished, with at least three members on it. Having clear and accurate bookkeeping for past expenses and a prospective budget to use for planning would be part of my ideal setup. I would want the accounts/bookkeeping audited at least once a year, if not by an external auditor (which might be too expensive), then at least by two volunteer auditors with no involvement in the finance committee. The audit reports should be available to any interested org members at the very least, and preferably publically available.

There is currently no internal or external auditing structure checking the OTW’s bookkeeping (no legal worries, here: the Delaware state laws do not require annual auditing from nonprofits). If you join Board, is this something you would like to change? If so, how?

As I explained in my previous answer, yes, I would want to establish at the very least an internal auditing structure. I would want the auditors to have no involvement in the finance committee and the yearly audit reports to be as publically available as possible. While this might not be a legal requirement, for the peace of mind of the members – and actually the treasurer and/or finance committee themselves – I think this is a very important element to have.

Our finances are currently being overseen by only one person with actual decisional and content-producing power, which is concerning in terms of transparency, and efficiency. If elected, how would you go about building a sound administrative Financial structure for the Organization?

This may be getting repetitive by now. I would want to re-establish the finance committee, make sure it is formed of at least three people, have public bookkeeping audits and a prospective budget for future planning.

As to how to build this, the first step would be to recruit internally among the staff of all committees for volunteers with bookkeeping experience, who would be willing to sit on a finance committee to start working the details out.

I saw many concerns about finances in the candidates’ statements, but I did not see outsourcing financial oversight mentioned as a solution. I’d like to know what the candidates think about outsourcing (paying for) some responsibilities, in particular engaging a company with a background in financial services for non-profits.

While I am not ruling out the possibility that this might become necessary, if, for example, no volunteers came forward to staff the finance committee or, likewise, no auditors could be found, I don’t think our finances at this moment absolutely require this.

It is hard to say, as so much about our finances is not openly discussed, but from the glimpses I’ve caught, our finances don’t seem to be very complicated and involved. If that turns out to be untrue, I don’t dislike the idea of outsourcing at least the untangling part of the current situation, and potentially keeping certain aspects outsourced for longer. It would require careful research to find the right balance of a cost-benefit solution for the org, because while obviously a certain amount of donation money has to go to admin and upkeep of the org in general, a large number of our members do not donate for the administrative upkeep of the org, and would rather see the projects kept up and running. Some admin costs are necessary, but we have to make sure that if we’re thinking about outsourcing, that it is really not possible to do the relevant tasks in org.