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IGF and change: death by committee
by .Nxt | 9 Jul 2012 |
The Internet Governance Forum has been a novel hybrid of a traditional inter-governmental approach with the open Internet policy model since its inception.
A long series of careful compromises, brilliantly engineered by its original leaders (Nitin Desai as Special Advisor and Markus Kummer as Executive Coordinator), meant that the annual four-day forum made sense to the broad range of attendees.
Key elements of the IGF include:
- Set-piece plenary sessions (that make governments comfortable)
- Small, flexible workshops (which give civil society an opportunity to discuss particular topics)
- An advisory committee (the MAG) comprising all stakeholders that provide a decision-making body
- Two open preparatory meetings for each forum, typically in February and May in preparation for the November event
- MAG meetings (originally closed) held after the preparatory meetings to make decisions
- Light requirements on workshops allowing for a large number (around 100) to be approved
- Opening and closing ceremonies that give dignitaries a stage and lend political weight and relevance
Over the first five years, under Desai and Kummer's guidance, changes were made to this basic format in an effort to keep it flexible and to fix problems, both real and perceived.
However, since both men left their positions in late 2010, and neither has been replaced the format has stopped being refreshed. Structural issues were given to a formal working group (the CTSDWG) to decide, leading to a two-year process that reached some high-level conclusions but produced little of practical value and were later the victim of a broader political fight.
What improvements have been made?
- The MAG committee has been seen a turnaround in its members (although not as often or as extensively as desired).
- The IGF has gradually built a process where specific sessions are used as "feeder workshops" to the main plenary sessions.
- Requirements to make sessions multi-stakeholder as well as produce meeting reports have increased the quality of workshops.
- Remote participation has been gradually improved year-on-year, giving those unable to attend in person access to discussions.
Where has the change process fallen down?
With no replacements for the Special Advisor or Executive Coordinator roles, the organization has been leaderless for nearly two years.
A remarkable effort by the host of last year's forum, Kenya, and the IGF secretariat ensured that the forum itself was unaffected, but with no one in a position to make planning or strategic decisions, the IGF is now suffering from circular discussions without resolution. Much of the forum's pragmatism has been lost to political wrangling, and despite efforts to sharpen up the forum, it has grown increasingly unfocussed.
The IGF has always suffered from an excessive number of opening speeches - a compromise introduced by Desai to put them all in one slot and so free up time elsewhere. But with no one able to say no, the number jumped from 19 to 27 at the last IGF, taking up the entire afternoon of the first day.
Likewise, the IGF has always had too many workshops to be a truly effective conference (although it did mean people could secure funding to attend). However as that number has increased over time, the conference has become increasingly incoherent. As the IGF's waistline continues to grow, it looks increasingly unhealthy. And it is also becoming increasingly difficult to highlight and pinpoint practical outcomes of the IGF.
Stats showing the IGF's expanding waistline
As the forum's focus has dissipated, so too has its funds. The bridge between a bureaucratic United Nations and a fast-moving Internet industry has been lost, leading to impasse.
The MAG meetings have descended into painful formality. The host country for each IGF has become the de facto chair, making the process inconsistent and slow. And the open nature (necessary due to other failings in the process) of the MAG meetings has made it increasingly difficult for compromises to be reached. MAG members are carrying out more and more clerical work, a vast waste of experience and knowledge.
- A pragmatic focus on what can and should be done, with political discussions kept separate
- Decision-makers who have the interests of the overall conference in mind
- A leaner, more focused agenda that can guarantee quality of discussion and provide useful summaries
- Greater and more stable sources of funding and resources
- A vision for the future
What significant changes still need to be made?
- A new Special Advisor and Executive Coordinator: The failure to replace Nitin Desai and Markus Kummer as the IGF's political and organizational leaders has been especially damaging. Without Desai, the IGF is voiceless within the bureaucratic and political UN structure; without Kummer, the forum cannot be effectively managed and so has become increasingly unfocused.
The appointment delays have been the subject of increasingly angry remonstrations, but ultimately the decision sits with the Under Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), Sha Zukang. Zukang attempted and failed to make the IGF more inter-governmental in nature, so the failure to replace the IGF leaders is seen as an effort by Zukang to undermine the forum.
UNDESA has provided a series of bureaucratic explanations over the past 18 months for why it has not been able to fill the Executive Coordinator position; the most recent being that it cannot appoint someone until there is sufficient funds in the IGF's account to pay for a full year. Each subsequent reason has been less credible. There has been no effort to explain the failure to appoint a special advisor.
The impasse has to be broken and since it appears to be in the interests of the current UNDESA executive to stall as long as possible, the solution will have to come from the broader IGF community and especially the MAG.
The MAG is in a position to force the issue by taking it upon itself to name the organizer of the past two IGFs, Chengetai Masango, as its Executive Coordinator. That would allow Masango to make much-needed decisions as well as free up resources. Such a course of action would cause significant argument however and will want to be avoided if at all possible.
Only high-level political pressure will be sufficient to force Zukang to name a new special advisor. Zukang does not have a good relationship with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon but there does not appear to be any desire to move him out the job. It is unlikely that diplomats will view the IGF as of sufficient importance in the global political landscape to use up capital forcing the issue.
The only other solution that is occasionally floated is to move management of the IGF outside of the United Nations although that would require significant political backing and risk undermining the forum still further.
- Restructure the MAG: The original idea of the Multistakeholder Advisory Group was a good one: a group of well-connected and informed individuals from across the different groups (governments, business, technical community, civil society) would provide advice as well as backing to the Special Advisor. It would also help organize and co-ordinate the forum itself.
Over time the MAG has grown larger, more political, more formal, and less suited to the task it needs to carry out. Membership has become a sign of status within the Internet governance world rather than representative of a desire to put in time to help the forum work effectively.
The MAG's increasing politicization has seen it filled with diplomats and policy wonks who have little or no experience of running conferences and use membership as a means to have the sort of discussions that should be playing out at the conference itself, rather than at its organizing body.
Requirements for workshop organizers to provide names, presentations and summaries in a timely fashion have not been chased; and despite a desperate need for funds, MAG members continue to satisfy themselves by restating the need rather than actually doing the legwork to get funds in.
In short, the MAG is in desperate need of reform. One solution would be to separate it out into two groups: one dealing with high-level discussions and a second focused on pragmatic realities. The second group could focus on work product and implementing the decisions of the other.
Alternatively, the IGF as a whole could embrace the extraordinary possibilities that the Internet brings and use modern crowd-sourcing techniques to do much of the work - for example, most open-source conference have their agendas decided by attendees, not an organizing committee.
- Focus on what tangible outcomes look like: The most significant dispute at the heart of the IGF is over the forum's outcomes.
At its inception in 2006, both Desai and Kummer repeatedly stressed that the IGF would not have formal outcomes. As old UN hands, they knew that such a path would inevitably lead to a formal negotiating strategy on the part of governments which would quickly rob the IGF of its intended role and push non-governmental actors to the edges of the debate.
In taking that approach, the IGF has to defend itself against accusations that it was no more than a "talking shop". Despite evidence that the IGF has proven to be a powerful platform for greater understanding of Internet governance issues, as well as useful melting pot of ideas and networking opportunities, the annual forum has still not managed to adequately relay its value.
An early effort, received with less enthusiasm over time, has been to produce a formal book covering each forum. While this serves as a useful document to record events, the book takes six months to produce, stretches to several hundred pages and is very dry in tone.
This approach leaves everyone except academics unhappy: governments want text that they can use and distribute as a basis for policy discussions; where business, civil society and the technical community want something that they can show to demonstrate the benefit (and justify the cost) of the annual forum to others within their organization.
In recent years, the MAG has attempted to pressure workshop organizers to produce summaries of their sessions. There has also been a "taking stock" session at the end of every IGF except the first in an effort to coalesce input and summarize what has taken place over the week. A chairman's summary is also produced on the last day that gives a first-pass overview of the week.
None of these efforts have proved satisfactory and the IGF's future depends on reaching a solution to this issue. Such a solution would have far-reaching impacts to the IGF. There will likely need to be fewer sessions overall. Sessions will also need to be better managed and more strictly defined. Significant resources will need to put in place to capture events as they happen on the ground and editing skills will be needed to make the write up the end results concisely and accurately while retaining interest.
In such an effort, the most obvious candidates are also those that are in thinnest supply at the IGF: journalists. The answer to the issue of capturing the IGF's discussions and hence value almost certainly lies with using the Internet's extraordinary new tools - or even using the IGF as an opportunity to enhance them. Such an approach will however need a leader with both vision and resources neither of which currently exist within the IGF.