The Role of Working Groups

A while ago I wrote about the issue of the IETF document process being quite heavy-weight in its final stages. Documents go through a lot of review and changes in their last few months. Some of this is natural as the document gains more exposure.

But often difficult tradeoffs get re-discussed at this stage, late surprises are discovered, and significant document changes occur. And since the documents are within the responsibility the IETF steering group (IESG) during the final stages, this leads to a situation where much of this process is managed by the steering group. But letting the working groups drive their technology and be responsible for changes would be better. A distributed organisation scales better, and the working groups are also equipped to involve the individual participants.

We are now experimenting with three changes to improve this situation. These changes are small, but we are hoping that they will have a positive effect.

  1. Perform some reviews that are now happening at IETF Last Call a bit earlier. This will put the working group in a bigger role in resolving cross-area and general issues.
  2. In the IETF, each document that passes through the approval process has a document shepherd. They are usually the working group chairs. We have started to invite document shepherds on IESG voice calls when there’s a document that is likely to require discussion. This will make it possible for the document shepherd to be involved in all the discussions.
  3. When a document has a number of issues, hand over the process back to the working group, as opposed to the IESG tracking the issues. Among other things, this will ensure that changes are discussed in an open working group list and agreed through consensus.

While these changes do not by themselves decrease the amount of work done in the final stages, we believe that if successful, this experiment will enable working groups to deal with issues before IETF Last Call and IESG review and empower the working groups to be in charge of the documents throughout their life cycle. We are also hoping that document quality will improve and number of issues discussed in the IESG will be lower.

Discussions are ongoing with the IETF working group chairs and review teams about the practical details of this experiment. Review team members may be asked to review a document when the work has finished in the working group but before an IETF Last Call is started. Working group chairs may ask for these reviews, and if they do, they will be managing the discussion with the reviewer and the working group carefully.

The IETF review teams – such as the Security Directorate (SecDIR), Applications Area Directorate (APPSDIR), or the General Area Review Team (Gen-ART) – have gained a significant role in ensuring that the IETF produces high-quality, understandable and implementable RFCs. In order to avoid overloading these teams, the teams may only take on some early reviews. The experiment will be evaluated after six months to determine whether the practice has been useful.

Jari Arkko, IETF Chair