25 November 2004. Civil society groups involved in the World Summit on the Information Society had some difficulties concerning the transparency and inclusiveness of their overall coordination structures. A review of the structures and decision-making procedures was started at PrepCom 1 in June and was finally kicked off at last week's meetings around the UN ICT Task Force in Berlin.
Civil Society Rules and Procedures
The conflict that occurred at PrepCom 1 in June between most of the groups that were already involved in the WSIS process in phase one and those (especially from Tunisia) that came in later and with different agendas and sometimes unacceptable behaviour led to a discussion on internal decision-making mechanisms and overall transparency of the joint civil society structures for the WSIS. It was sharpened in the process of selecting civil society nominees for the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) that was led by the Internet Governance Caucus. Though this process was much less contested, it still made clear the need to also come up with generally acceptable procedures for delegation and nomination.
The overall feeling among many civil society activists was that there is a need for clearer rules and procedures on how the work of the different regional and thematic Caucuses, the Content and Themes Group, the Civil Society Plenary and the Civil Society Bureau is structured. The discussion in Berlin last weekend showed that there has been a lot of progress compared to previous summits, but there is also some way to go.
The caucuses worked pretty well in the first phase, and they provided a good bottom-up process do develop common positions on substantive issues. But some are not longer active as most of their issues - except Internet governance and financing - have been closed by the Geneva summit declaration. The options - not mutually exclusive - for the future are to maintain these caucuses as watchdogs for the official documents like the Tunis summit declaration or to give them a more of a focus on the implementation of the Geneva principles. The latter would also include linking them better to other forums and NGO networks that are active beyond the WSIS - like the ones active now in WIPO, UNESCO, WTO, the human rights networks and elsewhere. It could also include to have the caucuses develop best practices and share experiences for national and regional implementation by civil society groups.
The Content and Themes (CT) Group is still needed, according to the participants in Berlin, for overall coordination of the caucuses and for the option of developing another civil society summit document for Tunis 2005. It was noted that this group was not only a great channel for our input into the official process, but also provided a link for the PrepCom and negotiations chairs to interact with civil society. The group needs to be re-activated, though, as the previous coordinators are no longer active in the WSIS process, and new volunteers who are able to facilitate such a drafting process - often on location in Geneva and in deadline mode - are still to be found. A problem that was recognized by many participants was the lack of representativeness within the CT group. It was mainly run by a network of Northern and APC-linked activists, and most of the work was done in English. If the Caucuses each send a delegate to the CT group that actually can draft and produce papers overnight, this could be overcome.
The Civil Society Bureau by the Berlin attendants was perceived as more problematic than the caucuses, as it was more developed top-down, and was replicating the intergovernmental structure. This does not reflect the fluid and bottom-up civil society structures. The "families" that delegated their representatives to the Bureau were set up in an in-transparent and incoherent manner, and are no real functioning bodies. A big question is therefore the legitimacy of the current Bureau members, and it is totally unclear if and when there will be new "elections". The bureau got a mandate from the final Civil Society Plenary at PrepCom 1 to develop proposals for its reform, but nothing has really happened since.
On the other side the bureau has achieved a lot. It is the key channel for civil society to interact with the official summit process on procedural matters. It has already been recognized by the Cardoso-Report on UN-Civil Society Relations as a historic step forward. The question is now how to improve its accountability and effectiveness, and if this can be done by the Bureau itself.
Civil Society reform process started
The upcoming Bureau meeting in Capetown (in conjunction with the ICANN conference) will address these questions for the bureau. A Berlin attendee warned that this meeting "will need really good facilitation, otherwise it won't work".
A suggestion that came out of the meeting in Berlin was to form a Working Group on Civil Society Working Methods to further discuss these issues for overall civil society participation and cooperation in global summit processes. It is clear that this is not just about WSIS, but will have an impact way beyond it. As one participant put it, "we are on the starting point of shaping a global public for information society policy-making". The rules and principles developed in WSIS will therefore be applicable (and of course improvable) at other summit and global policy processes where increasing civil society participation and public interest is the clear trend.
The activists in Berlin drafted a proposal and call for participation for this working group, and Rik Panganiban (CONGO) and Ramin Kaweh (UN-NGLS) have volunteered as the initial co-facilitators of this group. CONGO president Renata Bloem has also drafted a proposal for "Rules and Procedures for NGO Representation at UN Conferences" (rtf | pdf), based on the CONGO Voluntary Code of Conduct, which addresses parts of the important points, but aims more at general rules for cooperative behaviour and internal representativeness of NGOs, less at the working methods and conflict-resolution mechanisms. The group will also have to look at the look at the civil society committee on rules and procedures that was already there at PrepCom 1 in 2002, but stopped its work afterwards.
Lessons learned - in WSIS phase one and elsewhere
But before starting to fix things that might not be broken, there is a need for a report on lessons learned. Karen Banks from APC has done some work documenting the Hammamet PrepCom1 experience, including "how we have worked, what didn't work, and what we need to do to make it work", and will publish this soon. Others referred to the experiences made elsewhere. A participant from India referred to the problem of multilingualism: "When we have a national consultation process, we do it in the 16 official languages. We have designated language coordinators who facilitate the multilingual input. We then work through English for the draft working document and then re-translate it into the other languages again."
If you look at the internet world, the basic principle is "make the rules as flexible as possible" - in other words, adhere to the KISS principle ("Keep it simple, stupid!"). The IETF and other Internet coordination structures have working groups on issues that are comparable to the WSIS Caucuses, and a "steering group" than more or less functions as a router instead of giving directions. What is missing is a mechanism for conflict resolution / decision making in cases there is disagreement, and an uncontested selection process for delegation needs.
The ability to deal with conflicts might be severely needed, as could be seen at PrepCom 1 in Hammamet. The diversity of civil society will again increase in WSIS phase 2, as more groups are coming in. This will unavoidably increase the chance for conflicts. The Civil Society Plenary and the Content and Themes Group might be forced to give up striving for consensus. As many activists emphasized, "we can't let the consensus principle block us from stating our positions". In these cases, it will probably be the best just to have two or more different positions and give all of these as input to the official process. Government delegates have already told us that they also favour this approach, because it gives them a clearer impression of the multitude of ideas and demands in civil society. The question then is: What are the operational impacts of this? Who selects speakers at for the official governmental plenary and negotiating groups, how do you allocate time, how are written inputs channelled etc.?
Avoid bureaucracy, ensure authenticity
The overall procedural challenge is to develop working methods and principles that increase civil society legitimacy and inclusiveness, and at the same time avoid a too bureaucratic structure. The latter would in the end either been followed by nobody or it would deprive civil society of its biggest advance - the ability to stay flexible and act on very short notice. And the working methods must not prevent individual groups or networks from being able to raise their authentic voice and their clear concerns; otherwise they will just work on their own again.
The strategic but not smaller challenge is more political and less procedural. Civil society has to avoid being drawn too much into the official process and resist the temptation to replicate the intergovernmental structures. Otherwise, it will end up with a group of professional NGOs that are recognized by the governments, belong to the international conference and policy jet-set, even might have some influence here and there, but are more or less decoupled from the grassroots work and the more radical positions of the broader social movements. As a participant at the Berlin meeting stated, "multi-stakeholder processes are enabling and including, but also disciplining".