I prepared a statement for the panel on "Internet Governance for Participation," which I
just finished speaking at. Time was running short, so I gave the
abridged version of this session. Here’s the complete presentation, which is
entitled “Top-down, Middle Layer and Bottom-up e-Democracy”…
Top-down, Middle Layer and Bottom-up E-democracy
Social Science Research Council
Thank CONGO for invitation to participate in this forum.
It is an honor to be on this panel with Ambassador Karklins, who bears some large measure of thanks for shepherding of the WSIS process to a successful conclusion.
Since some of you may know me from my previous work with CONGO, so let me briefly introduce the current project I am responsible for.
I work for the Social Science Research Council, a US-based NGO that for 80 years has been bringing academic research capacities to bear on important issues of public policy, from HIV/AIDS to migration to communications and media policy, which is the project I coordinate. Specifically, SSRC is engaged with trying to bridge the multiple gaps that exist between academics that study communications policy and activists that advocate for specific reforms of communications policy. We do this through targetted funding of research projects that bring together researchers and activist groups, working toward increased access to data on the media, and enhancing knowledge of research relevant to various areas of communications policy.
To the question at hand : How will Internet Governance policies and practices support using ICTs to serve citizens, in particular in increasing participation in public debates, offering specific services and promoting transparency and good governance?
This is the essence, from my perspective, of the evolution of the WSIS from a technology focused summit to a human-centered summit. I.e. how can new technologies act in the service to humankind’s highest aspirations? Specifically, as this question asks, how can the internet be managed in a way that enhances democracy?
In the next few minutes I will talk about the countervailing forces of top-down, middle layer and bottom-up e-democracy, look at some specific e-consultations that have occurred in the past six months, and conclude with some general recommendations.
So how can Internet Governance be used to enhance democracy?
One way would be for the institutions of Internet governance to set a strong model for how broad-based participatory international policy dialogues can take place. This could act as a lever to encourage other international bodies to emulate these best practices for their own consultations and forums.
The IGF is as good a place to start as any. If the IGF were to effectively hold global consultations on the kind of internet people really want, in ways that allowed the best ideas to float up and out, then we might have some hope of other internet governance structures emulating this: from ICANN to the ITU to WIPO.
This has already started as most of you know. Despite unreliable wifi that goes in and out like a breeze from the Aegean Sea, there are a number of channels for ITC-enabled remote participation at this meeting, from webcasting, to live chat, to discussion forums, to RSS aggregators and email submissions. They are even posting full English transcripts after the sessions! Not bad for a first effort.
Kudos to Jeremy Malcolm and Kieren for their work to set up alternative IGF monitoring and remote participation sites.
Top-down, Middle Layer, and Bottom-up e-Democracy Variants
One important aspect to e-Democracy that is important for us to understand is that it proceeds in several directions.
- The top-down version of this is the steps taken by governance institutions to include public stakeholder participation.
- In contrast, there is the complementary, and sometimes oppositional, bottom-up efforts of citizens to monitor and influence policy processes using their own technology-powered strategies.
- And then there is what I call the “middle layer” of civil society organizations that act to aggregate and amplify the voices of citizens and interests while engaging more directly with the policy processes where they occur.
The WSIS is an important case study in how this top-down, bottom-up and middle layer processes play out.
Top-down: WSIS Secretariat
- The WSIS evolved from a typical government dominated UN conference to one that slowly created more spaces for business and civil society to take part.
- They innovated procedures that respected UN-rules while stretching them to accommodate new actors
- Experimented with certain kinds of remote participation, i.e. webcasting
Middle Layer: civil society
- Creating structures to organize civil society inputs and positions, the Bureau, caucuses, working groups of civil society
- Handling disputes and differing views among CSOs / building consensus
Bottom-up : we weren’t as successful:
- Lack of broad-based participation of CSO’s and the public
- oor regional participation from South, particularly Latin America
- Limited mechanisms for remote participation and dialogue
- Didn’t solve the issue of individual participation in the WSIS beyond institutional affiliations
The future structures of IG need to take into account these different strains of e-democracy in order to successfully bridge the participation divide.
Lessons from Recent e-Consultations
Let me move on at this point to examine four examples from the past year of e-consultation initiatives and see what can be learned for how we structure the IGF to best enhance public participation. I will go into some detail on how these events were organized, and conclude with some thoughts on what lessons can be gleaned from these experiences.
"Habitat Jam" e-Consultation
In preparation for the World Urban Forum in Vancouver in June, UN-Habitat organized a "Habitat Jam" e-consultation .
- Wide outreach effort : including iPod giveaway contest for registrants, results in over 20,000 registrations for the online forum from reportedly 191 countries. Effort to get people in slums and poor communities to participate, including from Cameroun, India, Brazil and Peru
- Large Participation : 14,000 posts to discussion forums
- Multilingual : In French and English
- Buy-in from the politicians: Included all candidates, including Democratic, Republican and 4 independent party candidates
- A multi-modal consultation : including YouTube videos of the candidates presenting their various positions, blog-type postings of arguments and rebuttals, comments and ratings from Minnesota citizens, and a heavily moderated discussion forum for issue-related discussions.
- Web 2.0 Bottom-up tools : tagging and aggregation of relevant Flickr images, YouTube videos and blog posts
Great Lakes Joint US/Canadian Consultation
in December A joint US/Canadian consultation took place on how to effectively manage the great lakes region.
- Multi-modal consultation : combining physical meetings, email, fax, free phone message, and discussion board
- Multilingual : conducted in English and French, with near live translation of discussion board posts
- Excellent outreach : More than 4,000 participants, with 270 via the web
- Middle Layer Civil Society Organizing: Third-party non-profits responsible for large majority of email form submissions
UN High Level Panel on System-wide Coherence e-Consultation
In July the UN High Level Panel on System-wide Coherence held an e-consultation facilitated by NGLS
- One mode of participation : Web submission process
- One way communications : No posting of comments, no responses from officials
- Middle Layer Civil Society Organizing:: Third-party NGO coordination of email based submission of other comments by WEDO and Stakeholderforum.org, although also largely one way communication done via email.
Based on these, and other experiences from other e-consultations, here are some of my tentative conclusions:
- Outreach outreach outreach. Much of your budget and preparations should be spent on outreach and other efforts to enable widespread participation. The Habitat Jam had 20K registrants just by giving away a free iPod The Great Lakes consultation used everything from printed flyers to billboards to get the word out about their online event. It’s not a consultation if nobody comes.
- Get Buy in from the People that Matter. People aren’t dumb. They know that their postings to discussion boards are rarely read or considered by the policy-makers. If they are lucky, they get read by a junior staffer who might mention it to their boss in passing.
- Enable Multi-modal Means of Participation. The Minnesota e-debate employed an impressive range of technologies to garner as much public participation as possible. Even if you only had access to email you were able to get some sense of the different positions and debates. The Great Lakes consultation had the most modes of participation, from physical meeting consultations to fax, telephone, email, and web-based participation.
- Facilitate Middle Layer Partnerships. Partnering with CSOs concerned with the issue at hand can increase citizen awareness and buy-in. The Habitat Jam partnered with local non-profits, governments and cybercafes to get slum dwellers online for the event. The Minnesota e-debate was organized by an independent non-profit, not the government.
- Bottom up Technologies Matter. The experience of the Minnesota e-debates, and other Web2.0 powered campaigns, suggest that these technologies have the potential greatly enhance the « viral impact » of your consultation.
- Speak the Language of Your Stakeholders. For multi-national consultations, there is no way that English or even English and French will suffice. There are significant scaling issues to supporting consultations in several languages (as anyone in the EU knows.) But this question can not be dodged.
In summary, there is a growing body of experience and knowledge about how to organize these ICT-powered consultative events. Let’s learn from what has worked for other processes, be as innovative and creative as possible, and most importantly, let’s get started.