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My analysis of the broken ICANN culture

Category : Domain names, ICANN, Internet governance, Journalism · by Jan 13th, 2012

I wrote an extensive review of the dot-jobs saga earlier this week on .Nxt called: The case study that could kill ICANN.

This afternoon, I saw the Stephane van Gelder had referenced it in a blog post: What ICANN is doing wrong.

I wrote a lengthy response to Stephane’s post, but for some reason it repeatedly could not get past his anti-spam mechanisms. Having spent a little bit of time writing a response, I figured I would post it here instead. It’s below:

————

I think you’re being a little unfair to me. It is relatively easy to follow the article, even though the process itself was a little convoluted.

But anyway, this is the real problem: a very large number of people now know exactly what has happened and how bad it is. But what will happen? How will anyone be held to account? Will anyone even admit publicly that this is an example of poor governance?

Even if you were to raise it as GNSO Chair at the next ICANN meeting, you would likely be shouted down or told it is not in the GNSO’s remit, or be put under enormous peer pressure to keep it out of the public sphere. You’d probably be offered a private briefing. Anything to prevent the taboo being broken.

The best anyone can expect is that some Board members will dig into the issue.

And in response they will be told by the staff that some of the criticisms are valid, but they are old news and have already been dealt with. We have already moved on.

Then they’ll be told that there are inaccuracies in the article (but won’t go into too much detail over what they are because they’ll be very minor). And let’s not forget this was written by Kieren McCarthy [insert some slur].

Some weak reason will be given for the delays and the redactions and there will be a promise to do a review, or point to an ongoing review, or some kind of related delay tactic.

And then it will be pointed out that this is really a minor issue and ICANN is dealing with so much at the moment that some things are bound to slip through the cracks…

If a Board member continues to push, they will find themselves under pressure by other Board members: why are you pushing this so hard? Their motives will be impugned and they will find themselves given the cold shoulder by staff. They will find themselves being briefed against on the Board and in the community (and there are a few Board members that can testify to this).

Basically, everything will be thrown at the issue in order to avoid hard questions being asked, and real explanations being extracted.

Once it has then become far too big an issue, the Board members will get their secret apologies and promises to improve and be made to feel as if they have done their job.

But at that stage, they certainly won’t want to embarrass the staff or ICANN: that would only aid the organization’s enemies, and it would only encourage people to do-down the organization. So no one will say anything publicly.

And then you’ll find that absolutely nothing changes.

And when no one follows up on the lack of change (because it was never written down or made public), the impact will be to reinforce the reality that there is no actual accountability.

Now, the staff are not *bad people* – I worked there for years and have a lot of respect for them and the job they do: they work hard, deal with a lot of stress in a complex situation and they keep a smiling public face despite it all.

However, over time the wrong culture has developed and it is *that* which is demonstrated time and again in this dot-jobs issue. When you add up all the small, wrong decisions being made for the wrong (self-serving) reasons, you are left with a pretty poorly functioning organization.

This is why the calls for improved transparency and accountability continue to cry out, again and again, year after year. You can’t *make* ICANN do anything. And those that have been there the longest know that.

So they continue to do what they think is best, and they develop a raft of defense mechanisms for when people tell them they have got it wrong.

Until ICANN is forced to admit it is wrong on occasion. Until someone is publicly disgraced to set as an example for what is not acceptable. And until ICANN recognizes that the longer it keeps screw-ups ‘in the family’, the more this damaging culture will be reinforced, nothing will change.

That change can only come with a new CEO. And whoever takes over in July will have to constantly focus on the culture issue if they are to impact it because it is so entrenched in key people. Will they have the time and energy to fight that battle when there is so much else going on? Probably not.

So how do you fix an institutional problem? It’s not that hard in reality.

First, you stop making excuses and acknowledge that there is a problem.

And then you hold a proper public review of yourself where the truth, warts an’ all, is allowed to come out.

That is what happens in properly functioning democracies – the unpleasant truths are pulled out in public. And things are always better off as a result.

I’m not holding my breath though.

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(2) comments

S Van Gelder
2 years ago ·

Kieren,

Apologies for the spam filter problems. I have cut and pasted your comment without changing a single word and uploaded it myself on the blog as a comment.

Thanks,

Stéphane

kierenmccarthy
2 years ago ·

Cheers Stephane.

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