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ICANN public comments: a glacier moving in the wrong direction

Category : ICANN, Internet, Internet governance · by Sep 6th, 2011

I am both happy and depressed to see a public comment period open at ICANN talking about making changes to ICANN’s public comment period process.

With appalling inevitability, everything about the comment period highlights the problems that exist with the public comment period process. No one really knows about it, and it’s not being promoted anywhere. The text talking about it is indecipherable. The main thing it is about comes as a hefty PDF report that no one will read. The report itself was put together by a small group of people who didn’t engage is any useful effort to dig into any data, evidence or information.

Very few people will respond. Those that do will not have their comments listened to. There will be no follow-up. And the end result will be that ICANN convinces itself that actually the comment period process isn’t that bad after all.

I was working on this issue *five years ago*. And the only thing that has changed is that the comment period page is now in pastel colours.

But…

I swallowed all that frustration and just sent in a comment (the first but hopefully not the only one) in a pathetic attempt to actually help. It is, I think, positive and helpful. I expect it to be partially read and then ignored. And for the complaints about the process to start up all over again in two years’ time. Still, you’ve got to try.

Here’s what I sent:



Some thoughts on improving public comment periods

Hello,

I’m pleased to see some progress being made with respect to improving the public comments process – something that has been a bone of contention for all stakeholder groups for a number of years now.

I read the Focus Group report with interest and I have a few responses which I hope ICANN will reflect on and consider.

I have been a follower and observer of ICANN for many years and have spent a lot of time considering how to involve people more in the organisation’s processes, particular in my role as general manager of public participation for ICANN for nearly three years.

  1. The current suggestions look unlikely to solve many of the problems that sparked this review in the first place. You may well find that months of hard work amount to only a small incremental improvement and continued complaints if you don’t reflect on the underlying issues that have led to suggested specific changes.
  2. The suggested topic categories are a good example. They are all extremely ICANN-focussed and are focussed on issues that are current ICANN priorities.

    Those priorities will change in just a few years, necessitating the need for more categories, and causing some categories to fall into disrepair.

    The categories also act as a barrier to engagement – they are too precise. Someone who isn’t already highly versed in the ICANNese is unlikely to browse them, or understand what they mean. You are making it less likely that people will comment.

    The idea of specific or exclusive categories is also likely to be a problem, especially when there is a crossover on a subject – which happens frequently.

    I would strongly suggest that ICANN consider the use of GENERIC TAGS to help identify different comment periods. Tags would enable you to flag a given comment period as being relevant in one or more areas. And using more generic subject areas will help with a broader understanding and identification of what a particular comment period is about.

    This approach will work better, mean more and last longer that the current category suggestions. Here is a suggested list that would cover just every about comment period ICANN produces:

    • Top-level domains
    • Second-level domains
    • Security
    • IP addressing
    • Internet governance
    • Reviews & Reports
    • Policy processes
    • Internal issues
    • Legal issues
    • Events & Conferences
    • Openness, Accountability and Transparency
    • Finances
  3. It is very disappointing to see the issue of prioritization raised and then rapidly dismissed as “being too subjective”.

    This is a dangerous way of making improvements to a system – to put out a specific suggestion and then walked away from it if there isn’t agreement.

    What that approach fundamentally misses is the *reason* why the idea of prioritization cropped up in the first place. It is because everyone has a difficult time seeing and understanding the relevance of a particular comment period to them.

    People just see a list of comment periods, and then even if they dig into each one, it is hard to tell how important it really is. Or at what stage in the process it is. Or if this is the best time to comment (are people still looking for new ideas, or comments on specific ideas?)

    The simple fact is that some comment periods are of greater relevance to a larger group than others. And some comment periods have significant implications that can be easily overlooked. Until there is a determined effort to address that, the problem will keep coming up again and again.

    Yes, rankings may be subjective but that doesn’t mean they aren’t enormously helpful. Something can often be better than nothing.

    And if you went through a list of current comment periods, it’s likely that nearly everyone would agree with the level of importance for any given comment period – except in special cases when people would also be able to say “well, this one is of particular interest to me because…”

    There are other options too. Some suggestions:

    • Put an initial rating of importance on a comment period and then allow community members to add their own rankings. That way the community decides its own level of importance.
    • Use stars rather than words (low, high etc)
    • Use highlighting tags e.g. if a “G” is added it means it is of particular importance to a General audience. If an “Ry” appears, it is of particular interest to a Registry, and so on.
  4. The same problem appears with the Reply Cycle idea – don’t get bogged down in finding problems with every possible configuration. And try not to look at it through the eyes of the current system. If you do that – and there is plenty of evidence in the report that that is exactly what happened – then you’ll never made any useful progress.

    What needs to be looked at is the fact that the comment periods are unnecessarily static. A document is posted. Comments are sent in. A summary is produced. Changes are made. A new document is put out.

    In the Internet era we are all used to jumping in with comments and interacting in near real time on particular issues. The ATRT suggested a reply cycle because it was the simplest method of introducing a concept – that comment periods need to be more interactive.

    The most important aspect with this Reply Cycle idea is to make sure that what you end up with does *not* include in it arbitrary rules. The idea is to allow people to go back-and-forth a little bit; not to force people to respond in the correct way at the correct time, or to create a one-size-fits-all solution.

  5. Re: technical improvements to the software/approach. Some good thoughts here. But beware the use of wikis.

    There are those who think wikis are wonderful. And those who will have nothing to do with them. I think you should experiment for some months before going any particular direction to avoid future arguments.

    As a sidenote: the report says: “Due to the fact that a threaded discussion environment has never been deployed at ICANN for Public Comments…”

    In fact I ran a successful test of a dynamic forum for ICANN which broke a comment period out into different components and had threaded conversations about each part. Ask the ICANN tech team what the software was called. Ultimately, it proved popular and looked promising but no one followed through with the idea.

    Part of the reason for that – and this is what I am warning about in general here – was that people were quick to think up and run through potential and future concerns about changing the current system. This is especially common in the ICANN environment.

    It is very easy to weigh a list of possible problems too heavily against all the future benefits that will accrue. And it is all too easy to overlook significant shortcomings in the existing system just because people have grown used to it.

    Especially in something as moving and transitory as a comment period, it is an ideal opportunity to try out different things. Unless you manage to create a system that actively prevents people from commenting, then you have already hit the current comment period baseline and while people may gripe about changes, they will be able to achieve exactly the same, so don’t let fear of change guide efforts to improve the system.

    One suggestion – you need to find a way to allow people to note they have commented with one click (this is now extremely common with software and posts on Twitter and Facebook). This would draw in others. And there needs to be a quick and easy way to see what others have said.

  6. What is missing from the work done so far is any changes to how comment periods are actually run by staff.

    At the moment, staff – who usually have the broadest knowledge of the issue that is out for public comment – have a very passive role. They post the document, then summarise comments at the end, and then try to figure out how to make changes to the document as a result.

    Seeing as public comment is *the* key point where work and ideas start to gain broader acceptance and awareness, it will most likely be in everyone’s interests if staff took on more of a facilitator role wrt public comments.

    It is not hard to drum up interest. Staff (and the GM of Public Participation) could easily use email, Twitter, Facebook etc to highlight that a comment period will soon be opening, and highlight aspects of that comment period that would spark interest.

    You could give a particular comment period its own hashtag – that would spark debate. You could run a discussion forum on the ICANN Facebook page – everyone already understands how that software works and won’t blame ICANN for it. Think positive engagement. Staff could email and actively engage the people that they know and meet at ICANN meetings.

    Staff could also elicit questions and provide answers while the comment period is going. And encourage people who are focussed on the same point to go away and come back with a short summary of their discussions before the comment period closes.

    This facilitation role would have a huge positive impact on any comment period. But it does need to be an active consideration. Having a slightly improved comment period system will not tackle the root problem – which is that people are busy and they aren’t sufficiently encouraged or enthused to bother to comment on every ICANN document.

    This would be a huge – but positive! – shift in staff behaviour so it would need to be carefully and professionally introduced as it would inevitably be met with suspicion and defensiveness. But I have no doubt whatsoever that the rewards would be enormous.

  7. Another thing that ICANN really needs to consider is explicitly giving greater priority to particular respondents. Or at least breaking out different respondents.

    It really is a no-brainer that if a supporting organization or advisory committee sends in a response then it should be taken more seriously. This is for the simple reason that these are the structures of ICANN itself that are designed to filter and raise issues.

    Likewise, a party that is directly impacted by a decision can expect greater consideration than a party which is not.

    If someone posts anonymously, that is fine, but they should also generally expect it to be given less weight than someone who is prepared to state who they are and who they work for. ICANN is deciding policy rules, not holding a music festival.

    As to the obvious concern that good material or intelligent responses may be lost through this process (which they already are being through the current system); again, a simple system of community rating – allowing the community to identify its own priorities and valued responses – would not only help flag up particular posts but it may also people to reach a general consensus in public and through a comment period – which is what the whole point of comment periods should be in the first place.

I hope this feedback helps. And I hope you will start making positive changes straight away by responding to this comment period response and/or explaining where and when the ideas were considered and accepted (or not accepted) and the reasons why either way.

That would make me feel that my efforts had been worthwhile and it would encourage me to respond more in future. If you set up a system that does that for every poster before you know it, people may get some real value from commenting on ICANN’s work.

Thanks

Kieren McCarthy

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(5) comments

Kevin Murphy
3 years ago ·

TL;DR

;)

kierenmccarthy
3 years ago ·

@Kevin: I had to look up what that meant. We’re clearly on two sides of a generational divide on this one. It really isn’t that long and it’s even broken out into seven points. Of course all these extra letters are probably just confusing you, so try this:

OK YL

;-)

Frederic
3 years ago ·

I read it, although it was long. And interesting.
I worked on that report and maybe we can exchange at the next Icann meeting on this.
Or on anything else. That was my first try at Icann policy, I enjoyed it and am happy to exchange.
However, as a pragmatic guy, I sometimes feel public comments should be useful, and not be used as a free speech place. So forums for policy might not be appropriate.
My 2 cents.

kierenmccarthy
3 years ago ·

@Frederic: Thanks for the response. Happy to talk anytime. Glad you enjoyed getting involved in creating policy – the more people that do, the better policies that will result.

Re: free speech and forums. The problem is not that alot of people provide comments that are unhelpful. In fact, many comments should be seen as a sign of success because ICANN is specifically set up (in theory at least) to allow anyone impacted by the Internet to have a say in its evolution.

The problem is that, rather than embrace greater participation and find ways of encouraging it and put effort and resources into developing systems that then distill comment down to the most useful, actionable information, ICANN has had the same perspective that you oultine: that we need to find way of dealing with comment and discouraging people that provide the ‘wrong’ responses.

In terms of discouraging people to comment, ICANN has been extremely effective. The problem is that a poor public comment process fundamentally undermines the entire policy development process.

When I say the comment period process is a glacier headed in the wrong direction this is what I mean: change is very, very slow and it is moving toward trying to control the outcomes rather than making the most out of an open process.

Nigel Roberts
3 years ago ·

Kieren:

I’m an active member of an ICANN Working Group, the ccNSO’s Framework of Interpretation for Delegation and Redelegation of ccTLDs. I was an active member of its predecessor group.

These two groups consist/consisted of people from different background, who work/worked together in good faith to produce something, which while perhaps not perfect represents a true synthesis. The work of the first group was totally a consensus document, and while we have our differences of opinion, I strongly believe the work of the second group will benefit from an equal level of support from its members of all backgrounds.

But I am disappointed. The reason I’m disappointed is that — it seems to me — the wider public does not appear to recognise the importance of the work by participating fully in the Public Comment process on our output.

While I KNOW what we are producing is good stuff, I also know that we do not have a monopoly on analytical and logical truth, and I (and I believe my colleagues) would welcome a greater substantive input from the public during the Public Comment period so that we could, after review, find a few nuggets of gold we have overlooked, and incorporate them.

Currently I feel that it must logically be the case that either
(a) what we do must be so perfect that it is impossible to improve; or
(b) no one gives much of a shit.

You can see that both of those propositions are quite ridiculous. Reductio ad absurdum, in fact.

So how DO we, please, increase public participation in Comment Periods?

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