Why can’t “independent” experts make more interesting recommendations?
I recently was an unofficial observer of a panel of experts selected to advise the United Nations on the financing of information and communications technologies in developing countries. The so-called UN Task Force on Financing Mechanisms met a few times under the auspices of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and will be issuing a report to the UN Secretary General in a week or so.
My unofficial report on the meeting can be found here.. What I didn’t mention in the report is how conservative and uninteresting the findings of the task force are likely to be. Which is a shame.
As I understand it, the point of having an independent commission or panel of experts is to bring in fresh ideas, new energy, and a forward-looking vision that can help governments break out of diplomatic deadlocks. And some of them have done just that, such as the Commission on Global Governance and the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Both of these have moved the UN agenda forward by promoting new visions of global governance and human security that are becoming more and more accepted in policy-making fora. But these are the very rare exceptions.
There are of course plenty of reasons why a group of independent experts would choose the safe route. Their future careers might depend on not being attached to a set of pollyannish, naive proposals. Expert panels are notorious for manifesting “group think” where only lowest-common-denominator solutions are put forward (i.e. John F. Kennedy’s “kitchen cabinet.”) Expert commissions are often staffed and facilitated by career bureaucrats from inter-governmental organizations who can damper or even ignore the most radical proposals and suggestions. And lastly, “independent” experts may not be so independent, particularly if they are currently under the employ of a government or other vested interest.
Which is why the inclusion of civil society representatives on these expert bodies is so important. Not that NGO officials are any less vested or biased than other representatives, but they are more likely to push the envelope, to make undiplomatic comments, to make “radical” suggestions. A good example are the civil society folks who are members of the WSIS Working Group on Internet Governance.
Governments in the horse-trading of diplomatic negotiations are going to water down whatever comes out of an expert commission anyway. You might as well give them something worthwhile to fight over.