In the free and open source software communities, meritocracy is one of the 3 main governance models in use and is likely the most popular, powerful, and successful. However, there is still, at times, confusion over how exactly this model works.

First and foremost, the basic tenet behind meritocracy is that people gain merit by their actions and activities within the community. What actually comprises that merit is determined by the pre-existing community itself, and so there exists an internal, stabilizing feedback system that prevents a healthy meritocracy from going askew. This basis of “what is merit” and “how one earns it” is self-defined and known within the community and can, and does, vary from community and project. For example, one FOSS project/community may value simple coding capability above all, and thus heavy-coders will gain merit quickly, whether they do so as volunteers or are paid to do so, and whether they work well with others or not. Other communities value a healthy balance of coding skills with consensus-based collaboration skills, whereas others also include the individual’s personal stake in the project (how much they are personally involved and invested).

As the above shows, a meritocracy is not, therefore, a democracy proper but a pseudo-republic. The wants and desires of the community are weighed in the atmosphere of merit that enables access and control.

Consensus decision making

One practice of meritocracy is the consensus-based decision model. From, “Consensus decision-making is a group decision making process that seeks the consent of all participants.” In practice, it is different from a majority-vote-wins approach. In the CentOS Project a discussion toward a decision follows this process:

  1. A proposal is put forth and a check for consensus is made.
    1. Consensus is signified through a +1 vote.
  2. A check is made for any dissent on the proposal.
    1. Reservations? State reservation, sometimes with a ‘-1’ signifier
      1. Reservations about the proposal are worked through, seeking consensus to resolve the reservations.
      2. A reservation is not a vote against the proposal, but may turn into a vote against if unresolved. It is often expressed with an initial -1 vote to indicate reservations and concerns. This indicates there is still discussion to be had.
    2. Stand aside? No comment, or state concerns without a -1 reservation; sometimes the ‘-0’ signifier is used.
      1. This option allows a member to have issues with the proposal without choosing to block the proposal, by instead standing aside with a +/-0 vote.
      2. The stated concerns may influence other people to have or release reservations.
    3. Block? Vote ‘-1’ with reasons for the block.
      1. This is a complete block on a proposal, refusing to let it pass. A block is a -1 vote and must be accompanied with substantive arguments that are rooted in the merit criteria of the Project – protecting the community, the upstream, technical reasons, and so forth.

Block (-1) votes used as a veto are typically used only when consensus cannot otherwise be met, and are effectively a veto that any sitting Board member can utilize with sufficient substantiation.