Wednesday, 16 November 2005

Deliberately enshrining principal-agent problems

If you think the executive has a hard time controlling the bureaucracy it nominally heads, or that the Supreme Court has difficulty keeping the 9th Circuit reined in, just remember: these principal-agent problems could be worse. In the case of the Debian project’s constitution, much worse.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Principals, agents, and Debian

I’ve noted in the past that Debian has deliberately enshrined in its constitution some rather serious principal-agent problems. By and large this isn’t a bad thing, since there isn’t the consensus within the Debian community to support the “benevolent dictator for life” model of decision-making—if you want that, well that’s what Ubuntu and Daddy Warbucks is for. But it does mean that sometimes the caca hits the fan when a Debian project leader does exercise his powers, as our now-former DPL did earlier this week just before the end of his term of office (by my estimate, just over one hour and 27 minutes before). John Adams would be proud. So we have three related issues in my mind:

  • As a matter of general principle, lame-duck DPLs shouldn’t be making appointments. This issue is ameliorated somewhat because DPL delegations—unlike “midnight judges”—can be revoked at any time, but it strikes me that whatever legitimacy a DPL has from the developers evaporates once a new DPL-elect has been designated. I can only speculate why this happened in this case, so I won’t bother.
  • Second, while Debian has a very strong tradition of developer sovereignty, with many aspects of the project being self-organized rather than originating with appointments from upon high, it seems to me that certain aspects of core infrastructure can’t be managed in this way.
  • Third, the appointment does little to relieve the excessive concentration of power in the core of Debian; if anything, Anthony Towns’ apparent resignation in the wake of Jörg’s appointment worsens the situation. Ensuring there is proper vetting of people with access to important infrastructure is important, but at the same time I find it difficult to believe that there are only a half-dozen or so Debian developers who are trustworthy enough to be system administrators, account managers, or archive maintainers (several of them occupying overlapping positions). That, rather than a lack of technical tools, has been a problem of note within Debian since, oh, the days of my youthful vigor within Debian (which are long since past).

In any event, congratulations to all the new Debian developers—and I’ll avoid pondering for too long why one person’s appointment to an unrelated group would suddenly break the logjam of developer application approvals.