Achieving a deeper understanding of the nature, extent and potential of civil society groups' participation in the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and ICT policy making by establishing a cross-sector academic / practitioner dialogue.

The UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Geneva in December 2003 was intended to provide ‘a unique opportunity for all key stakeholders to assemble at a high-level gathering and to develop a better understanding of (the Information) revolution and its impact on the international community’ (WSIS official website). The phrase ‘all key stake-holders’ was explicitly deemed to include governments, the private sector, civil society and the ‘United Nations family’ of organisations. As a result, the Summit not only brought together a significant number of heads of state and governmental representatives, it also attracted more than 3300 representatives of nearly 50 civil society groups and some evidence of these groups’ concerns is reflected in the final Geneva Declaration of Principles and Geneva Plan of Action.

Nevertheless, civil society groups were not included in the inter-governmental sessions in which decisions were expected to be made, and their perceived lack of involvement in the drafting of the UN Declaration and Action Plan resulted in a need to issue their own Declaration which claimed that ‘the general interests we collectively expressed are not adequately reflected in the Summit documents’ (WSIS Civil Society Plenary 2003, p. 2).

The simple explanation for this shortcoming of WSIS to meet civil society groups’ concerns – and one which was reflected in media analysis of WSIS at the time – is that the interests of the various participating sectors and groups are inevitably opposed, and that as the weaker participants, civil society groups are those most likely to be marginalised. According to this view, the interests of development-focused NGOs would simply conflict with the interests of developed world states and private sector organisations who see little reward accruing from further investment in expanding access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) across the globe, and who see regulation of the Internet as a more pressing concern than expanding access. On this account, civil society groups might indeed have a great deal to gain or lose as a result of such international policy-making forums, but they would have little chance of playing anything more than a marginal and tokenistic role.

The central aim of the OII seminar series was to challenge this simplistic account, and by applying existing academic research findings and models, to gain a deeper understanding of the nature, extent and potential of civil society groups’ participation in ICT policy-making. The series brought together academics and representatives of such groups with a view to establishing dialogue across the sectors. In deconstructing the analysis described above, the seminar series addressed three key research questions:

  • What were the priorities and interests of civil society groups participating in WSIS 2003 and to what extent, if any, do these differ from those of groups from other sectors?
  • How do such civil society groups identify the interests of their sector, and to what extent are constituents’ interests effectively characterised and represented by these groups?
  • How far are such groups able to communicate these interests effectively to governments and other parties in the policy-making process and to what extent do their views appear to have shaped the outcomes?

There are substantial bodies of literature, for example in relation to the participation of civil society groups in international policy-making and the potential contribution of ICTs for development and regeneration, which academic participants would be expected to draw upon in the process of addressing these questions. Civil society participants would be expected to reflect on their experience of activity in the processes of information and communication technology policy-making.

The intention of the OII seminar series was to allow critical reflection on the interests of civil society groups in relation to the use of ICTs to achieve an equitable and sustainable information society and their participation and influence in meetings such as the WSIS 2003. The series was expected to promote dialogue, reflect on research in the light of the experience and concerns of practitioners, provide a context for translating academic research into user-relevant form, and to stimulate questions/contexts for further academic research. Such academic endeavour has been categorised more broadly as ‘reconstructivist science and technology studies’ in the sense of applying academically rigorous research from social constructivist perspectives to particular social objectives.

Four seminars and a mini-conference were organised for this series, with the final seminar taking place in early 2006 to reflect on lessons learned and the experience of civil society groups in the second WSIS Summit, held in Tunis from 16th-18th November 2005. As well as these planned events, several other seminars on related topics were held under the series heading with acknowledgement of ESRC support. In addition the OII has been working with the British Council, using research findings to support civil society involvement in the 2005 Tunis Summit and in future information policy-making processes.

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)