How to end the global governance gridlock?

Cathleen Berger
Nov 22 · 20 min read

Here’s a checklist for increasing impact.

Picture taken in Lisbon © Cathleen Berger

It’s generally accepted that democracy is in crisis worldwide, and that spaces for civic participation are shrinking. Meanwhile, the so-called “techlash” is polarising debates around how governments around the world should govern the internet and social media.

For years, I’ve heard people talk about fostering dialogue between diverse stakeholder groups and the importance of soliciting input from a wider range of voices. And yet, when it comes to developing comprehensive policies nearly everyone reverts back to engaging the networks and processes they know (and are comfortable with) instead of experimenting with new models for deliberation and decision-making.

I’ve worked across sectors, in government, the private sector, and civil society, which made it even more apparent to me: we are gridlocked.

Without greater diversity of input and participation in global governance processes, we’re facing huge global instabilities and more politics of fear in every realm. Tensions abound worldwide, whether it comes to technology, environment, migration, food and water, and the list continues. We can do better.

Who, how, when, and where?

Global governance isn’t a singular confined entity that can be considered as a whole. Just like there can be disagreement (and varying allies) within a government, there are distinct stages within a policy-making process and each provides entry points and opportunities for various levels of engagement and influence. The key thing is to gain clarity about a) when to engage and how and b) which part of the process to change and for what reason.

Picture taken in Berlin © Cathleen Berger

This may sound obvious, but If we can be more specific about who, when and where there should be engagement about what, we’ll already be a lot closer to creating models that can grow and evolve as we test in practice. This simply doesn’t happen often enough, whether in the United Nations, in city councils, the Internet Governance Forum, or elsewhere.

Governments often take knowledge about different stages of policy-making for granted, don’t always explain well, or make processes and rules of procedure transparent or understandable to laypeople. And civil society tends to critique such processes on the whole instead of constructively engaging in moments and places where they can really add value.


Change happens through a process, not a one-off

There’s always going to be some degree of resistance to changing existing power and decision-making structures, whether from governments or other entities.

Anyone trying to design or change existing policy-making processes to be more open, inclusive, and forward-looking, usually needs to argue their case. That is: why are you questioning the status quo? And why do you think civic participation needs to be restructured?

Depending on your context, you can ground arguments in legal (read: traditional) references to support and justify your pitch. Emphasise participation through international human rights obligations, including protection of minorities and the strive for equality, or the democratic need to inform, involve, and adhere to the authority of the general public, which also requires (informed) consent when it comes to decision-making, see e.g. Art. 1 Chilean constitution, Art. 2+6 Treaty of the European Union, Art. 10 Kenyan constitution, Art. 20 II German Basic Law, Art. 14 II Nigerian constitution, preface Japanese constitution, Art. 16 + 61 Ecuadorian constitution, or Art. 28F Indonesian constitution. Alternatively, if you focus on digital policies — which is my primary field of expertise — , you’ll find that many national cybersecurity strategies routinely acknowledge the need for broadening participation in policy-making processes, e.g. Brazil, India, Kenya, Netherlands, Panama, Philippines, and South Africa.

The point is, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel to advocate for change, we just need to be considerate in our approach and implementation practices. The core argument is simply: functioning democracies require agency, i.e. people with the knowledge and capacity to engage, and participation, i.e. transparent processes that ensure accountability and legitimacy. In practice, this also means paying a lot of attention to open and honest communications around what’s happening, why and how, to help mitigate disappointment and frustration.


Creating your checklist for engaging with global governance

When I think about global governance and policy-making, I try to structure my engagement along five phases, each of which addresses a particular question, so that I can decide which one I want to contribute to. Each phase is structured along its own process and questions will be addressed by different sets of actors, along distinct formats, and generate specific outputs. If thinking through these five phases seems burdensome to you, think of it in terms of decreasing complexity because you don’t have to engage in all of them, instead you focus on what you know best. The most important thing to keep in mind: policy-making is an ongoing commitment and that includes checking for transparency, inclusion, and accountability not once but every single time.

Picture taken at Web We Want Festival in London © Cathleen Berger

A. What are we trying to tackle? (Issue identification, agenda-setting)

B. Which solutions may be appropriate? (Problem-solving, deliberation)

C. Ready to write it down? (Drafting, policy-making)

D. How do we make it happen? (Validation, implementation)

E. What did we learn? (Evaluation)


A. What are we trying to tackle?

Each stage of the policy-making process has a specific purpose and even when it comes to something as theoretically simple as raising an issue and putting it on the agenda, you may find that many processes lack a straightforward way to do so.

Take the G20 process as an example. There are formally established ways of engaging for different stakeholders within the overall process. For civil society organisations that’s the C20 track. However, politically and because of the topics that traditionally dominated the G20 agenda it is really hard, certainly for newcomers, to raise an issue and put it on the agenda to be discussed constructively. The process is as such not open, it’s not transparent, and it is not guaranteed that relevant experts will be able to join.

That is why in 2017–18, I decided to work with the World Wide Web Foundation and the Internet Society to launch a public, open process aimed at rallying attention around one critical issue to be put on the agenda: a commitment to progressive digital policies.

We used tools outside the existing formal process: an open letter, joint blog posts, press pitches, and countless conversations with national G20 governments. Apart from our primary goal to get better digital policies, we also wanted to make sure that going forward, the G20 policy-making process would pay better attention to transparency, inclusion, and participation. History will tell us, how successful we were. But the point is, we engaged constructively, even though we didn’t play by the existing rules.

Regardless of this example or whether you’re a government representative designing a process or a civil society activist voicing a new concern — process-wise make sure you think through at least these questions:

  • Which issues are you concerned with?
  • How are these issues affected by digital developments?
  • Did everyone get a say?
  • Do you raise issues virtually or in person?
  • Who organises the meeting and how are invitations distributed?
  • Is the process clear, transparent and open to newcomers?
  • Which other issues are related to your topic and at which level does it need to be addressed?
  • Are you familiar with existing legislation or policies?
  • Could you raise your issue in simpler words?

In more general, abstract terms you should know why you are putting something on the agenda, who the other actors are, which format already exists (and how you may want to change it), and what output you are aiming for. In short: What are we trying to tackle?

1. Process:

The main purpose of identifying pressing and/or challenging issues is the ability to set an agenda. For a policy to take shape and an issue to enter the next phase of the policy-making process, the issue at hand — e.g. AI, hate speech, encryption, access, digital public goods, sustainability — needs to be a concern for a big enough number of actors involved in the initial exchange to allow for meaningful deliberation. At this stage, no decisions are taken or positions defined; an issue is simply identified as relevant. Relevant issues enter the next stage and will be discussed in more depth.

2. Actors:

There should be no limits on which actors get involved in this stage. Everyone is affected by digital developments and should, therefore, be in a position to raise concerns — either directly or through their chosen form of representation. But while the process should be as inclusive as possible, issues are more likely to be raised by stakeholders already invested in the respective policy discourse, which is why it is all the more important to check your outreach channels. (See G20 example above.)

3. Format:

Regarding the format of an issue identification process, the key priority is ensuring inclusiveness and transparency, while reaching the relevant audience/s. There are many ways you can organise this stage of the process. To take only a few examples, you could:

  • reach out through distribution lists;
  • announce town hall meetings in newspaper advertisements and hold general assembly style discussions;
  • hold open, regular meet-ups in a fixed locations;
  • or you can use elements of direct democracy and allow attendees to add issues to the agenda through motions, petitions or open letters.

While any combination of all of the above (and any additional formats you can think of) is imaginable, it is crucial that the process is clear. Rules must be transparent; i.e. published, reinforced regularly, and shared widely. Whether you opt for virtual or in-person meetings, meet regularly or ad-hoc, everyone needs to be in a position to participate.

4. Outputs:

The obvious output of the issue identification stage is your agenda. Also, try to make sure you use a language that is understandable to the wider public. Remember: an agenda is not set for eternity. New issues will come up regularly. Once an issue is on the agenda, spread the information widely and keep it there until it is effectively taken up.

B. Which solutions may be appropriate?

Picture taken in Berlin © Cathleen Berger

In any given case, policy-making is about trying to identify the most suitable solution to the issue at hand. Because that is often inherently complex and even with the best analytical skills it is hard to anticipate all possible consequences, open, inclusive, comprehensive deliberation is paramount to success. But doing this well is no doubt resource intense.

Let’s look at the recent UN High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (UNHLP). From 2018–2019, the UN Secretary General had tasked a panel of 20 individuals to conduct a comprehensive, open consultation process on how to improve digital cooperation globally. This included various elements: in-person conversations, townhalls in the margins of larger events, as well as a public call for input. The objective was clear: whatever the UNHLP would end up recommending had the potential to be translated into policies worldwide.

As far as I am concerned, these are the opportunities any invested, special interest actor can — and must — use if you want to move the needle. Many, including Mozilla with an emphasis on Global Digital Public Goods, followed this call. Not all your ideas will fly but the more considerate you are in how and why your solution addresses the issue on the agenda, the more likely this will be picked in future policy discussions.

While the UNHLP report and its recommendations may have fallen short of (certainly my own) expectations, the process isn’t over and dedicated opportunities to comment on language or participate in future initiatives are opening up. And the more research and best practice examples you can put forward, the further we will be able to improve digital cooperation.

Regardless of this example, facts and ideas grounded in evidence are the key to a constructive, solution-oriented deliberation process — to provide appropriate time and space for that, think through at least these questions:

  • How do you reach the right stakeholders and attract relevant expertise to deliberate on the issues once the agenda is set?
  • Are there other perspectives or angles that should be discussed, think of minorities or adjacent fields?
  • How is the consultation organised, publicly, in writing or in person?
  • Does your meeting space provide a neutral platform?
  • Did you allow for enough time to provide meaningful input?
  • Are there means to facilitate input, such as providing thought papers or info sheets?
  • Are there incentives to encourage participation and active contributions?

Again think about why, who, how, and to what end you are presenting ideas in this specific deliberation process. This phase is all about: Which solutions may be appropriate?

1. Process:

Identified, relevant issues are put on the agenda for deliberation. The deliberation process aims to lay out the whole range of different perspectives, concerns, related considerations and existing discourses on the topic, e.g. at the regional or international level. At this stage, input is sought widely, and no position is too extreme or too narrow to be heard. In order to solve a problem, you first need to know what’s out there.

2. Actors:

At this stage, it is crucial to get the right people at the table. Apart from civil society representatives, academia, technical experts and the private sector, it is important that all sections of government relevant to your agenda are involved — which could include law enforcement, security services, intelligence, and military. One clearly identified actor should be responsible to issue invitations. Depending on your system, the actor with the most convening power will differ; it could be the leading government agencies or a robust cross-sectoral network. It is also possible that the inviting actor could change depending on the issues put on the agenda. Either way, the process must be clear, and space for deliberation provided. Don’t shy away from ‘hard’ topics just because the actors involved seem daunting — listen to what they have to say.

3. Format:

The critical aspect of this stage in the process is public consultation. How this will be organised — as a public livestream, via written contributions, or as closed, in-person meetings following a broader invitation to stakeholders — there has to be a clear timeframe and ideally a neutral space, as well as a facilitator who oversees the agenda. It is important that you agree on rules of procedure to allow everyone to present their arguments. Ideally, minutes of the deliberation process will be published for transparency reasons.

4. Outputs:

It is likely that this stage of the process will take more than one meeting or a day of consultations. Presenting arguments and allowing for meaningful public consultation requires time. It might be necessary to keep an issue on the agenda for several sessions, depending on the frequency with which you meet. The aim of this stage is to produce a set of arguments, which are solutions-oriented and can be consolidated in the next drafting stage. One way to manage the process could be to establish dynamic working groups, where membership is not fixed but organised around particular issues. Each of the working groups could be tasked with drafting proposals, which are fed back for consultation with the broader community; as a general rule, it is easier to deliberate on the basis of text than merely in conversation.

C. Ready to write it down?

Picture taken at Transmediale, Berlin by iMAL

The drafting stage, which will occasionally be the least participatory one, is the part of the process in which one or a set of solutions is identified and written up. There is no doubt power in being the one in charge to put pen to paper as this will be the basis for what will eventually be formally adopted. Getting the language right is challenging, which is why it is critical to have a diverse set of eyes on the draft.

One of my examples is the World Economic Forum. The WEF doesn’t have the authority to take public policy decisions. Neither is it responsible for crafting national policies. But what the platform does provide, is a space to advance solutions. If you are willing to put in the legwork and do the writing, you will find a powerful platform to voice tension points and iron out ideas. It no doubt takes time and commitment to weave various threads and competing interests together, but such high-level venues present opportunities to translate deeper thinking into actionable policies. While I realise that it can be hard to gain access, I can see how joining the Global Future Council on Global Digital Public Goods allows me to ask about public interest technology, open source, sustainability, and investing in the commons — while amplifying other voices, referencing existing examples, studies, and facts to advance suitable solutions.

Notwithstanding this particular case, when drafting a policy think through at least these questions:

  • Was all input provided taken into account?
  • Does the solution still address the topic?
  • Is there room for in-depth, cross-sectoral exchange on the compromise text?
  • How exactly will the text be consolidated?
  • Which type of document is best suited to tackle the issue at hand — bill, strategy, positioning, etc.?
  • Did you allow for clarification and commentary on potentially controversial passages of the text?
  • Are decisions explained and justified?

Again think about why, who, how, and to what end you are choosing any particular solution to be codified in the drafting stage of the policy-making process. You’ll need answers to that in order to be: Ready to write it down?

1. Process:

The main purpose of the drafting stage is to make sense of and consolidate all the different viewpoints shared on a particular issue and come up with a balanced, comprehensive policy. With perspectives coming together into the form of a draft, the policy begins to take shape. At this stage, it is necessary to identify a facilitator or policy lead, who will either oversee or draft a consolidated document.

2. Actors:

The leading actors for the drafting stage will depend on your political system and regulatory context. In some systems you may identify an issue-specific facilitation lead which will produce the first textual compromise; in others a government body, administrative authority or parliamentary committee is required to produce the first draft; yet others allow for smaller collaborative, cross-sectoral drafting groups. At this stage, it is crucial that one actor takes the lead in producing a consolidated text that can be forwarded to the validation stage.

3. Format:

In most cases, the drafting stage won’t be a linear, one-off process, but will require several rounds with room for changes and clarifications on particular passages before an actual compromise text is produced. This can be done in the form of structural consultations, with the help of working group members (for instance, formed by the members of the successful proposal group of the prior stage) who jointly engage in the editing process, or simply by a leading actor who distributes revised versions of the text to selected participants.

4. Outputs:

The end of this stage will be marked by the production of a consolidated draft, which is then forwarded for validation. It should already outline the different stages of the implementation process that is to follow. Depending on the issue, the draft may take the form of a bill, a strategy or policy paper, a negotiation position, a framework for engagement, an action plan, or similar.

D. How do we make it happen?

Picture taken at Tate Modern, London © Cathleen Berger

Whatever written piece you’ve produced, it is only as valuable as it is clear what is going to happen next. Who will be in charge of what, what needs to be implemented by when, and which resources are allocated and provided by whom. Implementation basically means having an action plan.

There are countless examples. Look at the Toronto Sidewalk Lab, the way government processes are being transformed in Taiwan, or the manner in which Helsinki has been implementing its city strategy.

No matter which context you are operating in, here are the key questions to keep in mind:

  • Is the final draft legally, technically, and economically sound?
  • Are there better ways you could be explaining and communicating decisions?
  • Are affected parties in a position to negotiate timeframe, reach, implementation steps and criteria for compliance?
  • Did you specify timeline and action points?
  • Are there rules of procedure to decide on roles and responsibilities for the implementation plan?

In general, abstract terms moving to implementation means identifying who, how, when, and where solutions will be adopted, put to practice, or revised. In short: How do we make it happen?

1. Process:

A consolidated document outlining a compromise has to be cross-checked against legal and technical considerations and assessed for its feasibility, the resources needed, and the follow-up mechanisms to be put in place. Once a policy (document) is validated, its (approved) implementation plan marks the final decision. In other words, the impact assessment forms the basis for the implementation. At this stage, decision-makers and implementing parties play a key role. While they lead on the process of this policy stage, they need to ensure their decisions are well explained and communicated. Generally, assessments from affected parties, such as private sector or civil society, should also be taken into account.

2. Actors:

Depending on the type of document produced and the issue at hand, different actors will take centre stage during the validation and implementation stage. A bill is likely to undergo the regular parliamentary process, a strategy or policy paper will need to be endorsed by the whole of government, and an action plan will need to be shared with and taken up by the affected parties — including private sector, technical experts, civil society, government and others.

3. Format:

To start with, the final draft of a consolidated text should be shared with all the initial drafting group and/or contributing members for another round of deliberation. Feedback can be collected virtually, in writing or in an open discussion. Before a text enters the formal adoption process, the option of another round of public consultation and consolidation should be considered, not least to explain and justify decisions and ensure that no major concerns persist. Afterwards, a draft bill will be forwarded into the standard legislation process and given a general impact assessment, including an outline of resources needed. Other texts will need to follow regular internal sign-off processes and should allow for an exchange on next steps, timing, feasibility and criteria for evaluation.

4. Outputs:

As a result of this policy stage, a consolidated compromise text will be specified in terms of feasibility, resources, timing and action points for the implementation. It should also outline the indicators against which the policy can be assessed and/or reviewed after a defined period of time.

E. What did we learn?

Picture taken in Berlin © Cathleen Berger

Since we started out with the goal to increase impact and work towards more inclusive, participatory global governance processes, one thing must not be dismissed: we need an evaluation.

One case I looked at more closely was the German law on hate speech, the NetzDG. NetzDG is no doubt a controversial law hat has received international attention — not least for being the first to tap into the heightened attention around the need and responsibilities of platforms to handle harmful content. And yes, it faced plenty of criticism, around territoriality, privatisation of enforcement, lack of safeguards, dangers of automation and more. The point is, once a controversial policy or law is in place, you can take the time to analyse it, raising shortfalls or unintended consequences. Neither is it easy to influence this part of the process “from the outside”, nor is it always successful — rather than softening its approach, the German government has motioned to toughen its rules. Set back or not, as we work towards creating more participatory processes you can still start by laying out your thoughts in a constructive manner and offer to provide more feedback at the appropriate moment in time. Because no law is perfect and contexts change, honing policies takes more than just governmental players.

Evaluating whether or not a certain policy was successful therefore doesn’t mark the end of a process, it’s usually the start of yet another cycle to help improve and advance better, smarter, more appropriate solutions as we move forward. Try looking at these questions:

  • Is the policy still adequate, was it successful — or does it need adjustments?
  • Which steps of the implementation plan still need to be taken?
  • Who is in a position to support an evaluation?
  • Which is the most suitable mechanism to adjust, correct, and challenge identified failure points?
  • Are there incentives for compliance, and which mechanisms ensure enforcement?
  • Was the process inclusive and participatory enough to build understanding and trust?
  • Are there possibilities for an exchange across different mandates and lines of authority?

With all the ideas, solutions, and actions presented, adopted, and implemented, some actors might want to tick a box: “mission accomplished.” But that’s not where the story ends, it’s where the next, better one starts. In short: What did we learn?

1. Process:

This stage of the process depends on several factors: the timeframe for review of a policy set out in the implementation plan; the openness and transparency of the overall policy-making process; and the potential legal, technical, and economic consequences of a decision. Each policy should be subject to a review to assess whether it was effective, adequate, whether it is still relevant, and which steps still need to be taken. However, the evaluation stage also serves as a means to increase accountability and correct potential failure points — procedural, technical, legal.

2. Actors:

The evaluation stage should pay attention to the widest possible range of actors, particularly those affected by the policy. The effects, efficiency, appropriateness, and consequences of a policy should be closely observed by civil society, technical experts, academia, the private sector, lawyers and judges.

3. Format:

The main premise of the evaluation stage is legitimacy. Legitimacy can be achieved in two ways: through input into the process (policy stages 1–4) and examining the output of a policy (evaluation). At this stage it is possible to initiate another policy-making process in order to revise (parts of) a policy, which fails to address the identified issues. However, litigation can also be a means of challenging inadequate regulations.

4. Outputs:

The output of this stage could take the form of a review, an updated version of the policy, an addendum, or a judgement. In some cases, the evaluation might call for yet another round of deliberation on the issue; i.e. the initiation of a new policy-making process on the same or a similar issue.


If you’ve taken the time to read this, I’d love to know what you think. Do you find it helpful or is anything missing? Are there any examples that come to mind and could serve as a best practice? Any and all comments are highly appreciated.


And if you want to dig deeper, here is some suggested reading:

Democracy and Democratic Processes:

Axelrod, Robert K.: The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.

Boussard, Caroline: “Civil Society and Democratisation: Conceptual and Empirical Challenges,” in: Ole Elgstrom and Goran Hyden: Development and Democracy: What have we learned and how?

Bridoux, Jeff; Kurki, Milja: Democracy Promotion. A Critical Introduction. London, New York: Routledge.

Dahl, Robert: On Democracy.

Graeber, David: The Democracy Project. A History, A Crisis. A Movement. London: Penguin Books.

Guehlstorf, Nicholas P.: The Political Theories of Risk Analysis.

Krasner, Stephen D.: Problematic Sovereignty. Contested Rules and Political Possibilities. New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press.

Moore, Suzanne: “Practicing Democracy: How Communities Come Together to Solve Problems.”

Møller, Jørgen; Skaaning, Svend-Erik: Democracy and Democratization in a Comparative Perspective. Conceptions, Conjunctures, Causes, and Consequences. London, New York: Routledge.

Scharpf, Fritz W.: Community and Autonomy. Institutions, Policies and Legitimacy in Multilevel Europe. Frankfurt am Main: Campus-Verlag.

Slaughter, Anne-Marie: “The Real New World Order,” in: Foreign Affairs, Sept/Oct ’97, 183–197.

Tocqueville, Alexis De: Democracy In America, available on: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/de-tocqueville/democracy-america/index.htm

Multistakeholder Governance:

Cogburn, Derrick L.: Inclusive Internet Governance: Enhancing Multistakeholder Participation Through Geographically Distributed Policy Collaboratories, available on: http://www.diplomacy.edu/sites/default/files/Multistakeholder+Diplomacy_Part3.pdf

Gasser, Urs; Budish, Ryan; Myers West, Sarah: “Multistakeholder as Governance Groups: Observations from Case Studies”, in: Berkman Center Research Publication №2015–1, available on: https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/16140635/Berkman_2015-1-revision.pdf

Gleckman, Harris: available on: https://www.opendemocracy.net/harris-gleckman/multi-stakeholder-governance-corporate-push-for-new-global-governance

IUCN: Collaboration and multi-stakeholder dialogue. A review of the literature, available on: https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/collaboration_and_multi_stakeholder_dialogue.pdf

Journalist’s Resource: Public information, public engagement in government regulation-making processes, available on http://journalistsresource.org/studies/government/public-information-engagement-government-regulation-hearing

Leviten-Reid, Catherine; Fairborn, Brett: “Multi-stakeholder Governance in Cooperative Organizations: Toward a New Framework for Research?, in: Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research, 2/2, available on: http://library.uniteddiversity.coop/Cooperatives/Multi-Stakeholder_Co-ops/Multi-stakeholder_Governance_in_Cooperative_Organizations.pdf

Malcolm, Jeremy: available on: https://policyreview.info/articles/analysis/criteria-meaningful-stakeholder-inclusion-internet-governance

Malcolm, Jeremy: Multi-Stakeholder Governance and the Internet Governance Forum, abstract available on: https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1386319

Singh, Rajnesh: Making Multistakeholder Governance Work, available on: http://www.policyforum.net/making-multi-stakeholder-governance-work/

Vallejo, Nancy; Hauselmann, Pierre: Governance and Multi-stakeholder Processes, available on: https://www.iisd.org/pdf/2004/sci_governance.pdf

WSIS+10 outcome document: http://workspace.unpan.org/sites/Internet/Documents/UNPAN95707.pdf

Cathleen Berger

Written by

Policy Expert, focusing on human rights in the digital age, tech and security policy, and international relations

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