What does radical participation look like?

I recently got back from my first Mozilla Festival and I’ve been thinking about what I experienced there. There is too much to fit in one post, so I want to focus on the question that came up in Mitchell’s keynote: What does radical participation look like?


What was radical when Mozilla started is standard practice today (for example, Microsoft now runs open source communities). We can’t win by doing the same thing others are doing, so how can Mozilla invite people to participate in ways that no one else is able or willing to do?

I have some thoughts about this and I’m interested in hearing what other people think. To get the conversation going, I’ll share one idea about what it would look like for Mozilla to have radical participation today.

Staff as scaffolding

In most areas of Mozilla, staff are directly doing the work and volunteers are involved with those teams to differing degrees. We have good metrics for coding and we can see that volunteers are committing around 40-50% of the patches.


For a comparison with another volunteer-based organization, at the American Red Cross volunteers constitute about 90% of the workforce. The Red Cross staff are mostly supporting those volunteers rather than doing the work of responding to disasters themselves.

We should measure the percentage of tasks done by volunteers across the whole project and set goals to get it closer to the example set by the Red Cross. Some areas, like SUMO and Location Services, are close to this today. Let’s take the knowledge they’re gaining and bring it to other teams to help them scale contributions.


There will certainly be challenges doing this and it might not make sense for all teams. For instance, with the coding example above it might not be productive to have more volunteers submitting patches. This is an assumption that should be tested though.

For example, Dietrich Ayala has had great results bringing in many students to help work on long-term features on the Firefox OS roadmap. Their work is removed from the day-to-day of staff developers shipping the next release, so he avoids the Mythical Man Month problem.

Image from Ian Forrester
Image from Ian Forrester

We could use Dietrich’s model to support large groups focused on innovating in areas that will be relevant to us 2 or 3 years out, such as looking into how we can shape an open Internet of Things. We couldn’t hire 1,000 staff to focus on an Internet of Things research effort, but we could build a community of 1,000 volunteers to do that.

Wikipedia says that there are about 1,000 employees of Microsoft Research. I’m assuming Microsoft wouldn’t be willing to close that department and replace their R&D efforts with volunteers.

So having volunteers do more of the tasks with staff focused on supporting them feels to me like one part of radical participation. What do you think? What else could we be doing to get to a point of radical participation?

8 thoughts on “What does radical participation look like?

  1. >So having volunteers do more of the tasks with staff focused on supporting them feels to me like one part of radical participation. What do you think? What else could we be doing to get to a point of radical participation?

    It’s difficult to answer. Any systems, processes have a tendency to be skewed for achieving a certain purpose. Maybe a way to avoid that is to have a very strong mantra on what is at the center. radical + participation already creates a distance, maybe a way to see it would be more driven by the community, where the Mozilla organization is in fact a setup helping people from outside to work on a product which is for example called Firefox. The staff becomes in this scenario facilitator on pushing the bits through the process, but not driving the process. A bit like wikipedia where the community makes the core of the project.

    Just thoughts at the top of my head, not sure it’s even clear for me.

    1. Wikipedia would be a really interesting example to dig into more. How much of the work of Wikipedia is lead by a staff member vs. lead by a volunteer? Do you happen to know? I haven’t dug too deeply into their stats, but I know they do collect a range of interesting data points.

  2. Here’s an idea that would be a possible stepping stone to the ‘staff as scaffolding’ model…

    I meet lots of people who don’t work at Google but who idolize their 20% time concept. I don’t want to start a conversation about what 20% time looks like in practice for developers at Google, but the *concept* resonates widely, and well outside the tech sector. Which is valuable.

    What would an official ‘20% time’ for community building look like? Both in practice, and in how the outside world understands Mozilla?

    Would it help with the struggle to balance time spent meeting deadlines, and time investing in the community? I’m trying to build/enable a metrics community, but I feel those pressures too.

    Community building is a long term investment, much like R&D/innovation.

    1. You’re right — the 20% time idea is certainly really appealing to people. In practice, would being told that you had the ability to spend this much time building a metrics community be enough? Are there other things that you’d need too? For instance, would you need to have your other responsibilities reduced by 20% in order to make the community building something that is actually achievable?

      1. Yes, this would definitely impact on short term productivity but the strength lies in being able to ring-fence that time against those pressures without thinking you’re ‘working on the wrong thing’. It would be permission to do this work well.

        Ideally the community building work would be such that it has impact on the goals you are trying to achieve, and eventually has greater impact that you could have alone in the 20% chunk of time. All the while strengthening the human connections that make up the Project as a whole.

        And community building work comes in many shapes or sizes as you know (from events and education through to building systems and analyzing data), so this time could be applied by staff in ways that most appeal to them individually.

      2. My concern is how to help teams know they made the right trade-off before that greater impact from the investment in community building pays off? There’s a gap here since the pay-off happens in the long-term but there is short-term pain by diverting resources. I wonder if being able to show a measure of the return on investment in community building would be helpful? It would give teams something other than faith to go on.

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