Democracy OR Multi-stakeholderism: Competing Models of Governance

Posted on October 19, 2014

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Democracy at its simplest and most basic is governance by and for the people. Of course, there are a variety of conventions and values that are often invoked in the context of “democratic governance” and particularly for “democratic governments”, but democracy as governance by and for the governed would seem to be sufficient as a definition and particularly in the absence of formal structures, rules, behaviours or governmental structures.

I’ve elsewhere discussed how various instances of Multi-stakeholderism (MSism) have operated in the absence of or even in opposition to conventional understandings of democracy. However, continuing discussion and evolution in the way in which governance concerning the global Internet is being conceptualized is suggesting an approach to this governance which involves “democratic multi-stakeholderism” (DMsism). This, it is being suggested, may be one method of squaring the circle where the historical circumstances of Internet development – largely but not exclusively through multi-stakeholder processes primarily driven and controlled by those with a technical interest and responsibility for Internet development are perceived as being necessary for the continued well-being of the Internet as it enters into an increasingly complex and politicized environment.  This, it is argued is particularly the case as matters of “Internet Governance” shift focus from largely technical issues to issues involving broad areas of public policy as impacted by actions by and on the Internet.

The difficulty with creating or even conceptualizing a “democratic multi-stakeholderism” is that at it’s core MSism is not “democratic”.  Thus the governance notion implicit in MSism is one where governance is by and for those with a “stake” in the governance decision thus shifting the basis of governance from one based on people and (at least indirectly) citizenship or participation in the broad community of the governed to one based on “stakes” i.e. an “interest” in the domain to which the governance apparatus is being applied. The historical notion of “stake” in a context such as this one generally refers to a financial or ownership interest in the area under discussion but in the evolving Internet Governance sphere (and others) this has been extended to include a “technical stake” (as in a professional interest) or even a “normative stake” as in ensuring an outcome which is consistent with one’s values or norms.

What is not included in any of the conventional approaches to MSism however, are broad notions of democratic participation (or accountability) i.e. where the governance is structured so as to include for example, those without a “direct” stake in the outcomes but who nevertheless might as a consequence of their simple humanity be understood to be impacted by the decisions being taken. Discussions around these matters are often dealt with within the MS community by talking about the need (or not) to include (technology/Internet) “users” as “stakeholders”. I’ve looked at that discussion elsewhere and argued that when it comes to the current status of the Internet we are all i.e. all of humanity, now in one way or another being impacted either directly or indirectly by the Internet and in that sense we are all “stakeholders” in how the Internet is framed and enabled in its future evolution (i.e. “governed”).

By extending “stakeholder” status to “users” and then recognizing that we are all in some way “Internet users” the problem of DMSism, some argue may be solved. The problem however, remains in that a MS approach as currently being proposed involves a degree of equality of participation/influence by each of the stakeholder groups (in the Internet Governance jargon–“equal footing“) which would in this instance mean that for example, decisions made where the private sector or government or the technical community etc. was highly influential would not by definition be governance decisions made by the governed except in the trivial sense that since those stakeholder groups also consist of people then all decisions would of course all be made by “people” whatever their (temporary) stakeholder status.

To me it is quite clear that “democratic governance” and “multi-stakeholder governance” are internally in contradiction with each other. At their core, democracy as in the “rule of the people” is one form of government and multi-stakeholderism as in” the rule of “stakeholders”” is another and competing form. I don’t think that they can be reconciled.

Some are arguing that elements of Participatory Democracy (PD) may provide the appropriate direction and this certainly may be the case. However, current experience with PD suggests that there is considerable need for maturation in these processes and particularly in developing means for effective and efficient decision making and for scaling from localized small scale to larger processes.

What I do see as being possible and which is where I think our collective thinking should go is toward redefining how democratic governance can/should operate in the Internet era and particularly (or at least initially) in the “governance” of the global Internet. The Internet “has changed everything” including how we can and should govern ourselves and the various aspects of our daily and collective lives.  This has been done both by changing how we live those lives and by changing how we are able to act and project ourselves in our lived and collective worlds both physically and virtually. But to effectively respond we need to evolve our institutions and mechanisms of governance. We do this not by discarding our current norms and practices such as democracy which has done so much to enable, empower, and enrich the lives of all who have access to this.  Rather we do this by allowing and facilitating an evolution in those institutions and mechanisms to take advantage of the new opportunities that technology provides and to respond to the new risks and challenges which technology has equally presented to us.

The list of those opportunities and challenges is a long and growing one and our first task is to develop the means for assimilating and responding to these.  A first step in this long road is to begin the process of identification of the issues which need to be addressed in these revised mechanisms for democratic governance in the Internet era:
1. The need for a means to incorporate technical expertise and those who consider themselves neutral technical stewards of various aspects of the Internet into mechanisms for Internet governance and to broaden the base of this stewardship to include those from a wide diversity of backgrounds and interests
2. Finding ways of responding in our strategies and mechanisms of governance to the speed of technology change and the unpredictability of the impacts of these changes including through economic and social redistribution, disruption of production systems and employment, huge transfers and accumulations of wealth (and power), among others
3. Recognizing the apparent disengagement of large numbers of the population from current conventional governance and representative processes
4. Reacting to and finding ways of incorporating the apparent desire for direct (disintermediated) engagement of large numbers of the population in current informal technology mediated processes associated with the management of various activities associated with daily living particularly in developed societies
5. Taking as a necessary challenge finding ways of resolving the escalating divides in the technology sphere including between those who have and are able to use online systems for purposes of engagement and those who are not or less able because of issues of location, income, gender, technical and other forms of literacy among others
6. Finding mechanisms to respond to the globalization of the nature of the decision making/consultation which needs to be undertaken given the globalized nature of the issues/technology
7. Developing the fortitude to not be intimidated by the extreme significance of the matters under discussion given the vast economic, political, strategic and security interests among others now impacted by the Internet and digital platforms overall, thus increasing the likelihood even inevitability of attempts at undemocratic subversion of democratic processes in support of one or another corporate or national interest
8. Recognizing and celebrating the opportunity for using digital means to extend opportunities for effective participation, for enhancing the quality of decision making through information provision and support for dialogue

We need to develop appropriate responses and mechanisms as a matter of considerable urgency but persisting in attempts to substitute MSism for democratic practice is a diversion from what needs to be accomplished and a potentially dangerous substitution of values of privatization and interest based decision making for governance that is founded in a concern for the public good.