Multistakeholder processes are messy

Thoughts from the WSIS+10 preparatory process

I remotely followed, on and off, the third WSIS+10 High-Level Event Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform (MPP) meeting that was held in Geneva this week. In contrast to the outcome documents of First and Second WSIS Phases in 2003 and 2005, which were devised in a purely intergovernmental environment,[1] the texts of the WSIS+10 High Level Event are being developed by all stakeholder groups. And it is extremely painful.

Many of those onsite have been very frustrated at the incredibly slow pace of progress being made. Progress has been so slow, it has seemed that entire species might evolve and die out before consensus can be reached on the texts.

Some might blame the political manoeuvring of government representatives at the meeting. And, indeed, there has been some truly twisty logic in some of the interventions by some of the more colourful government delegates in the last day or so. But other stakeholder groups have also been adding to the complexity and confusion too.[2]

The progress made on the text for the High Level Event has been so slow that yet another physical preparatory meeting has been added to the calendar.  With the WSIS+10 High Level Event now tentatively pencilled in for June 2014, there really isn’t any time left to squeeze in a sixth preparatory meeting if agreement continues to be hard to achieve. At the end of yesterday, entire action lines had been placed in square brackets (denoting the text hasn’t been agreed). The possible outcomes from the process are two texts that are, in the true spirit of intergovernmental consensus-based drafting traditions, bland, vague and pretty much not useful in the real world. Alternatively, given the trend during the third MPP to remove the word “multistakeholder” in the draft texts, the resulting texts could end up emphasizing government roles in the Information Society at the expense of the other stakeholder groups’ roles in the Information Society.

So has ITU’s commitment to a multistakeholder development of a WSIS+10 vision been misplaced? Are the MPPs proving that multistakeholderism is not effective? Should ITU go back to purely intergovernmental negotiations?

The answer to all three questions is “No”.

Messiness isn’t automatically a bad thing

Multistakeholderism is messy for the exact same reason that it’s effective. The messiness is a side effect of incorporating the cacophony of positions and knowledge that ultimately can lead to a robust, multifaceted understanding of an issue.

Wicked problems, including those in the Internet governance sphere, don’t have simple solutions. They aren’t ultimately solvable. All that can be done, in reality, is to find the best of the non-solutions out there. And the best way to do that is to look at the problem from all possible angles and to examine all possible ramifications of trying to do something, or not so something, about it.

Multistakeholderism is a great way of achieving this. Where intergovernmental deliberations can get stuck in ideological trenches dug deeper and deeper over long-term inter-state rivalries, multistakeholder deliberations bring a range of parties to the table who not only bring new knowledge and understandings to the discussion, but, as parties who aren’t always wedded to their own government’s positions on issues, can help find alternative, middle ways between rival government positions.

Multistakeholderism has always been messy. It was perhaps less messy in earlier Internet governance days when fewer people were participating. But over time, as more people are becoming involved, the range of positions and breadth of information brought to the discussions is expanding, making the messiness more apparent. Also contributing to this messiness is the fact that not all of the mechanisms we have used since the 1990s to manage multistakeholder Internet governance process are scaling that well. We are seeing efforts to address this through the Panel on Global Internet Cooperation and Governance Mechanisms as well as the NETmundial meeting in Brazil in a couple of months.

Messiness is here to stay

The reality is, though, that the messiness is likely to be a permanent feature of multistakeholderism. But we shouldn’t fear it. And the last thing we should do is walk away from existing multistakeholder processes in the naïve belief that creating new processes and forums will avoid the problems of the past. As we’ve seen from the mushrooming of Internet governance processes in the last couple of years, new processes can experience significant teething problems (for example, 1net) and can fall victim to the same problems as older forums as more people join in (for example, civil society’s Best Bits list has exhibited signs of the same problems the older Internet Governance Caucus list has experienced). In addition, new venues and processes add to an already crowded Internet governance calendar and can make it more difficult for less well-resourced stakeholders to participate in multiple venues.

Working more effectively in a messy multistakeholder world

We can learn to work with the messiness, though. To do that, we need to learn to be more flexible, more open to accept the views of others and, above all, to have a healthy sense of humour when the messiness threatens to overwhelm us. We also need to remember that people participate with the aim of making things better. What one person thinks is “better” may, to another person, be “worse”, but if we only view another person’s ideas as a threat that must be disarmed, we are personally contributing to the failure of the multistakeholder process.

Doing the above can be really hard to do at the end of a long few days of being stuck in a room together, but without at least beginning the meeting with these goals in mind, the end of the meeting is guaranteed to end on a sour note (WCIT, anyone?).

Also vital to keeping a messy multistakeholder process as pain-free as possible is ensuring that people do their homework before going to meetings where decisions are being made. The need for this has been demonstrated at the latest MPP meeting. Participants who hadn’t done their preparation lost the goodwill of other participants who had prepared and were ready to move to the next phase of text development.

It’s very easy to criticize others for making a multistakeholder process painful. It’s less easy to take ownership of our own contributions to the messiness of multistakeholderism. But I think we’re getting there.

In the wake of the bad feelings produced by the WCIT process, stakeholders have been more willing to find ways to work better with “the opposition”, and have been more willing to listen to the arguments of others. I don’t think the frustrations of wildly different opinions will ever be able to disappear completely, but we can at least learn to recognize that wildly varying opinions are just as legitimate as our own. For example, while it’s easy to be frustrated at the handful of governments worked to remove references to “multistakeholder”, and even “freedom of expression”, from the WSIS+10 High Level Event texts this week, we need to understand that these positions arise from specific political, social and economic contexts that differ from those of the participants who actively supported keeping “multistakeholder” and “freedom of expression” in the texts. We may not agree with their points of view, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss such views out of hand. Instead, we should recognize the context, and understand that some views on Internet governance issues will continue to differ as long as people’s political, social and economic situations also remain divergent.

We all have something we can learn from the processes of stakeholder groups other than our own. Business, civil society and the technical community have been very keen to help governments understand what’s good about multistakeholder Internet governance processes outside the purely intergovernmental system. But it’s also time that non-government stakeholders stopped viewing governmental processes as automatically “evil”.

One important lesson we can learn from the intergovernmental world is politeness. All that “I thank my esteemed colleague from X” preamble that happens before country Y demolishes X’s proposal has a point. It softens the pain of the objection. Contrast this to the worlds of the technical community and civil society where name-calling and insults have made semi-regular appearances.[3] While, particularly in the technical community, the upfront nature of such clashes are often seen to be signs of how dynamic, frank and “honest” the discussions are, they can leave a residual bad feeling that affects future interactions.

Multistakeholderism and the WSIS+10 High Level Event

The recent MPP is an example of a wider clash between participants who are coming to the multistakeholder discussions in a genuine and open manner and others who would prefer to have the WSIS+10 vision developed in more traditional intergovernmental ways. There is a danger that the latter will try and use the messiness of the previous MPP meetings to justify why multistakeholderism is a failure and that there needs to be a return to more orderly governments-only negotiations. It’s easy to be angry with those who may be attempting to achieve this goal. But being combative in response is not going to help. Instead, it’s important to embody the best of multistakeholder cooperation, and show how the messiness can and does lead to more robust and responsive outcomes that meet a wider range of stakeholders’ needs.

It’s important that non-government stakeholders continue to engage in the MPP meetings and show that there is support for multistakeholder processes, even when those processes are difficult to navigate.

The alternative to continuing to participate in the WSIS+10 MPP meetings is letting the WSIS+10 process revert to the traditional intergovernmental model. As we’ve seen with the Tunis Agenda, which was developed via that intergovernmental model, the text has become the canonical reference for discussions relating to the development of a global Information Society for almost a decade. The texts that emerge out of the WSIS+10 will probably have the same sort of presence for the coming decade. Non-government stakeholders have over the years, pointed out a number of times that the Tunis Agenda has limited legitimacy due to its governments-only composition. It’s now up to those same non-government stakeholders to stick with the messy MPP process to ensure that the WSIS+10 documents reflect a more comprehensive view of what Information Society should look like in the 2020s.

[1] There were non-government participants on some of the government delegations but the negotiation was fundamentally intergovernmental in nature.

[2] For example, a civil society participant declared that data privacy was not needed in the context of eHealth as any data being exchanged was for the benefit of people.

[3] Tomato throwing was seriously discussed by some members of the technical community a few years back when Verisign launched Site Finder.