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Developing an Internet Framework for Creative Dialogue on Irreconcilable Policy Differences

Experimenting with new approaches to democratic governance


Proposal of the Union of International Associations to the Forward Studies Unit of the European Commission


Budget and Timing

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Rationale

The rapid evolution of the Information Society is a reality with which the European Commission has associated itself. The challenge of other continents, notably with respect to hardware and software, is acknowledged. Despite considerable support by the Commission, notably with respect to infrastructure, this has not yet ensured any particular competitive advantage (Convergence: Wall Street Journal Europe, Spring 1998). There is emerging concern with the exact nature of the contribution of the Internet to processes of governance -- aside from the challenges of its regulation.

The focus of this proposal is on the opportunity for distinctive European initiatives that rely less on innovation in software and hardware and more on innovative application of existing and emerging facilities addressing cultural, cognitive and behavioural challenges -- especially in areas consistent with European cultural skills as they relate to democratic governance and differences of perspective.

Objective

The project will engage in practical experiments using adapations and extensions of communication technology (listserver, groupware, etc). The purpose will be to create a communication framework within which people of divergent cultures, languages and views can interact creatively in response to current and emerging issues of governance. The project will take account of the constraints evident in existing Internet-facilitated interactions within, and between, emerging coalitions -- notably with respect to elaboration and implementation of new strategies. It will seek to identify a 'European style' of Internet interaction and dialogue capable of moving beyond the consensus-dependence characteristic of dialogue dominated by homogeneous communication environments, such as those based in North America. These are typically ill-adapted to the polarized situations affecting Europe (Balkans, Middle East, 'Clash of Cultures', Northern Ireland, 'social exclusion', 'immigrants', etc). The concern is to demonstrate how competitive advantage in quality of governance can be derived from the divergence and cultural diversity that tends to undermine strategies based on inadequate paradigms.

Opportunity

The Union of International Associations (UIA) is currently coordinating a 4-partner project co-funded by Info2000 (DG-XIII) on Biodiversity Conservation in an Information Context. This builds on UIA's existing databases on international organizations, international meetings, world problems, strategies, human development and human values. These are extensively hyperlinked between, and within, databases (totalling some 100,000 profiles linked by 500,000 hyperlinks) as well as to external websites. The Info2000 project is designed to develop a user-participation style of interaction, notably on the part of international organizations, to improve the quality of the data and access to it. Essential to this process are the software protocols facilitating contributions at different levels of credibility -- and access to information at different levels of credibility. Also significant is the effort to visualize or map the pattern of information to ensure a shift from information-focus to knowledge-focus The Info2000 project creates a context that is ideal as a basis for further practical experiment in relation to issues of governance.

Study Task and Communication Experiment

The challenge of many problems and remedial strategies is the polarized nature of dialogue about them -- some of which is captured in the UIA databases. Discussion of governance, notably via listservers, itself tends to reflect such divergence and polarization of opinion. In each case the challenge of how divergent positions are to be 'held', without necessitating convergence on consensus, is fundamental to sustainable democratic governance. The concern of this experiment is to determine how contrasting perspectives can be usefully juxtaposed as a means of reflecting a higher order of consensus, consistent with emerging understanding of complexity -- as opposed to unnecessary, or premature, simplification.

This project would set up a listserver, based on an existing UIA server, that would be designed for dialogue between policy-makers, government officials, academics interested in questions of governance, interested NGOs, activists concerned with Internet-mediated governance, and other interested parties. The focus would be on adaptation of simple software rather than use of more complex forms of groupware.

The prime concern would be on how to enable the dialogue on governance-related issues to 'self-organize' in fruitful ways with minimal moderator control. A prime role of the moderator, where software features are inadequate, would be to help 'position' interventions so as to build up a pattern of contrasting perspectives defining the 'communication space' -- possibly using associated Web possibilities for visualization.

The experiment would be designed to overcome the existing constraints on such interactions -- lengthy or unfocused comments, forgotten insights, marginalized perspectives, groupthink, moderator dominance, etc. Recognizing that the question of 'Internet' and 'governance' has been widely discussed, the concern here would be to respond to the evident inadequacies of the dynamics of such discussion -- but without inhibiting the flow of that discussion through alienating rules and excessive moderator intervention. The challenge would be to discover better ways to reflect and focus incompatible policy insights.

Budget and Timing

The project would use relevant skills of three members of UIA staff at a cost of 25,000 ECU. It would run over a 6 to 9 month period. The major product would be a set of operating procedures which would be detailed in a report.


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