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Accountability and Transparency at ICANN? Not looking good

Category : ICANN, Internet governance · by Jun 16th, 2010

I’ve been keeping schtum about the Accountability and Transparency Review Team (ATRT) for a while for three reasons:

  1. I submitted a proposal along with a team of professional evaluators to be the review’s “independent expert”
  2. I know nearly all the members of the team and I respect them all
  3. They’re working to a tight timetable so you have to give some benefit of doubt

Unfortunately, however, the team’s promising start is quickly dissolving into an increasingly secretive and opaque process, which threatens to undermine not only its work but the whole process that it is overseeing. A tentative effort to actually *be open* – as was publicly promised several times by both ICANN’s CEO and the chair of the GAC – is proving to be too far from the default and, since the ATRT is not actually accountable to anyone, it has started reducing its transparency.

It is a horrible reflection of exactly the issues that caused creation of the ATRT in the first place. ICANN, despite constant efforts, suffers from an deficit of both accountability and transparency. And the most frustrating part is that I *know* that as ATRT members grow more comfortable with slipping back into the ICANN ways of doing things, they will feel increasingly convinced that the process is going well and may work well.

When it isn’t, and when the community complains, then gives up complaining, and then a year or two later pushes for yet another process to tackle the deficit, the ATRT will be able to borrow from a long list of reasons for why it is the community’s fault rather than their own.

Here then are some recent decisions made, and the bad paths followed:

Open mailing list: There was a determined effort on the part of some members of the ATRT to make the team’s mailing list open. This was argued against by other members, but in the end – and after all members had been through previous emails and decided which to pull from the public record – it was agreed to make the list public. You can read it here: http://mm.icann.org/pipermail/at-review/

Almost immediately, it was agreed that *some* communication would need to be private and so it was agreed that emails should be sent to private email addresses when they contained “confidential” information. Since this happened, discourse on the list has almost completely dried up. And since it is clear that the Review Team has done alot of work in the meantime, the only explanation is that the team has been discussing almost all of its work off-list.

The Right Path is to recognise *why* the mailing list should be open. It means that the community can see that the process and work that the team is putting in. It provides a passive check that the review team is operating well and fairly. It provides focus. And it provides accountability and transparency.

Yes, there are some issues that are best discussed in camera but – and this is the crucial distinction – for those occasions, it should be discussed publicly whether there is a need to discuss an issue privately. Public needs to be the default. And before *any* private message, the question should be “why should this not be public?”

The Wrong Path is to fail to allow for the fact that there is no one *making* the Review Team be transparent and accountable. It is certainly easy to find many reasons as to why making information public could cause problems, but these reasons will almost always be of lesser importance to the overall principle of openness. This balance will only be obvious at the final accounting of the team when its work is done. But with no direct input into the ATRT’s process without the team itself creating it, the Review Team has no mechanism to allow its own assumptions to be questioned by those it is purporting to serve. There is no way for people to say “why are you not telling us what you are doing?” that can be heard inside the process.

The wrong path is to allow for private communication to overtake public communication because it is easier. And because there is no way for people to raise their concerns that can’t be dismissed.

Example: Following a request to run a live stream of meetings, first one member, then another argue NOT to have their meetings streamed. The rationale? “The group must have the possibility to have restricted sessions”. But the ATRT *already has* the ability to restrict sessions – and is using it for every meeting.

A further justification is: “Making available the audio recording afterwards allows the possibility of eliminating a part of the conference call (perhaps indicating it)”. So the rationale for not allowing live streaming is *so that* it can be edited afterwards, and the indication that such editing has even happened is considered a proposal that needs to be argued for, rather than against.

What is not considered in this process is the additional time and resources that need to be applied to reviewing material and then editing material – all of which moves the community further way from the process and so diminishes both the accountability and the transparency of the ATRT.

Second example: Only by working backwards from one message, is it possible to derive that the ATRT has created a sub-committee to review evaluator proposals. What was the ATRT’s thinking in this regard? How was the sub-committee decided? How is the crucial job of gathering the data and making the conclusions that will form the bedrock of the ATRT’s work being decided? We don’t know. And that leaves the process open to suspicion. What’s more, this group is then promoted as a decision-making body for the one and only contract that the ATRT will be deciding.

There are no doubt perfectly intelligent and rational reasons for both these decisions, but without the team’s thinking being revealed, it is impossible to differentiate between what is a fair and open process, and one that is neither fair nor open.

Process and timelines

I know, because I submitted a proposal along with two expert evaluators to be the “independent expert” for the Review Team, that the ATRT continues to set itself impossible deadlines, that it is already missing.

The window for producing and sending an entire proposal to review ICANN’s decision-making processes was seven working days. And that is assuming people saw the RFP as soon as it was posted (amid a huge amount of other highlighted text) on the ICANN website. The normal window for this sort of call for professional evaluation is two months i.e. eight times longer.

The timelines included in the RFP for evaluators are equally impossible – three weeks from starting to produce an initial report; two weeks after that, a second report, and three weeks after that, a final report. Effective evaluations of this type take six to eight months – the ATRT is expecting it to happen in two i.e. in a third to a quarter of the time.

The inevitable result of these fantasy timelines is a double-whammy of problems: first, the work will be rushed; and second the planned-for timelines won’t hold, causing an unnecessarily large percentage of the limited effort and resources available to be expended chopping and changing all the subsequent elements of the process.

And the worst thing is that this has already happened not once but twice within the ATRT’s own process: first the deadline for proposals was extended by one day on the last day of the deadline; and second, the public comment period for input to the ATRT was extended from 1 July to 14 July.

What the ATRT doesn’t seem to realise is that because the timelines overall are so impossible, the two-week public comment extension provides an evaluator with no time at all to review the comment before their first report is due – which it will then have to relate to the ATRT, which the ATRT will then need to review and discuss, and whose conclusions then need to be relayed back to the evaluators. Delay breeds delay.

The Right Way is to look at the process overall now; to work forwards, calculating all the steps needed and how long each will take, and then find out where the end date of the process stops. It will almost certainly be beyond the 31 December 2010 deadline that is included in the AoC itself. Once that reality-check has been taken, it is then time to ask if any processes can be dropped, if the team can work more efficiently, and if the community needs to be informed straight away that the overall deadline will not be met. Done with clear rationale, the admitted failure to meet a future deadline is far more acceptable and less damaging that a long string of smaller failed deadlines announced closer to the time of each.

The Wrong Way is take the final deadline and work backwards, trying to squeeze processes into ever smaller boxes.

Once this culture of self-justification and secrecy over openess is allowed to take hold, it creates a series of other bad decisions that the ATRT will not be aware is damaging its own credibility in the broader community’s eyes until it’s too late.

With each day, come further bad choices: closed meetings; late documents; Brussels meetings held before attendees turn up; opaque decision-making; and many more still to come. All of it will end up with a frustrated community and a frustrated Review Team.

There is a simple answer and a simple solution to all this, and it was presented in public by one of the two men nominally in charge of the whole review process.

Chairman of the GAC, Janis Karklins, said at the Affirmation of Commitment consultation on 28 October: “Now, in my view, the work of review teams should be transparent to the extreme. And to the extreme, I mean they should be live video streamed or video cast. That everybody who wants to be present in the room should be present in live in the room. So that there shouldn’t be any hidden moments when team does something that the community is not informed.”

You can read the transcript online.

And, if you are lucky, you may be able to try to explain to the ATRT why the group’s own dynamics are undermining their work in its limited public session in Brussels.

Having run a large number of ICANN sessions, I can pretty much guarantee that the public questions will be squeezed into a 10-minute window, once Powerpoint presentations about who is on the Committee and the work they have done to date have been run through. If you do find time to ask a question, if it is critical, it is a sad certainty that it will be met defensively. The ATRT has been working hard and it will think that it is easy to criticise but much harder to do. In other words, it will miss the point.

Accountability and Transparency at ICANN? Not looking good.

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(1) Comment

kierenmccarthy
7 years ago ·

I’m listening to a meeting of the ATRT team (Fri 18 Jun).

Aside from a gripe that a huge amount of time is being taken up discussing where they should meet next i.e. they are wasting valuable face-to-face time; I just don’t think the team is being realistic about their deadlines.

There are setting fixed dates – which may help and may hinder. I wish I could say I was optimistic, but I can see a mad rush of information in the day before the meeting, and a lot of time lost trying to get up to speed.

Re: open communication. ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush and ALAC chair Cheryl Langdon-Orr are currently arguing *for* an open telephone bridge so people can listen to the meeting live.

Here’s hoping this is an argument that is won – and then *not revisited*.

Update: The argument was won to have a live stream of meetings. Although any member can ask at any point to move into a closed session. Let’s hope it’s not used very often.

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