When a moderator election is announced, this is what appears on the election page to explain what the role of moderators is:

On Stack Exchange, we believe the core moderators should come from the community, and be elected by the community itself through popular vote. We hold regular elections to determine who these community moderators will be.

Community moderators are accorded the highest level of privilege on our community, and should themselves be exemplars of positive behavior and leaders within the community.

Our general criteria for moderators is as follows:

  • patient and fair
  • leads by example
  • shows respect for their fellow community members in their actions and words
  • open to some light but firm moderation to keep the community on track and resolve (hopefully) uncommon disputes and exceptions

That's a very high-level overview, and while it does give some guidance as to who would make a good moderator, it provides no concrete information regarding what being a moderator actually means. It doesn't convey to potential candidates what they would face if elected. It's ok for the voting phase, but it is not good guidance in the nomination phase.

There's also a link to the blog post “A Theory of Moderation”. That's better: it does cover some moderation tasks. But it has several defects:

  • It's partly obsolete. (For example, “communicate directly with users via email” is now on the “don't do” list — any communication moderators have with users is done through the site.)
  • It explains the what do some extent, but it's silent on the how much.
  • It is perforce generic, but moderation can be a very different job on different sites. This is to some extent (but not only) related to the how much.

Credits to glucas for pointing this out.

How can we better describe what moderators do? More specifically, how can we integrate something in the election process that gives potential candidates a better idea of what the job entails on that site?

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    "Remember when you had to watch a room full of 2-year-olds, and they wouldn't listen but you couldn't beat them? That's what you're signing up for." – Shog9 Feb 18 '16 at 20:47
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    @Shog9 Yes, that describes some sites, like, say, Parenting. But on Emacs it wouldn't have been accurate. – Gilles Feb 18 '16 at 20:48
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    Before standing in my first election I asked on meta what the job entailed, and before standing in my second I asked for site-specific job info, but I gather that this is unusual. It'd be nice if we could find a way to provide it instead of making candidates ask for it. – Monica Cellio Feb 18 '16 at 20:59
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    @Gilles: Are you saying that on Emacs the mods can beat the 2-year-olds? :P – Nathan Tuggy Feb 18 '16 at 23:34

As this answer says, some of this information will be both site-dependent and time-dependent. I suspect that a high-level "what do moderators do?" post could be written too, but it's important to hear from the current moderators on a site.

I suggest that when an election is announced (or even a bit before), a member of the Community team post a meta question along the following lines:

Just as the community [asks questions of candidates] (link to meta post), we also ask moderators about the job so prospective candidates know what they're getting into. We ask that current moderators answer the following questions:

  • How do you spend your moderation time? Which tasks take the largest amounts of time? And roughly speaking, how much time do you spend on moderation tasks (not counting your "just plain user" time like asking and answering questions)?

  • What do you love about the moderator job on this site?

  • What have been your biggest challenges as a moderator? Without revealing privileged information, can you talk about how you (personally and collectively) have addressed them?

  • What advice do you have for somebody considering this job?

Every community is a little different. If you have additional questions about moderation on this site, ask them as new questions tagged [election].

I adapted this from a question I asked during a past election.

I realize that by doing this we are asking moderators to do extra work, possibly at a time when they're already so busy that they've asked for additions to the team. Sites should be flexible about this; it might be sufficient if only one moderator answers, though more perspectives can be better. I tried to focus on questions that are both important and not too time-consuming to answer. The "what do you love" question isn't strictly necessary, but I included it to make sure there's something positive in the mix. You do want people to nominate, after all.

  • This is great, I think, and if we ever have another election on Game Development I think we'll give this a shot. – Josh Feb 18 '16 at 22:16

You're right in that this varies by site, so a network-wide description is of limited use. But I think this also will vary by time, due to each moderator's skill level, interests, and time available to moderate. So I don't think a permanent document posted to each site would be useful in the long run.

I think a good solution is to have the current moderators speak to what they do at the start of an election. Have another meta post added to the list of things the CMs create when an election starts. The meta post will simply request each moderator post something that outlines what they do as a moderator.

This way, the nominees will have a useful reference to work from. It will provide them with an idea of what it's like to be a moderator, and how they would fit into the existing team. It'll especially help them to find gaps in the current moderation coverage, which they can aspire to fill. And it'll provide a place for nominees to publicly discuss with the existing moderators on how moderation works. Later on, it can provide a handy reference during future discussions on how moderators are moderating.

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