Has Internet governance permanently tainted the word “governance”?

Note: I attended the CWG meeting on strategic planning as a member of the Australian delegation; however, any of the views I express in this blog post are entirely my own. This post does not reflect the official Australian position, nor is its content endorsed in any way by the Australian government.

According to numerous interventions by a particular Member State during the 13 November 2013 meeting of the Council Working Group for the Elaboration of the draft Strategic Plan and draft Financial Plan of the Union for 2016-2019, the term “governance process” cannot be used in the strategic planning documentation as the term “Internet governance” has made the word “governance” too sensitive to use in other contexts.

It seemingly doesn’t matter that the term “governance process” is a well-established and widely used term within the family of United Nations bodies. Even other UN bodies, such as UNESCO, that have roles in the Internet governance sphere have not shied away from the word “governance” in non-Internet related contexts. Nor does it matter that the UN family of organizations are the pre-eminent set of bodies conducting global governance. It also doesn’t it matter that the term “governance process” is also well understood by anyone with any organizational management experience. And obviously, the decades-long use of the term “governance” by political science practitioners is also unimportant.

Another Member State joined the fray, stating that in their country, the term “governance process” was not used. Instead, the term “assurance process” was used in their country and perhaps that would be an alternative term to use in the strategic planning documentation at ITU. As a compromise, a third Member State suggested “governing process”. Another Member State questioned if it was even necessary to define “governance process” as there are many types of “process”, which make it unnecessary to define one particular type of process over all the other types of process.

Listening to the discussion yesterday was one of those “Gravity: Off”[1] moments that can happen when Member State delegates seize on a seemingly completely harmless word or term and turn it into a battle of convoluted arguments that cannot be rebutted on the basis of logic or reason.

In yesterday’s case, the sensitivity of Internet governance at the intergovernmental level may indeed be contributing a little to this sudden allergy by a few vocal members of the CWG to the word “governance”. However, there may be other, deeper, issues at play:

1. There is actually another reason for disliking “governance process”, but Member States are reluctant to publicly articulate that real reason.

One possible reason is the concern that the strategic plan, as currently being discussed, contains language for the mission and goals of ITU that go beyond those agreed to by Member States in the ITU Constitution and Convention. In the wider world, this would be known as “mission creep”, but given the CWG’s current propensity to want to come up with new definitions and terms for existing management concepts (“inputs”, “outputs”, “mission”, etc.), I’m sure they’d call it something else.

Another possible reason is concern that by having a more formal process for managing, monitoring and implementing ITU’s strategic plan for 2016-19, it gives the Secretariat more of a role and, via the Council, Member States less of a hands-on role in shaping how the ITU conducts its activities.

In either case, some Member States may not want to jeopardize their standing with influential ITU Secretariat staff by pointing out they don’t like the way the Secretariat has been undertaking the strategic planning process.

2. It’s a delaying tactic so the CWG doesn’t spend time talking about another issue that some Member States would rather not be discussed.

If you’ve seen the 2009 animated movie, Up, you’ll recognize this tactic when the dogs in the movie can be distracted from their task by pointing in the opposite direction and shouting “Squirrel!” Focusing on seemingly insignificant details of a contribution or proposed text is the diplomatic equivalent of that “Squirrel!” diversionary tactic.

3. Member States adhering to a “governments only” model have a general dislike of the use of “governance”, even when it’s in the context of organizational management.

The move from the traditional concept of “governments only” decision-making on both domestic and international issues to the newer concept of networked “governance” structures where governments work with non-government entities in individuals is still not universally accepted. There may be a fear that by using “governance” in the context of how the ITU Secretariat manages the implementation and monitoring of the strategic plan, it is the first step in a move for ITU, as a whole, to move into a less inter-governmental decision-making structure to one that allows non-governmental entities to have a role in deciding ITU’s future. (Note that even the most enthusiastic “governments only” Member States don’t mind non-government entities providing input through carefully managed consultations. It’s the role of non-government entities in actual decision-making that is more contentious.)

No decision on the fate of “governance” in CWG, yet

The “governance process” issue has been parked for the moment so the CWG can move on to other issues. I leave at midday today, so will not see the outcome of discussion. Nevertheless, it does not bode well if commonly used words, such as “governance” become taboo simply because they are used in the context of Internet governance-related issues. As one Member State pointed out in the coffee break yesterday, “numbering” had become a highly contentious term in the WCIT due to its use in Internet naming and numbering. Surely, for the sake of common sense, civility and sanity, it is possible to find ways to use words in slightly different contexts that do not threaten the territory of other parties: both telecommunications and Internet.

[1] With thanks to the technical expert (whose name I won’t reveal here) who I first heard use the term in relation to some of the colourful Internet-related discussions that can occur in intergovernmental forums.