W3C Change: Outreach

Published 17 years, 8 months past

My first suggestion for improving the W3C is this:  every Working Group should have one member whose primary (and possibly sole) responsibility is outreach.

To make life a little easier, I’m going to refer to this position as a WGO (for Working Group Outreach).  As an aside, I’m not sure that “outreach” is exactly the right term for what I have in mind, but it’s a decent term that captures most of what I have in mind, so I’ll use it here.  If someone comes up with a better term, I’ll be grateful.

So here’s what I envision for a WGO.

  1. The WGO keeps the public informed about the top issues on the Working Group’s agenda and immediate-future activities.  The easiest, most obvious way to do this is to post a summary of every WG FTF (face-to-face) meeting.  A summary would describe the topics the WG discussed, resolutions that were reached, which problems were not solved, and so forth.  This could be a bullet-point list, but a better summary would be something like a short article.

    Note that I do not say that the WGO should post the FTF minutes, which are often private.  The results of those discussions, though, should be public, even when no results occurred.  A summary can say that the WG discussed a topic at length and reached no resolution without saying why.  It can also say that a topic was discussed and a solution found, and then describe the solution.

    A really good WGO would produce an activity summary more often than every FTF.  I don’t know that I’d insist on a summary for every weekly teleconference, but sending out a summary once a month would be more than reasonable.  These summaries would be posted on the W3C site and to the relevant public mailing lists.  For the CSS WGO, this would always mean posting to www-style.  In cases where WG activity touched on features of XHTML or SVG, summary posts would be made to those public lists as well.

    The purpose here is to draw back some of the curtain surrounding Working Groups.  Too often, interested members of the public don’t know what the WG is up to, and that can be frustrating.  If there are several people agitating for a new feature and the WG stays silent on it, it’s impossible to tell if the WG is blowing the idea off or if it’s something they’ve considered at length but haven’t yet reached a decision.

    Public summaries also have the benefit of allowing some public discussion of work before the public-comment period on a proposed specification.  This would help distribute the WG’s feedback load.

  2. The WGO brings the needs and concerns of the public to the Working Group, and communicates back the WG’s reactions.  This means part of the WGO’s job is to be involved in the wider community surrounding a given activity.  The CSS WGO, for example, would spend time reading web design mailing lists, forums, blogs, and so forth to find out what people in the field want and need (in CSS terms, anyway).  The WGO would present these to the WG as items to consider.  The topics so raised, and the WG’s responses to them, would go into the next summary.

    The goal here, of course, is to have someone on the Working Group who represents the “in the trenches” folks.  If there are other members of the WG who also represent those who work in the field, that’s awesome.  With the WGO position, though, there’s the assurance of at least one person who speaks for those who actually use the products of the Working Group, and who will use any future products.

  3. The presence of a WGO in a Working Group should be a charter condition.  No group should be (re-)chartered without an identified WGO, and the extended lack of a WGO should be cause to question the continued charter of a group.

    Basically, I’m of the opinion that if a WG can’t find someone passionate enough about what they’re doing to be the WGO, then it’s time to ask whether or not they should continue at all.  Similarly, if there’s no real community for the WGO to represent, then it’s time to ask why the WG even exists.

  4. The WGO should have no other major responsibilites within the Working Group.  This means the WGO cannot be the WG’s chair, and should not be a specification editor.  Their primary job should be the two-way representation I’ve described here.

    It’s too easy to get overloaded in a WG, especially if you’re the kind of enthusiast a good WGO should be.  There needs to be a defined limit to the position, so that outreach is always topmost on that person’s agenda within the WG, and it doesn’t get buried under other duties.

In summary, a good WGO would act as a liason between the Working Group and the community surrounding it.  A great WGO would do all that and also produce information that helps expand that community.  They could publish quick how-to’s, for example, concentrating on either current or near-future specifications.

If you could, please allow me to illustrate my points with a few things that a CSS WGO might do in the course of their duties.  I’ll call this CSS WGO “Bob” to make the example less clumsy.

Recently, Bob’s been seeing a lot of calls on blogs for an “ancestor” selector.  This would be something that lets you say, “style this element based on its descendants”, such as styling all links that contain an image without having to class them.  (This idea has come up many times in the past, by the way, but has yet to be added to CSS.)  So Bob brings the “ancestor selector” subject to the WG.  The WG says, “Yes, that’s a very good idea, but it runs aground on the following problems.”  Bob would then put all that into his next summary: “The WG is in favor of adding the ancestor selector, but the following problems prevent its inclusion…”  Bob could certainly also communicate the response directly, through mailing lists or blogs, instead of just putting the response in the summary.  The latter is necessary, of course, but doing both is better.

How is this better?  Because the community knows the WG has considered the idea, where the WG stands on the idea, and the reasons why it hasn’t been accepted.  Everyone knows where the sticking points lie, and can make suggestions to overcome them, instead of just guessing as to why the requested feature hasn’t been adopted.  As for the reasons, they could be anything from “that’s demonstrably impossible in an entropic universe” to “not enough implementors have committed to doing it”.  As long as we know what the roadblock is, we can act accordingly.

Furthermore, Bob might accompany a new version of the Advanced Layout module with a quick how-to article that describes how to do a certain common layout, one that’s very hard to do in current CSS, with the stuff in the new module.  This provides a quick, “wow cool!” introduction to the WG’s efforts, which can energize the community and also draw in new people.

I will readily grant that many WGs have what are effectively unofficial WGOs; in a lot of ways, you could argue that I’ve been a WGO for years, as have several other people, through books and articles and forum participation and blogging and so on.  That’s not enough.  There needs to be someone inside the Working Group who is focused on explaining to the world what the WG is doing and who is explaining to the WG what the world is doing, or at least trying to do.

So that’s the first of my three major suggestions for reforming the W3C: an outreach person for every Working Group.

Comments (18)

  1. Yes, you are absolutely right. It is at least just as important for the W3C of the 21 centrury to be open and transparent for its public as it is for a software company to be (ref the latest wave of blogs popping up in Redmond). Without active communication with what’s ultimately the target audience of the specification (or, in Microsoft’s case: the software product), it won’t hit anywhere near the bull’s eye and will be viewed as just as irrelevant as WCAG 2.0 and SVG 1.2 are for many of us.

    What W3C should do to make this easy for the Working Groups, is to develop a set of tools (or embrace and deploy existing and already developed tools) that allow the WGO to post updates to a WG blog where users (like you and me) can, after a site-wide registration, post comments and suggestions.

    I hate the feeling of having my hands and feet tied when it comes to feedback to the W3C Working Groups and their progress as well as the feeling of being left out in the cold, moisty and dark void of uninformedness that most Working Groups are keeping “us”. I want to be included. I have something to contribute with. I have strong opinions about these matters. But the Working Groups seem completely uninterested in what I and people like me would have to say. I know this is most likely not the case with most Working Groups, but this is the feeling people have — I’m pretty sure I’m not alone.

  2. Well said, Eric. Besides opening up communication, it seems you’re implying that the W3C needs to increase its marketability with this role, and there are likely a lot of people out there who couldn’t agree more.

    Outreach usually concerns those who directly tend to the individuals in a community who are in need, not one that takes what it learns back to its employers. Your typical prison outreach program helps inmates, but it isn’t responsible for changing the penal system based on its experiences. Since outreach is about serving an audience more than acting as a go-between of groups, I’m not sure about this usage either. Having a W3C role strictly for outreach would be great, but as for within WGs… What this does sound like is a PR role.

    But that term is taken, with all its own connotations, so how about something like Working Group Liaison? I’d say WG Community Liaison, but from the sounds of what you’re saying, the job of the Liaison is to develop communication between the WG and not only the community-at-large, but other working groups and implementors as well.

    Just one idea of what I’m sure will be many.

  3. I love this idea. The only problem I see is that working group meetings are supposedly confidential, so those involved can discuss upcoming product features and other IP issues without fear that they’re going to get out. We don’t mention it often, but it does happen in the CSS WG sometimes.

    I’d like to see more invited experts on working groups, more “official” blogging by WG members, and I’ll bring up the idea of a WGO for CSS at our next F2F.

  4. I agree with you in part, but not fully. It is true that much more communication between the WGs and the actual web-users is vital, but there are a few problems with that as well.

    For instance, currently, one of the major annoyances that many people have with the W3C, is that it takes a long time to get anything done. Removing one member from each WG, to become a WGO, is lessening the workforce. Also, for his position to be effective, it would be necessary to give him time to write up an acceptable summary, and give time for well-considered responses from the public. The WG would need to wait for this feedback, before moving onto the next stage of their task.

    Also, Im worried about what the WGO post would become. The WGO would have a large level of power, in that he decides what each side (the WG, and the public) hears. Eg. If an idea takes root on the internet, and gets a reasonable following, he has the power to kill that idea off, by simply never reporting it to the rest of his WG.

    That becomes a problem when you consider the type of job that a WGO is. In theory, it may seem that he is a part of the WG, but really, he is more of a “mailman.” He simply takes what one side says, delivers it to the other, then waits to take back a reply. After paying to be a part of the W3C, who would want to take up this post? It would be far more interesting to actually have a real say in the decisions of the WG.

    Finally, when meeting with the WG, how does the WGO present the opinions of the public? Those opinions are always so varied, and so numerous, that it may be troublesome at best. And if he does not agree with the opinions he is being forced to express, then it is likely he will be a lot less enthusiastic/convincing as he would be when he was presenting an idea which he actually believed in.

    What is your take on these problems? Or do you feel they would only be minor problems, at most?

    Overall, I personally believe that what is needed is half of a WGO, ie. a one-way communicator. That is, the WGO should post summaries of events to the public. However, he should not be considered as the WG’s main way of hearing from the public. Any member of a WG should be enthusiastic about their task, and so, should, voluntarily, be reading public opinions on the internet anyway. All of the WG members, should themselves be fully aware of public opinion, develop their own opinions on different issues, and then bring these to the WG meeting room.

    This way, WG members become a part of the public, which is ultimately, the perfect solution. Otherwise, the WG members will remain as distant as ever from the real people, and be much less effective because of that.

  5. Alternative names for ‘Outreach’: ambassador; liason; ombudsman. I’m kind of favoring ‘ambasssador’ for applicability.

  6. Kevin: I agree with you about the privacy concern, but I covered that in my post. It’s one thing to summarize with “proposal X was discussed and the Microzilla rep said it was impossible to do because of their XAMBL technology’s development path”; it’s another to summarize with “proposal X was discussed and significant implementor concerns were expressed”. The former is what I’d expect in the minutes. The latter would go into the summary.

    I admit there would be fine lines to walk sometimes, but hey, there are sometimes WG discussions that are totally off the record, not even appearing in the minutes. Those would obviously also not go into the summary.

    Michael: you raise good points, though I think they’re easily addressed. First, I would have existing groups add a WGO, not reassign one of their existing members to the role. Second, a WGO could be an Invited Expert; that is, someone who doesn’t have to pay the membership fee to join. (Most WGs have Invited Experts; I was one for seven years.)

    I also don’t propose that the WGO be the only point of contact between a WG and the public. I do think there should be one person dedicated to that task, but they would only accrue disproportionate power in bad WGs—that is, WGs where none of the members interact with the community. In good WGs, the WGO would serve to focus the WG’s attention on things they’ve already seen in the community, and get the WG’s responses to those things. The presence of a WGO might also spur the WG members to spend more time in the community than they otherwise would.

    How the WGO presents the community’s interests would be up to each WGO. There’s just no other way to manage that. A good WGO would present all ideas and common requests, not just those he liked. Furthermore, I don’t think the WGO has to convince the WG that an idea is good or bad. He just needs to put the idea in front of the WG, so they can collectively consider it. I’d expect him to take part in the discussion, of course.

  7. “every Working Group should have one member whose primary (and possibly sole) responsibility is outreach.”

    Hear, hear! Working on a big MIL-SPEC avionics R&D project I stole a page from a venerable old (WWII vintage) electronics company and created the “Integrated Logistics Group”. Yes, “catch-all”, indeed. Point is that we were tasked with acting as advocate for the end users. That tied in very well with my chore of nailing jello to the wall keeping the doc set in sync with what was actually happening on the floor.

    IMNSHO the answer to “Who watches is watchers” is “The stakeholders”. When those who do *tip of the hat* disconnect from those who legislate, well …

  8. p.s. since you’re casting around for terms I’ll bother to correct what I wrote. It was actually ILS, for Integrated Logistics Support. (We didn’t “do”, we just “helped”, so we could *cough* maintain our objectivity. *snort*)

  9. Eric: Very well-reasoned response. Your idea seems much more appealing to me now. In particular, the Invited Experts solution, as Id expect someone with that title to be enthusiastic/fair enough to be above most of the points I mentioned earlier.

    At any rate, It still boils down to the willing-ness of the rest of the WG. If, right now, certain members aren’t involved enough with their communities to effect their work at the WG, or to properly consider the ideas they read, why would they change with the event of adding a WGO? I suppose your point on only affecting bad WGs applies again here, but how many WGs are bad? Is there any real solution to solving the problem of a bad WG, other than disbanding it?

  10. In a comment to another blog entry, I discussed how Microsoft regained the trust of the C++ community by hiring Herb Sutter from the ISO standards committee as their C++ community liaison, and I suggested that a similar move for their IE development team would do wonders for their standing in the web development community. In this case, it seems the standards committee is the one that could benefit from the reputation of a respected member of the community. I agree that having someone whose key responsibility is to engage the greater web development world would be a great step forward.

  11. Isn’t the major component of the W3C’s ineffectiveness that Microsoft hasn’t listened to it and doesn’t need to listen?

    To me, it is no wonder that there is a lack of morale and a pandering to special interests – at least standards in those niche areas might get implemented.

    I predict that as long as Internet Explorer is the dominant browser the W3C’s perceived effectiveness will be determined by Microsoft.

    Does any of this ring true?

    Anyways, it doesn’t invalidate improving the current organization / protocols.

  12. Sean: I don’t believe so. When IE was under active development in the past, Microsoft did work towards compliance with W3C standards, and they continue to do so with the current restart of IE development. In any case, I don’t believe the desert of IE development should have prevented the incremental evolution of additional features that web developers are interested in.

    Standards work is always contentious and about compromise between different interested parties, and finding the right organization to mediate between everyone (including commercial interests, who represent valid sets of constituents, including themselves and their body of customers) is tricky. If you haven’t read it already, the blog entry More W3C controversy that Eric linked to has one illuminating look at how the W3C operates.

  13. How about kicking out corporate cronies who stand on working groups and contribute absolutely nothing because they are just there to ensure their competitors don’t get an edge?

    How about favorizing groups and projects that actually contribute something?

  14. * QA Interest Group Open to anyone without membership. Read the charter, everyone is welcome to participate, to propose articles for the QA Weblog AND to write W3C IG Note proposed to the mailing list or tutorials. Materials and Resources are more than welcome. We proposed that for a long time, but no one seems to have the desire to participate that much.
    * Semantic Web Education and Outreach just opened
    * WAI Education and Outreach
    * Internationalization Education and Outreach
    * Mobile Best Practices

  15. hmm Eric I guess my comment had too many links ;) spam filtered?

    [ Yep, it landed in the spam queue. I found it and brought it back out. -E. ]

  16. I’ve been advocating a step even further:

    require every W3C working group has a member of the public with no expertise.

    to ensure the group explains their work in plain English.

    which is helpful to everyone.

    They are also in a better position to contribute to your suggestion.

    I’d also like this group to include people with a range of intellectual ability.

    20% of the population of the UK are functionally illiterate.
    Currently for obvious reasons, they don’t use the web in the main.

    the web will engage these people when W3C understands what the issues are.

    example of how things might develop in practice:
    a return to RAD of web authoring tools, along the lines of

    including summaries of pages, this example being the BBC homepage:
    how this might be achieved:

    this is particularly pertinent to web2.0 and ARIA:

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