ALAC Independent Review: First set of comments
There are some independent reviews (such as the LSE Review of the GNSO)that are known for their scholarship, thoroughness, objectivity and substantive recommendations -- the independent review of the ALAC as presented by Westlake Consulting does not fall into this category. Comments such as, "we note that an increasing amount of the ALAC’s policy work is being conducted through formal Working Groups", leave no doubt that Westlake Consulting has not properly engaged in the research for which it was paid and has instead offered up nothing more than a shoddy and cursory report. Anyone at all who bothers to investigate the current state of ALAC working groups could only conclude that they are a totally nonproductive wasteland devoid of substantive commentary or meaningful participation. ALAC working groups are as close to the antithesis of the working group concept as one could possibly imagine (with no one chairing these bodies, with no terms of reference, with no set schedule, with no active participation, with no policy development underway, and with no recommendations reached or tendered). Sadly, this report fails to offer up an honest assessment of the deplorable state of the ALAC. The reviewers tend to speak in euphemisms, such as "if the ALAC fails to engage in the decision-making process", rather than stating the glaringly obvious: many members of the ALAC are completely unwilling to actively engage in productive on-line discussions but are certainly eager to travel to ICANN sessions as long as it's on ICANN's dime. Reading the report, one quickly comes to conclude that while Westlake can indeed cite facts such as the ALAC Internal Rules for Procedure regarding participation, Westlake couldn't actually be bothered to investigate whether ALAC members were in fact abiding by the participatory rules that they themselves had promulgated. The recent Staff report "Performance overview ALAC and Liaisons final.pdf" makes it quite clear that the ALAC chair will soon have to call for the resignations of a large number of ALAC members owing to their failure to comply with even minimum participatory obligations. Adding to the problem, even when Westlake arrives at a correct observation, such as, "A significant proportion of certified ALSs appear to be inactive", Westlake still fails to document the absolutely horrid scope of the problem -- more than two-thirds of all ALSs have never once posted a single comment to the At-Large discuss list. Neither does Westlake point out that procedures to decertify these non-contributing At-Large Structures (as cited in ICANN's bylaws) have never once been invoked. Instead of recognizing that much of this dead wood arrived at ICANN's doorstep through ICANN's WSIS-related recruiting process (that brought in those who would rather debate lofty "governance issues" than actually get their hands dirty by tackling operational policy matters), Westlake takes the position that the lack of participation is attributable to "little incentive for active involvement". It would have been more forthright to state that just as you don't recruit lawyers to do the work of engineers, you shouldn't have been exclusively recruiting Civil Society types when instead you really needed to recruit those that regularly interact on domain name and consumer forums (those that are the true At-Large that have a very real interest in the management of the DNS). The ALAC as currently composed is not a unit that represents the user community. If it did, one would have expected to see the entirety of the ALAC passionately involved in attending to the revisions to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement so as to better protect the registrant community -- real users that the ALAC is chartered to serve -- instead, ALAC participation in the process was almost non-existent. Rather than stating, "The ALAC also lays itself open to criticism from the At-Large community if it is perceived not to have ensured that the interests of individual Internet users have been adequately represented", Westlake should have clearly stated that the record undeniably shows that the ALAC has not lived up to its obligations; we don't need an independant reviewer pussy-footing around with bland statements while we are confronted with a gross failure of monumental proportions. Further, Westlake fails to note that many non-participatory groups were quite possibly brought into the fold through clearly bogus inducements -- see the statement, for example, on the AFRALO website that fraudulently indicates that there are "Opportunities for grant funding to support some of your group's activities (ALAC is applying for grant funding)". The solution to such non-participation is not shenanigans such as non-existent grants, additional "outreach tools", or recruiting even more ALSs that will never participate, instead a decidely more pragmatic approach is called for. If you look, for example, at the EURALO discussion list and conclude that no one there has been discussing any ICANN policy matters since day one, and, in fact, almost no discussion happens on any topic whatsoever, then the solution is self-evident: dissolve the EURALO group and the list and throw the bums out as the "structure" has no continuing purpose. We don't need to encourage and subsidize these non-contributing laggards just for the sake of political correctness. As far as I'm concerned, ALAC has forfeited the right to wear the mantle of the At-Large, and as a body the ALAC no longer has a continuing purpose. The ALAC has proven that it is generally incapable of dealing with at-large issues and is so inefficient that it will only submit a Statement on a topic long after the deadline for public comment has passed. As an organization, the ALAC has become the posterboy for the word "Useless". How does Westlake deal with the issue of ALAC inefficiency? Westlake has proposed a more streamlined ALAC [less members] that "might encourage full attendance for the majority of meetings". As I see it, a few less members is still too many. If a reasonably well performing institution such as the former Protocol Supporting Organization could be structurally eliminated by ICANN, then how could anyone claim that there exists a continuing purpose for this non-performing and totally dysfunctional structure? A few cosmetic changes won't change the fact that the ALAC holds no promise of ever becoming a value-added proposition. In fact, the very last thing that we would want to do is to set the ALAC on a path of further navel-gazing as Westlake has suggested. The notion that the ALAC should spend its time on the development of an annual Statement of Intent, Strategic Plan and Operating Plan is laughable. If they can't get a simple working group to function properly, or for that matter, to even use discussion lists to actually discuss ICANN policies, how then can we expect them to tackle much more grandiose matters? Unless, of course, the objective is to keep them out of the policy arena and busy in their own little playpen where they can safely be ignored... ICANN spends a lot of money on the ALAC. What kind of a return are we getting from this investment? A review of the ALAC Paris Statement demonstrates that the only thing that they have recently accomplished is attendance at numerous meetings. As a group they cannot point to any current policy work on auctions, on the RAA, on new gTLDs, on WHOIS, on registry failure, on registrar transition, and the list goes on and on. What matters are they investigating? What findings have they obtained? What recommendations have emerged that are based on those investigations and findings? The answer to all the above is "none". Yes, an Advisory Committee to the Board is supposed to be doing all these things... yet the ALAC does not feel compelled to honor its obligations under the bylaws. They can't be bothered to do their job as it might involve some actual work. Westlake has noted that they were "somewhat surprised at the limited number of responses received from certain sectors and that we received only one submission in a language other than English". I would note that I am not surprised. Even during the much ballyhooed Summit process a questionnaire was developed by Staff that had to be submitted three times to the ALSs before it received a single comment. This ALAC/RALO/ALS structural body might as well be in the morgue. It's a rare day when one can find a pulse. This is an organization that holds its Monthly Meetings (after waiting 20 minutes just to achieve a quorum), that doesn't ever manage to discuss actual policy matters during these meetings, that promises to itself to take up the policy topics through on-list dialogue, and who then consistently manages to never discuss the policy issues online thereafter. This is an organization just going through the motions, just playing the game, just waiting for the next check from ICANN's travel department. Westlake has made the argument that "Our observation is that email lists are an ineffective mechanism for communication for stakeholders who are peripherally, rather than deeply involved." Accordingly, Westlake has recommended that "the ALAC should replace email lists with wikis for policy discussions". The problem, of course, is not email lists... rather it is Westlake's failure to grasp the notion that ICANN has stupidly built a house of cards based on participation by those with only peripheral interest. Would anyone in their right mind populate a Security and Stability Committee almost exclusively with members that only had a peripheral interest? Of course not... yet this is precisely what has been done with the ALAC. When we look at the SSAC we see a strong management with a strong supporting cast. This is not by accident. If a committee member fails to step up to the plate and perform as expected, that committee member is removed and replaced with another candidate (whose membership is subsequently ratified by the ICANN Board). This process works well for the SSAC that in the last eight months has released eleven truly substantive documents. Contrast that performance to the ALAC's almost total lack of performance. In the final analysis, it's all about performance, about bringing value to the ICANN process (especially if ICANN is footing the bill) and truth-be-told, the ALAC performance has been worse than lacklustre; it has been downright pathetic. So the real question is this: Can the ALAC be salvaged? Do we have any reason to believe that the ALAC will undergo a radical change that will lead to substantially enhanced performance? I have seen no indication of such. Yes, there are one or two members that perform like champions, that participate in GNSO or ccTLD Working Groups, that follow all the discussions, that make a serious attempt to represent the user interest. Anomalies are to be expected, but without a management with the gumption to cast out the chaff no progress can truly be made and we will continue to be stuck with a Committee mostly populated by those that rarely have anything to say on any topic, that have little more than a peripheral interest in the management of the DNS as it pertains to the user community, and that won't contribute to any policy dialogue. As I see it, the cancer has already spread too deep and this patient is terminal.