Fundació puntCAT — the organization behind the .cat “country” code top-level domain (ccTLD) — is going through a process of strategic reflection on what should its mission be in the following years. As a part of its Advisory Council, I have been invited to provide my insights. Here comes what could be called my “position paper” on the matter. Some of the ideas have been enriched with the dialogue with other members of the Advisory Council, which actually shared most of my points of view.
The need for a transversal, independent institution to foster the Information Society
There are two main issues to be raised about the nature of an institution that has in their mission fostering the Information Society.
The first one is that it has to have a transversal, multidisciplinary approach to the topic. This is rarely found in governments, where such an institution is placed in the organizational chart of a another vertical institution, that is, a given ministry or department. In practice, this means that if the institution is e.g. the Ministry of Industry, the approach when fostering the Information Society will definitely be biased towards infrastructures and the ICT/telecommunications industry — which is the most common example indeed. A solution to this problem is placing our institution that fosters the Information Society up in the department/ministry/cabinet/secretariat of the President or similar. This will work only under two premises: (1) there is no coalition of different parties within the government, so that the government is not split in practice in sub-governments among parties; (2) there are no different factions within the party in the government that fight among them for power — this will rarely happen if ever. Another solution is placing our institution outside of the Government and in hands of the civil society.
The second aspect is that this institution has to be independent. Some of the reasons have already been stated above: only an independent institution can provide advice to policy-makers in matters of Health, Education or Democratic Quality without the risks of being interpreted as a party issue (and not a technical one). But independent does not only means in political terms, but economic ones. A major strength that some institutions of this kind have — like Fundació puntCAT or ICANN itself — is that they have revenues that sustain their activity besides the political colour in the government or the interests of the lobbies.
Functions of an institution to foster the Information Society
There are two sides of the same coin when talking about the functions that can be carried on by institutions to foster the Information Society.
On the one hand, these institutions can provide services in order to assure economic (and political) independence and sustainability. Of course these services will be related with the institution’s mission (e.g. managing a ccTLD). This is the “revenue” side of the institution, especially if it is independent as we defined it before. On the other hand — and this is the point that I would like to stress —, these institutions have an “expenditure” side which focuses on policy-making, on lobbying. Both sides are complementary and essential.
Concerning the part of policy-making and lobbying, I think it is worth mentioning that it is the demand side what is of more concern, especially where a good amount of infrastructures have already been deployed, thus shifting from push to pull strategies.
In this demand-side, pull-strategy approach, there are three issues that are worth being mentioned, and in this specific order:
- Measuring and analysing the state of development of the Information Society. That is, knowing what is happening and, even more important, why. So, it is not only about the raw measurement and putting data in rows in a table, but putting it in context with other socio-economic indicators, infer the causes of this state of development, its consequences, comparing it with other social or economic realities, etc. Most of the times, data on ICTs come in a much aggregated and sector-centred manner: there is a need to disaggregate, contextualize and characterize these data so that they become knowledge.
- Provide policy advice on what should be done, in what fields, with what priorities, and adjusting to the available resources. And not only providing advice, but also pointing at the ways to monitor the evolution and measure the impact of applying such policies, what results could be expected and, again, why. Providing policy advice can be made in a lot of ways. The usual one is reports or white papers. But consultancy (which can be pro-bono, of course) and lobbying should also be included in the agenda. And, of course, advice can be provided at different levels: at the state/government level, or at the organization (e.g. SMEs) or individual levels.
- Directly setting up and carrying on programmes for the development of the Information Society. In other words, designing programmes and executing projects in the field of e-Health, ICT and education, electronic and open government, etc. These programmes and projects, of course, should be very much in line of the two previous points: heavily relying on the evidence raised in the measuring and analysis part, and putting in practice what the policy-advice stage suggested. Deploying protocols and procedures, measuring tools and indicators for monitoring would be the nicest way to close the (virtuous) circle of intervention.
It goes without saying that, in a Network Society, it is not expected that an institution will (a) directly perform all of the aforementioned tasks or functions and (b) do it on its own. I believe there is an opportunity for a new institutional design, more based on enabling that on leading, more based on networking and partnering rather than on competing. I would expect of an institution designed to foster the Information Society to be the visible core of a network of professionals, scholars and policy-makers that work towards the same goal. And the main role of this institution would just be generating the sufficient resources to create, maintain and fuel this network.