I recently posted an email to wikimediauk-l outlining an idea for a social enterprise providing paid consultancy for subjects of Wikipedia articles wanting to improve them. Sending that email was a mistake, because it didn't go into all the details of how the consultancy would work in order to avoid the serious problems with conflicts of interest that are inherent in such work. The knee-jerk reactions were entirely predictable. This page is so I can explain in a little more detail what I was talking about and why I think it's a good idea. Please note, this is still only in the very early stages. I'm not actually proposing that it be implemented, I'm just putting it out there for discussion. Please also note that this is the work of one person and should not be interpreted as having anything to do with any plans Wikimedia UK may or may not have.
What is the problem?
I don't believe it is disputed that there are a lot of subjects of Wikimedia articles (individuals, companies, organisations, etc.) that are not happy with the articles about or related to them. The official position is that these people should either post on talk pages or email OTRS. Any help that is provided is basically just telling people how to go about getting the problems fixed, rather than actually fixing them. Anyone wanting something fixed is expected to learn all about the relevant policies and procedures in order to convince the community to fix it. Most of these people almost certainly don't want to learn the minutiae of Wikipedia policy and just want someone to fix the problem.
This has resulted in various individuals and companies setting up services to help fix these problems in exchange for money. While some of them make a big deal about complying with Wikipedia policies, they generally do not handle the obvious conflicts of interest in a way that is consistent with Wikipedia's values and ideals (the actual policies on the subject are still a little vague). Most of them make promises that can't possibly be kept without doing things the Wikipedia community will seriously object to.
Why is this the solution?
Attempts so far to deal with this problem have just involved trying to stop these services by outing them and blocking them (and some work educating the PR industry about what is and isn't appropriate - but people that listen to that education probably weren't really the problem anyway). That is never really going to work, though. As long as there is a market for such a service, people will try to provide it. The only way to stop them is to compete with them. This could be done by trying to improve the volunteer services we provide, but I don't believe this will work for two reasons:
1) I don't think we'll find enough volunteers willing to put in the time to help commercial entities in that way. It's not very interesting work, and volunteering to help someone else make more money (which is why the commercial entities want their articles improved) isn't particularly rewarding.
2) A lot of people, particularly from big businesses, actually like paying for things. They would much rather have a paid service than a free one. There is a feeling that if something is being given away, then it is probably worthless. Paying someone also allows you to be more demanding and gives you someone to blame if things go wrong. This means that even if we had a brilliant volunteer service to help these people, a lot of them would still go to the paid services we're trying to stop anyway.
How will it work?
I envisage something not unlike a regular PR consultancy firm, but far more specialised (and with more morals than some I could mention!). Things would start with a meeting with a client where the client explains what it is they want and the consultant explains what is possible. That second part is particularly important - there are serious limits to what the consultant can actually achieve and those need to be made very clear to the client. In most cases, I expect the client's primary goals will be achievable, though (correcting factual errors, for example).
The consultant will them go about trying to achieve these goals using the procedures mentioned above. They wouldn't actually edit the articles, but would do the things the client is supposed to do as things currently stand. They would email OTRS, post on talk pages, etc.. Since they know all the procedures and policies, they should be able to do this far more effectively than the client. For example, they'll know not to post to the talk page saying something is wrong without providing a reliable source.
Another service that could be offered is monitoring of articles. I've heard plenty of complaints that even once you manage to get the Wikipedia article about you into a vaguely accurate state, you have to watch it like a hawk or it deteriorates again. A consultancy service could monitor articles and deal with any problematic edits (report vandalism, post new sources to counter new negative material being added, etc.).
How will Wikipedia's interests be protected?
There will need to be several checks and balances in place to protect Wikipedia.
The first is a volunteer board of directors. While the actual work will be done by paid staff, the overall control will rest with volunteers (who get their expenses paid but nothing else). This ensures that they are doing it for the right reasons. How that board would be appointed, I'm not sure - if the business is set up as a trading subsidiary of Wikimedia UK, then the Wikimedia UK board would appoint the directors.
The second is a clear rule in the governing documents saying that all profits (other than those reinvested in the business) have to be donated to the Wikimedia movement (via Wikimedia UK if this were a UK business, in order to take advantage of the tax relief). There can be no shareholders wanting dividends that would encourage the business to prioritise profit above doing the right thing.
The third is absolute transparency. There must be a public list of clients and prospective clients and of articles being worked on. All staff working on-wiki must clearly identify themselves. If any staff also edit in a private capacity, they must be completely open about that fact and about what account(s) they use to do that (and, of course, they must never edit an article where there is a conflict of interest or where there could reasonably be perceived to be a conflict of interest).
The fourth is a very clear agreement with all clients that payment is based purely on time and materials (ie. the bill is hours worked multiplied by some charge-out rate plus expenses) with nothing dependant on performance or results. Obviously, consultants will be motivated to get the results clients want because they want repeat business and recommendations, but we have to avoid making these motivations too strong.
Could this actually be a viable business?
Maybe... I've crunched a few numbers and there are some plausible assumptions that give rise to a profitable business. The big unknowns are how much we could charge for this service (I've based my initial calculations on some PR consulting charge-out rates I found online) and how easy it would be to get clients (ie. how much time would need to be taken up doing non-chargeable work). These numbers are on a scrap of paper at the moment, but I'll write them up later.