random thoughts

Aug 16

And then there was a new plan to deal with ICANN Accountabilty

Eight  (8) months after the Affirmation of Commitments (AOC) Accountability and Transparency Review Team (ATRT2) report on ICANN was released, and five (5) months after the NTIA offered to transition its stewardship responsibilities for key Internet domain name functions over to a yet to be named multistakeholder entity, ICANN has produced a blueprint for building the plan for improving ICANN Accountability and Governance.

Before getting critical about elements of the plan, I must say that given everything, including the mix of comments, it seems to be a workable plan that took a great number of considerations into account.  But in saying that I know I am being optimistic and using the best possible interpretation.

  The organizational plan creates three sub-groups:

                * Identifying issues for discussion or improvement;
                * Appointing 10 participants to the Coordination Group
                * Providing ongoing community input to the
                   Coordination Group

As with all recommendations to the Board, there will be open community comment periods before any decisions are made.

While I think this is a structure and plan we can work with, I have concerns and there are issues of concern in the community.  But as a sometime system architect, I think they did a decent job of designing a structure for getting the work done. While it has some complexity, it does not have more than is needed to deal with the issues that need to faced.

The Issues with the plan

A staff member as a full member of the coordination group?
Outrageous!
Or is it?

Many are outraged at this possibility. I am not so outraged, but I realize I am being optimistic in my outlook.

To some, staff should never, never ever, be involved in making policy recommendations. Well typified by one board member I once heard say something like: In my last job if I ever caught a staff member making policy, they were fired.  People argue that staff are paid to serve and they have other interests so can’t be trusted.  Some argue that they can’t be trusted to serve the public interest because they will be serving the corporate interest, or else.

I tend to argue that they are stakeholders too. The working definition I use for multistakeholderism refers to all stakeholders:

Multistakeholderism is the study and practice of forms of participatory democracy that allow for all those who have a stake and who have the inclination, to participate on equal footing in the deliberation of issues and the recommendation of solutions. While final decisions and implementation may be assigned to a single stakeholder group, these decision makers are always accountable to all of the stakeholders for their decisions and the implementations.

Certainly they are stakeholders with different roles and responsibilities, and with behavioral constraints, but stakeholders nonetheless.  They are users of the same Internet resources and like the workers in any enterprise are subject to the conditions of the organization for their very livelihood.  They have a stake in what happens.  I see including staff in a group like this, very much like the inclusion we have begun to see in many countries’ industries, of workers on boards and on special committees. As volunteers we sometime forget that the staff of ICANN are also workers for ICANN and care about its well-being, just like the rest of us.

In fact one of the pending work items from the ATRT2 work, which I assume will be done under this Accountability and Governance improvement plan, is a review of the ICANN whistle-blower policy and the protections given to employees that make problems known.  After all, without transparency there is no accountability in governance. Who better than a staff member to represent such interests?

As for Staff getting paid, Board members are also paid, and Board members can set their own salaries and they can give themselves raises.  Board members are the final deciders in all ICANN processes, yet their finances are affected by the decisions they make.  In comparison, allowing one staff member a seat at the table does not seem so extreme. 

As for having other interests, we have recognized at ICANN that having other driving interests is in the nature of multistakeholder decision making. Some of our interests include maximizing profit for our company.  Some of our interests include advocacy for a point of view. Some us participate to fight for human rights. Some of our interests are status in our chosen field or career progress. Some of us want to travel the world and some just want to be needed and feel like they are still useful.  Everyone at ICANN has multiple interests, and that is why we require Statements of Interest (SOI) that make these interests available for all to inspect.  Well, the fact that a staff member is a staff member won’t be a secret, it will be a known interest - and that is all we require from the rest of us.

But I realize I am, perhaps, being utopian in the way I look at the role of this staff member.  I am looking at this as a situation where a representative of workers’ interests will be included in the coordination group.  I have a fear, however, that we may get a Senior Special Poo Bah, or some-such, who is primarily interested in executive row and their own position in the hierarchy, and not in the workers’ well being.  I can only hope my fears are unworthy and my optimism prevails; I can think of staff who could both provide the required knowledge on ICANN’s accountability programs and at the same time look out for the well being of their fellow staff members. In looking at this sort of situation, I prefer to support the optimistic interpretation, so I hope they pick the right sort of person. Time will tell. It might happen.

The Board is going to decide on the charters for the groups? 
What about bottom-up charter making?

Again, I am being optimistic.  ICANN is learning how to work together in  creating cross-community WG charters. The drafting team that just produced the Cross-community charter for the IANA Stewardship Transition Working Group (CWG) has done a very good job in creating a balanced cross-community charter.

(I am on that drafting team, but I would admit if I thought we were producing junk). 

But even in that group, we did not manage to bring all of the Supporting Organizations (SO) and Advisory Committees (AC) into the process.  Perhaps this effort does need to be chartered by the Board, as the SO and AC themselves are. I am assuming, however, that as a chartering organization, the Board knows better than to produce such a charter without consulting the groups for whom it is a charter, and with the community at large, before finalizing the charter.  If the Board believed it could just produce a charter without having it vetted by the community, they would not have been paying attention.  But I am sure they have been paying attention, so I interpret the fact that the Board is going to develop the charters to mean they are going to do the right thing as the chartering organization for these groups, and that they will be working with the community.  There is a lot of experience to draw on on when creating cross-community groups. This Board, will know how to include the community in the process and will know how to build on the community’s experience. At least that is what I hope happens.

Experts to pick the experts?
The community should pick them!
And they get to be full members of the group?

When a draft version of the plan was made available, the Board took responsibility for choosing the experts on the coordination group.  This was objectionable because it gave the Board 7 voices on a panel of 21. Having the ability to choose one third of the recommendation group was an excessive control of  process, especially one in which they were both subject and final decider.

The released plan creates the PEG, a group of experts who would pick the experts.  While this improved things somewhat, for some people this is not good enough; they demand that the bottom-up processes of ICANN pick these experts.  Some also question whether it is appropriate for experts to have a voice in deciding on recommendations to be made.  While I have sympathy for this argument a few things lead me to a different conclusion.

  1. Whether it is the /1Net picking its steering committee, or the GNSO’s Non Contracted Parties House selecting a Board member, we have not shown that we can pick people easily.  Only in Nomcom structures have we shown any ability to come to conclusions on multistakeholder picks in a bottom-up, predictable, and reliable way.  And that takes nine months or more. 
  2. The blueprint for improving accountability and governance, includes a small nomcom-like group of 4 experts on expertise.  I think this a fine solution. Others ask why community members are not responsible for picking the outside experts.  Perhaps we could set up a Nomcom to do this, or even ask the current Nomcom to do it. But that might not meet a necessary condition for these experts - that they be outside experts.  The experts on the coordination group (AGCG) need to represent a variety of expertise in issues that are larger than the ICANN bubble and that are meant to represent the interests of the global multistakeholder community.  Perhaps, had /1net reached a point of stability and maturity in the last year, it might have been called on to help in this process.  But none of us who have been on that list for the last year believe it is ready for that (though the recent rebirth of the list does show some reason to hope for the future).

Creating a small group of experts on expertise, seems like a good compromise to the need to get experts on the interests of the global community without handing the Board control over the choices or taking a year to do it. Of course in picking the members of the PEG, the Board will be subject to vox populi, and their picks will be judged by the community and should they fail the giggle test, will be the subject of noisy public outrage and/or ridicule.  I can only hope that the Board makes wise decisions in picking this group.

I do, however, have some concern with the set of skills the plan lists as needed in the experts on the coordination group.  The current list includes the following:

A pretty good list, but lacking in my view.  For example, it does not include any expertise on community dynamics or on achieving effective diversity. I am also dismayed that human rights has been subordinated as a sub category of consumer rights.  These are two different, albeit related areas of expertise.  Finally, they have not required that the experts have some knowledge of how ICANN works.  We have seen what happens in advisory groups when they don’t understand ICANN at all.  Some of them came up with solutions that couldn’t be implemented due to ICANN multistakeholder organizational structure. Hopefully the PEG, among its experts and expertise, will include some ICANN knowledge among the external experts.

I hope the PEG, as specialists in expertise, will be able to review their task and augment the set of skills that they need to consider.  After all, they, not the Board or staff, will be the experts on experts.

And in conclusion,
at least for the moment.

There is now a plan and it is time to figure out how this plan can be implemented in the best manner possible.  From my point of view, it could work out quite well, or it could end up a difficult and painful experience.  The manner in which it is implemented over the next weeks, between now and the LA meeting in October, will tell us a lot about the degree to which this plan will be implemented in an appropriately multistakeholder manner.

I have my fears.

But I also have my hopes.