Participating as a formal delegate in the twelve annual meeting of the Commission for Science and technology for development in the United Nations provided me with the opportunity to reflect upon the process of crafting policies in the area of information technology in the international level.
I couldn’t help noticing the main obstacles that accompany the process of setting a policy. Here are some of them:
1. Multiple stakeholders with different interests (yes, we can call it politics!). In this particular committee there are 43 member states that are formal members with voting rights. Obviously each state has different interest. It was interesting for me to see the role that non-state members, organizations (companies, Non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations etc…) play in this process. Not formally of course. Formally, they had the right to bring their voice to the table and also participated actively in panels and keynote talks. Actually the powerful actor in the process that was able to change decisions behind the scenes was not a formal delegate. Additionally the difference between delegates who were politicians (elected positions) vs. experts/scientists (nominated positions) was clear.
2. Non-continuation of same stakeholders as time progresses – ‘it does not comply with previous agreements from the past’ was one of the strongest arguments made by delegates who followed the process from the beginning. Only one or two were such delegates. Actually most of the participants participated in few events but definitely not in all of them, and therefore had little to say when such an argument was raised. These few ‘seniors’ delegates not always choose to remind participants about past agreements which causes many concepts to be re-opened for negotiations although there were settled in the past.
3. The power of administrators in drafting resolutions is mainly by setting the boundaries and frames of the discourse. It leaves almost no room to the delegates (the countries) to add meaningful issues to the agenda. Therefore, usually participants concentrate on arguing about words here and there, sometimes even about a letter (see the story of the ‘s’ below). I am not inventing the wheel here. Max Weber talked about the power of bureaucracy and administrators 150 years ago. Administrators stay longer than participants, and consequently are able to impact processes more efficiently.
4. Multiple parallel processes – Not only the number of stakeholders is a challenge, but also the number of forums. The issue of the information society is addressed in so many different forums. For example the UN task force, WSIS (world summit of the information society) I and II, G-8 DOT Force and innumerable meetings. What is achieved in one place does not necessarily hold in the other and vice versa. Confusion is the name of the game in conditions like that where the actors, forums and platforms for discussion are switched all the time.
5. ‘fake’ stakeholders – some participants are ‘shadow actors’. By this I refer to actors that do not appear during the discussions and show up in the end for the debates and voting on the drafts. For example, one delegate (I will keep the name of the state with me not to cause a diplomatic incident) appeared only in the last two days and was mainly situated there not to discuss and come to an agreement, but to make sure that he can say NO to certain issues and to try to take certain issues out of the agenda of future meetings.
6. Non-accurate or up-to-date data – One thing that is not missing in such a process is data. And lots of data. Everyone has data and one can here often statements like ‘we found that mobile technology is the only panacea to digital divide’, ‘telecenters are vanishing’, ‘Least developed countries comprise less than 1% of users in the world’. By the way, I don’t agree with the first and second statements, but this is not the essence of the issue. When not everyone are experts (see item 1 above) influencing through numbers is an easy task.
7. Focus of issue – a big challenge. Information society is broad topic and one probably wonders who determines the focus – would it be on broadband? Mobile technology? Collaboration? or maybe other things. Some are determined by external events which request attention, and by former processes. But in many cases see no. 3 for the answer. It is really about the administrators, e.g., the secretariat of the commission who decides the frame of the issues. Peter Bachrach wrote in the 70s about the power of agenda setting in policy-making.
8. Problematic interpretation of data – It sounds almost like a tautology – by saying the word interpretation, one can assume that some problematic flavor comes with it since it is rare to have all people agree to a particular interpretation. Here are two for example: ‘Access is not an important issue when talking about poverty’ or ‘the regulator should intervene more’. Discussing only interpretations without understanding the data behind the interpretations does not help reaching a resolution.
9. From mandate to action – The word MDG (Millennium Declaration Goals) was mentioned in the discussions 100 times. I couldn’t help wondering – how many people know what is MDG? What real impact does it have on the daily life of you, me and the societies surrounding us? And what does it mean that only 6 more years remain to achieve these goals? (I even imagined a curse falling on universe once we reach the d-day without achieving the MDG goals). How many out of all these crafted policies lead to tangible results? I wouldn’t like to sound pessimistic.
10. Changes take time – Time reaches policy makers more slowly. While the discussions are important, some of them were already resolved or discussed in depth in academia and industry. The cross-fertilization among sectors is scarce unfortunately.
11. Reaching Consensus vs. Majority/Minority Vote- Finally, some resolutions are achieved by consensus, which sounds great unless you have for example a veto person, someone whose role is to say NO in any case and exploit the fact that this is a consensus process (see item 5). Also when the gaps among the stakeholders are large choosing the consensus way is not ideal.
I would like to exemplify some of above obstacles in policy making via a story about a request of mine to add an ‘s’ to the resolution. Yes, it is only about adding one letter, an ‘s’. I requested to change all the concepts in the resolution from digital divide (without an ‘s’) to digital divides (with an ‘s’). In academia there is a big resentment and debate for years of whether to use the concept digital divide that implies dichotomous meaning of have and have-not access vs. digital divides which reflects more a continuum of inequalities and not only access. Here is an article as a background about this. Obviously many member-states objected the idea with four main arguments. One said ‘only in WSIS 2003 we recognized a gender divide as part of the digital divide, so how can we talk about so many meanings of divides’ which makes me wonder if one makes a mistake should he/she continue to make the same mistake only because the mistake occurred in the past and this is what one did since then? Bordieua called it habitus. Another person said ‘the concept of digital divides (with an ‘s’) reflects only an international gap. This was a bad interpretation of the data that they had in front of them. A third person just said No, because the request was made by a state that had a political dispute with the state that he/she represented. A fourth person objected the idea because in previous meetings the concept was agreed upon and all the stakeholders should stick to what was agreed upon in the past. And finally the chairman tried to compromise saying no to adding the ‘s’ in this resolution, but will consider it positively in future resolution’ (remember item 10 and 11 above – changes take time and consensus may create challenges). The story of the ‘s’ is a story of obstacles that stand in the way of making a change in policy.
I will end this post by saying that maybe it is time to move from an ‘information society’ to a ‘wisdom age’ where information would be used wisely according to individuals and communities needs and not only according to the needs of countries’ politicians and administrators.