There’s a saying in American political debate that is as popular as it is wrong, which happens when one side appeals to our country’s democratic ideal, and the other side will immediately counter with “The United States is a Republic, not a Democracy”. I’ve noticed a similar misunderstanding happening in open source culture around the phrase “meritocracy” and the negatively-charged “oligarchy”. In both cases, though, these are not mutually exclusive terms. In fact, they don’t even describe the same thing.
One of these terms describes where the authority to lead (or govern) comes from. In US politics, that’s the term “republic”, which means that the authority of the government is given to it by the people (as opposed to divine-right, force of arms, of inheritance). For open source, this is where “meritocracy” fits in, it describes the authority to lead and make decisions as coming from the “merit” of those invested with it. Now, merit is hard to define objectively, and in practice it’s the subjective opinion of those who can direct a project’s resources that decides who has “merit” and who doesn’t. But it is still an important distinction from projects where the authority to lead comes from ownership (either by the individual or their employer) of a project.
History can easily provide a long list of Republics which were not representative of the people. That’s because even if authority comes from the people, it doesn’t necessarily come from all of the people. The USA can be accurately described as a democracy, in addition to a republic, because participation in government is available to (nearly) all of the people. Open source projects, even if they are in fact a meritocracy, will vary in what percentage of their community are allowed to participate in leading them. As I mentioned above, who has merit is determined subjectively by those who can direct a project’s resources (including human resource), and if a project restricts that to only a select group it is in fact also an oligarchy.
Balance and Diversity
One of the criticisms leveled against meritocracies is that they don’t produce diversity in a project or community. While this is technically true, it’s not a failing of meritocracy, it’s a failing of enfranchisement, which as has been described above is not what the term meritocracy defines. It should be clear by now that meritocracy is a spectrum, ranging from the democratic on one end to the oligarchic on the other, with a wide range of options in between.
The Ubuntu project is, in most areas, a meritocracy. We are not, however, a democracy where the majority opinion rules the whole. Nor are we an oligarchy, where only a special class of contributors have a voice. We like to use the term “do-ocracy” to describe ourselves, because enfranchisement comes from doing, meaning making a contribution. And while it is limited to those who do make contributions, being able to make those contributions in the first place is open to anybody. It is important for us, and part of my job as a Community Manager, to make sure that anybody with a desire to contribute has the information, resources, and access to to so. That is what keeps us from sliding towards the oligarchic end of the spectrum.