Starting 5 February, I will be the “general manager, public participation” for ICANN – an organisation I have closely followed and frequently criticised almost since its inception in 1999. I’m excited about it, and the possibilities the position holds.
Here then is a blog post about why I took the job and what I hope to achieve.
The position is actually explicitly mentioned in ICANN’s bylaws. It says:
“There shall be a staff position designated as Manager of Public Participation, or such other title as shall be determined by the President, that shall be responsible, under the direction of the President, for coordinating the various aspects of public participation in ICANN, including the Website and various other means of communicating with and receiving input from the general community of Internet users.”
When I was first asked if I might be interested in the job – less a month ago – I was very far from convinced. For one, I love being a journalist – finding out information, interviewing people, writing up the results and then publishing them as widely as possible. I particularly love it when the mere provision of information results in real changes.
I also feared that taking a job with ICANN would be a cop-out. I have seen countless colleagues take the corporate buck and lose all sense of perspective. Within months they arrive in snappy clothes and tell you that you need to see things from a different viewpoint and that it’s more complex than you realise. Perfectly true in many situations, except sooner or later you find them bending the truth as far as it can go in order to cover up some minor misdeed. If I took a job with ICANN, I asked myself, how long before I am doing the same while deluding myself that I am slowly changing the culture from within?
Fortunately the answer is that ICANN’s culture has already changed and the main job of manager of public participation will be to simply reflect that fact.
Bacon with wings
ICANN old-hands will scoff at that assertion, and most of the remainder will be distinctly sceptical, but that’s the truth of it and I would not have taken the job if I didnâ€™t believe it to be case. The reality is that ICANN has survived intact from the WSIS process; it has largely made peace with VeriSign; it has found a way to relate to country-code managers; and even the complex and double-edged relationship it has with the US government is stabilising. ICANN as an organisation is finally finding it feet and it has plenty to prove.
The legal and financial breathing space it has enjoyed recently has seen the organisation expand and grab some of the best people from the various organisations swirling around the Internet. The results have been dramatic. IANA has become what it always should have been. The waters of both the gTLDs and IDNs are becoming calmer – something that seemed impossible at one point. Nominet and Denic have signed up with ICANN. The organisation even has the self-confidence to start turning a critical eye to its own constituencies and committees. ICANN is listening and changing.
I have seen these changes happening slowly over the course of the past three years but it hit home personally when I was asked to do a participation website for ICANN’s recent Sao Paulo meeting. I wasnâ€™t sure about doing it but decided to put my money where my mouth was, and quickly found that it was ICANN staff more than any other group that took to the idea of more direct and immediate interaction.
But why take the job? Because I had already grown used to the idea of working toward sorting out ICANN’s issues when I had applied, with a level of seriousness that surprised me, to become a member of the ICANN Board. I realised that journalism, while it served to highlight a few issues and to keep the wider community informed, was oddly ineffective when it came to encouraging real change.
So I re-read the statement on my Board application late at night about a week after I had been asked to consider the job of general manager of public participation, and in the morning I woke up convinced that being offered the position was, if not exactly destiny, then whatever comes close to it for a realist.
History of the role
There is some history to general manager of public participation, which I will very briefly outline. It was first proposed by ex-ICANN president Stuart Lynn back in 2002 when he published a paper for reforming ICANN.
Lynn’s vision for the “Manager of Public Participation” came in three parts:
a) Responsible for managing the public comment and participation process for ICANN on all substantive matters. Will solicit, receive and report to the Board on all public input on matters put out for public comment.
b) Responsible for managing all ICANN public forums, public e-mail list, etc. Provided necessary electronic access to publicize findings and recommendations, all of which will be available to the public.
c) Provided with support staff and other resources necessary to carry out responsibilities effectively
ICANN was doing a poor job of sorting out comments made by people watching the various processes but who weren’t an everyday part of them. It was far too easy for people to ignore the public comment forums. The mailing lists were, and continue to be, dominated by a few individuals who often rehash the same arguments and are aggressive to newcomers. It is a very time-consuming and unrewarding task to scour the public comment boards – as I have found countless times as a journalist covering ICANN.
In the end, you tend to rely on people forwarding you a link – to message 243 – and even then you have to go up and down the thread before you can make out what exactly is being referred to.
Another common attribute of ICANN mailing lists is immediate criticism of what can appear to be any suggested change. ICANN staff have complained for years that anything they suggest is immediately seized upon and torn to pieces. The reality is slightly different of course. There is undeniably a certain relishing of finding holes in new suggestions, but often the problem stems from the fact that there is not enough inter-communication between groups, so each group forms it own philosophy on different aspects of the Net. So when something appears at the start of a new consideration process, it is often the philosophical thread running through the document, rather than the actual content, that seems so out of place.
Islands of thought
This situation was creating islands of thought and counter-productive argument. The role of general manager for public participation, as Lynn saw it, would therefore help make sure that coherent arguments – often hidden among the bile – were pulled out and given the necessary attention.
Inevitably, Lynn’s restructure plan was attacked from the word go. But, largely, he was right. It is just a shame that this public participation manager role has taken so long to be filled, because there has always been – and remains – a constant need in ICANN processes to flag up the best ideas, wherever they come from, and to air the views of the many different Internet constituencies so that others can gain a better understanding of their perspective.
Kieran Baker took on the role briefly in 2004 but was caught up in press relations and never had the time to get involved in the participation side of things. Now, however, with Paul Levins dealing with the high-level stuff; with a new COO, Doug Brent, helping co-ordinate ICANN functions; with a number of regional liaisons doing alot of the outreach; and with a separate media advisor job which should be filled soon to deal with the press side of things; the role of general manager for public participation can do exactly what it was intended to.
And that is?
Broadly I see the job as doing three things:
- Getting more people involved in ICANN and its processes – and that means businesses, it means NGOs, it means academics and it means the (wo)man-in-the-street who has some technical knowledge or who wants to learn more about the Internet.
- Make that involvement count. This is the really tough part. Trying to make sure that this vast array of people all find interacting with ICANN worthwhile. ICANN is a complex beast and many of the processes are involved. But nothing is *that* complex. I often argue with people – usually elitist types – over what people are capable of comprehending. My argument is: get any TV watcher to explain to you the different interactions involved in their favourite soap opera. It is always vastly more complex than any real-world interaction. You just have to get people interested in something and provide them with good information and they will grasp pretty much anything. And then the second part – you have to make sure what they say is listened to and, where needed, acted upon.
- Putting an end to this “us versus them” mentality that still lingers. How do you do that? By allowing people to talk to one another. People remain wary of ICANN staff; and ICANN staff remain wary of hidden agendas. All that will be blown out the window if people are given a space where they can interact in a relaxed way and can start talking to one another as human beings, rather than representatives.
Enough tree-hugging philosophy – what are you actually going to do?
I have alot of ideas which I am going to sound people out about – both in ICANN and outside, with those who follow ICANN and those that don’t. As such, ideas I have now are likely to expand, or shrink, pop-up or disappear. But at the moment this is my gut feeling:
- Provide clear, simple explanations of the processes going through ICANN
- Take some of the unnecessary pressure off ICANN staff by providing tools that help people reach broad consensus about a particular topic among themselves. ICANN staff can then act as facilitators rather than scapegoats.
- I intend to maintain a blog, or other similar mechanism, that will basically let everyone know what I’m doing in the job. It’s amazing how willing people are to help when they can see you are trying hard to achieve something.
- Make the ICANN website a useful resource. And try to make absolutely sure that emails from people don’t fall through the cracks
- Allow people to invest more, interact more and share the burden of filtering information.
- More “soft” discussion.
- Real, efficient, effective and valuable interaction in multiple languages. It is absolutely vital that people are able to interact with ICANN in languages other than English. My approach is: there is no option but to have a multi-lingual ICANN so let’s start now and figure out a way over each obstacle as we come to it.
The bigger picture
ICANN represents what I believe is the beginning of a new model of global interaction and decision-making where numerous stakeholders: governments, business, non-governmental organisations, academics and, well, anyone with a solid interest in a particular issue, work together to arrive at what they think is the best way forward.
I think possibly the greatest gift the Internet will end up giving us will be this ability for disparate people to work together toward a common goal, with the end result that decisions about very important matters will be faster and more effective. ICANN is effectively the guinea pig in a gradual global movement toward more inclusive policies across all sectors and across the world. And that movement is there for the simple reason that the end results are better.
The United Nations is definitely moving in this direction. And only a few weeks ago I spent a day with various academics and UK Cabinet Office representatives at the Oxford Internet Institute where it was quite clear that people there were thinking along the same lines. But as yet no one is quite sure how to do it.
Part of my role will be about finding ways to get widely different groups working together: with one another and with ICANN. And I am determined to tell everyone what I learn on the way. With any luck I will be able to spread more of the peculiar sense of possibility that the Internet consistently instills in people.