Python gets a new governance model

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By Jake Edge
December 18, 2018

Back in late October, when we looked in on the Python governance question, which came about due to the resignation of Guido van Rossum, things seemed to be mostly set for a vote in late November. There were six Python Enhancement Proposals (PEPs) under consideration that would be ranked by voters in a two-week period ending December 1; instant-runoff voting would be used to determine the winner. In the interim, though, much of that changed; the voting period, winner-determination mechanism, and number of PEPs under consideration are all different. But the voting concluded on December 16 and a winner has been declared; PEP 8016 ("The Steering Council Model"), which was added to the mix in early November, came out on top.

Right around the time of our previous article, a new thread was started on the Python committers Discourse instance to discuss the pros and cons of various voting systems. Instant-runoff voting fell out of favor; there were concerns that it didn't truly represent the will of the electorate, as seen in a Burlington, Vermont mayoral election in 2009, for example. The fact that it was put in place by fiat under a self-imposed deadline based on in-person conversations at the core developer sprint, rather than being hashed out on the Discourse instance or the python-committers mailing list may have also been a factor. As Nathaniel J. Smith put it:

I'm particularly concerned by all this rhetoric about how the deadline is fixed and everyone has to get in line. I want to be done soon too! But trying to steamroller other core devs like this, and acting like some core devs get to resolve disagreements like this by pure fiat, is a really unhealthy precedent. I feel like some of us are so concerned about making sure it looks like we can work together, make decisions, and hold a legitimate vote, that they're undermining our ability to actually work together, make decisions, or hold a legitimate vote.

Donald Stufft put together a lengthy summary of many of the different voting systems along with their good and bad attributes. No one had any interest in using "plurality voting" (also known as "first past the post"), but opinions differed on other possibilities. Eventually, PEP 8001 ("Python Governance Voting Process") was changed to use the Condorcet method to determine the winner. A tie or cycle, which are both possible—though unlikely—under the Condorcet method, would result in a re-vote among the tied options. Condorcet has been used by Debian and other projects for many years, which is part of the reason consensus formed around that method.

The winner

In the end, Condorcet led to an election where the results were clear without any real ambiguity about them. As Tim Peters, who was one of the more active developers in the voting-methodology discussion, noted: "Not only was there a flat-out Condorcet ('beats all') winner, but if we throw that winner out, there's also a flat-out Condorcet winner among the 7 remaining - and so on, all the way down to 'further discussion'." Given that the pool of voters was fairly small, 94, and that only 62 people actually voted, there could have been some far messier outcomes.

It is perhaps not surprising that a late entrant into the election was the clear winner. Smith and Stufft authored the PEP; it likely benefited from the discussion of the other PEPs and the changes that were made to them along the way. It also doesn't hurt that it is explicitly intended to be boring, simple, and flexible.

As with most of the other proposals, PEP 8016 creates a council. Various sizes were proposed in the other PEPs, but the steering council of PEP 8016 consists of five people elected by the core team. The definition of the core team is somewhat different than today's core developers or committers. The PEP explicitly states that roles other than "developer" could qualify for the core team. Becoming a member of the team simply requires a two-thirds majority vote of the existing members—and no veto by the steering council.

The veto is not well specified in the PEP and was the subject of a question during the discussion process. According to Smith, that idea came from the Django governance document, which was a major influence on the PEP. It is hoped that it would never have to be used, "but there are situations when the alternatives are even worse". There is also an escape hatch if it turns out that a core team member needs to be removed; a super-majority of four council members can vote to do so.

The steering council

The council is imbued with "broad authority to make decisions about the project", but the goal is that it uses that authority rarely; it is meant to delegate its authority broadly. The PEP says that the council should seek consensus, rather than dictate, and that it should define a standard PEP decision-making process that will (hopefully) rarely need council votes to resolve. It is, however, the "court of final appeal" for decisions affecting the language. But the council cannot change the governance PEP; that can only happen via a two-thirds vote of the core team.

The mandate for the council is focused on things like the quality and stability of Python and the CPython implementation, as well as ensuring that contributing to the project is easy so that contributions will continue to flow into it. Beyond that, maintaining the relationship between the core team and the Python Software Foundation (PSF) is another piece of the puzzle.

Steering council members will serve for the length of single Python feature release; after each release, a new council will be elected. Candidates must be nominated by a core team member; "approval voting" will be used to choose the new council. Each core team member can anonymously vote for zero to five of the candidates; the five with the highest total number of votes will serve on the new council, with ties decided by agreement between the tied candidates or by random choice.

There are some conflict-of-interest rules as well: "While we trust council members to act in the best interests of Python rather than themselves or their employers, the mere appearance of any one company dominating Python development could itself be harmful and erode trust." So no more than two council members can be from the same company; if a third person from the company is elected, they are disqualified and the next highest vote-getter moves up. If the situation arises during the council's term (e.g. a change in employer or an acquisition), enough council members must resign to ensure this makeup. Vacancies on the council (for this or any other reason) will be filled by a vote of the council.

In the event of core team dissatisfaction with the council, a no-confidence vote can be held. A member of the core team can call for such a vote; if any other member seconds the call, a vote is held. The vote can either target a single member of the council or the council as a whole. If two-thirds of the core team votes for no confidence, the councilperson or council is removed. In the latter case, a new council election is immediately triggered.

Some of the other PEPs specified things such as how PEPs would be decided upon or placed various restrictions on who could serve on the council. Victor Stinner's summary of the seven proposals gives a nice overview of the commonalities and differences between them. Many were fairly similar at a high level, most obviously varying on the size of the council, though there are other substantive differences, of course. PEP 8010 ("The Technical Leader Governance Model"), which more or less preserved the "benevolent dictator" model, and PEP 8012 ("The Community Governance Model"), which did not have a central authority, were both something of an outlier. It is interesting to note that 8012 came in second in the voting, while 8010 was one of the least favored governance options.

Another election

Next up is council elections. There are two phases, each of which will last two weeks; first is a nomination period, followed by the actual voting. Van Rossum has not ridden off into the sunset as some might have thought; he was active in some of the threads leading up to the governance election and was the first to start organizing the council election. He asked that the process start after the new year to give folks some time to relax over the holidays. Smith agreed, noting that starting on January 6 would lead to the actual vote starting January 20 and a council elected on February 3.

Overall, the process has gone fairly smoothly since Van Rossum stepped down and the first steps toward new governance were taken back in July. There would seem to be plenty of good candidates for the council, many of whom were active in the governance discussions. The first incarnation of the council will have lots of things to decide, including the PEP approval process, but it won't have all that much time to do so. Instead of the usual 18-month cycle, the council will serve an abbreviated term until Python 3.8 is released, which is currently scheduled for October 2019. The council elected after that should have a full 18 months, unless, of course, the release cadence is shortened. It will all be interesting to watch play out; once again, stay tuned.

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