Proposal 9 for ICANN: Get Inclusive by Imposing Rotating Term Limits

This is the ninth of a series of 16 draft proposals developed by the ICANN Strategy Panel on Multistakeholder Innovation in conjunction with the Governance Lab @ NYU  for how to design an effective, legitimate and evolving 21st century Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN).

Please share your comments/reactions/questions on this proposal in the comments section of this post or via the line-by-line annotation plug-in. 


From Principle to Practice

Operating in the global public interest means ICANN strives to keep all of its doors and windows open to allow participation by all interested parties around the world. However, being open to all doesn’t equate to empowering a broad and diverse subset of stakeholders with control over the decisions that affect them most.

As a way to increase and diversify engagement, and be more inclusive when it comes to granting decision-making authority, ICANN should experiment with imposing rotating term limits for all voting positions within ICANN.

What Do We Mean by Rotating Term Limits

“Term limits have roots in ancient Greece, where beginning in the 6th century B.C. many Athenian officials were elected by random lottery and permitted to serve only a year.”1

The idea of imposing rotating term limits at ICANN means capping the amount of time any individual elected or appointed to a voting body within ICANN can serve in that position, and staggering the start and end dates for when individuals serve in those positions in order to create a continuity of knowledge that maintain stability.

In Ancient Athens, term limits served as a means for “avoiding any kind of entrenched bureaucracy.”2 Experts note that “the bottom-line principle when implementing the practice of rotation must be that if a competent citizen wishes to serve his organization, he should have a chance to do so.”3

As Sam Lanfranco points out in the “Commentary on ‘The Quest for a 21st Century ICANN: A Blueprint’”: “Rotating terms limits are a technique for broadening participation and curbing tendencies for cliques to develop within elected bodies. In national politics these are frequently used to prevent an electoral process from producing what is essentially a dynastic control over an elected position. In some settings it is just to spread the burden of work, or expand the opportunities of participation in decision-making and leadership.”

Why Does this Proposal Make Sense at ICANN?

As Lafranco has noted on behalf of the Not-for-profit Operational Concerns Constituency within ICANN, though ICANN decision-making often involves building consensus after deliberation, “to newcomers to the inner workings of ICANN, there do seem to be dynastic elements in committee composition and structure.”4

Moreover, ICANN’s Board has been critiqued in the past for not operating with complete openness5 or for making decisions without fully leveraging insights from vast global participants. In previous years, commentators have noted that, “[w]hile thousands of users since ICANN’s founding have sought to participate through these means, it appears as though this extensive participation has affected few important decisions.”6 Others have noted that the “central plank” of criticism of ICANN’s legitimacy is that “ICANN’s organisational structures and activities do not comply with the ethos of participatory and democratic governance.”7

Experimenting with rotating term limits could help to address some of these critiques – whether real or perceived – that the Board is not a mirror of the community as much as a distinct bureaucracy that doesn’t fully leverage the power of the global community as well as it could. Devolving gatekeeper responsibility on a rotating basis has potential to help get new perspectives in and empower a greater subset of individuals to be decision-makers within ICANN. Using rotating term limits also increases opportunities for growing shared knowledge and experiences throughout the ICANN community in order to remove actual or assumed hierarchical barriers and invite a wider community to contribute via ICANN’s gatekeeping functions.

Specifically, experimenting with rotating term limits has the potential to:

  • Infuse new insights into decision-making positions within ICANN8;
  • Increase “voter choice” and the diversity of the candidate pool 9;
  • Increase the level of “learning and on-the-job experience” throughout the ICANN community10;
  • Enhance the collective intelligence of the ICANN community over time and thus “enhance[] the sharing of knowledge intrinsic to a company of citizens.”11
  • “Promote ‘deliberative democracy’ and ‘civic virtue’.”12
  • Avoid entrenched, incumbent bureaucracy.13
  • Prevent possibility of “long-term incumbents abusing power or gaining extraordinary financial or political power in office.”14

Experimenting with rotating term limits will require that new representatives be selected. ICANN could use alternative voting methods such as preferential or ranked-choice voting to select these representatives. Craig Simon has suggested that ranked-choice voting could be “an attractive solution for any scale of participation” and noted that “done right,” the method has the “potential to empower massively scalable venues for online discourse and priority selection.”

Implementation Within ICANN

Piloting this proposal within ICANN might involve testing the value of rotating term limits within ICANN voting bodies to limit the potential of institutional capture. Piloting this proposal may also prove useful for those Board committees that serve organizational and administrative functions for which public comment may not be required, for example, the Structural Improvements Committee and the Finance Committee.

Rotating term limits are likely more appropriate in those “gate-keeper roles” within ICANN where votes are cast, as opposed to where individuals contribute insights, expertise or perform facilitative functions.

Notably, as Lafranco indicated, membership continuity has merit in order “to preserve a presence of ICANN’s organizational knowledge in its decision-making processes.” Therefore, in piloting this proposal, it is important to consider with the community the most appropriate length of time for an individual to hold a voting position within ICANN and the best schedule for rotation, so that experiential knowledge can be shared. It is also vital to institute the appropriate support mechanisms for sharing and memorializing institutional learnings so that individuals can be adequately prepared at the start of a term and capture their contributions for future leaders.15

Finally, it will be vital for ICANN to take a benchmark of the current state of affairs in order to measure the successes and potential failures of rotating term limits against the status quo.

Case Studies – What’s Worked in Practice?

  • Term Limits in California – In 1990 in Sacramento, California, Proposition 140 set term limits for legislators. In 2004, the National Conference of State Legislatures, Council of State Governments and the State Legislative Leaders’ Foundation performed a study of the effect of term limits, concluding that the proposal “helped to accelerate trends of increasing female and minority representation that were already underway in California.”16 The study did find, however that “new members after term limits are more likely to have local government experience and to run for another office.”17
    • Notably, the measurements used to assess the impact of term limits in Sacramento included analyzing data related to “legislative performance, voting behavior, committee activity, and the breadth and complexity of bills” produced after the implementation of term limits.18
  • Not-for-profit and charitable boards – The boards of many non-profits and charities include rotating term limits as an “effective way to ensure board vitality” and to ensure “fresh ideas, experience, contacts, etc.” are brought in while providing new board members “a sense of their maximum service before having at least one year off the board.”19 Rotating board members out of their position also increases the pool of viable candidates for committees and/or task forces.
  • Presidential Innovation Fellows – While not a rotating term limit in the traditional sense, Presidential Innovation Fellows within the United States are essentially “top innovators from the private sector, non-profits, and academia” who are paired “with top innovators in government”  for a “6-13 month ‘tours of duty’ to develop solutions that can save lives, save taxpayer money, and fuel job creation.” The individuals are selected based on a desire “to produce the maximum amount of good in the shortest amount of time.”20 This type of short-term, project-based methodology could be one possible approach for coordinating issue-based working groups.

Open Questions – How Can We Bring This Proposal Closer to Implementation?

  • What institutional or cultural barriers may pose challenges to implementing this proposal?
  • Should rotating term limits apply to ICANN’s consensus-based working groups? Why or why not?
  • What is the appropriate term limit for which positions within ICANN? Would it be appropriate for ICANN to run controlled experiments to determine which make-up works best for which group or structure?
  • How could ICANN assess the successes and shortcomings of those voting bodies that embrace some form of term limits at present in order to design the most effective pilot?

Sources

  1. Altman, Alex. “A Brief History of Term Limits.” Time. October 3, 2008.
  2. Manville, Brook and Ober, Josiah. A Company of Citizens: What the World’s First Democracy Teaches Leaders About Creating Great Organizations. (Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. 2003) at 127.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Lanfranco, Sam. “Commentary on “The Quest for a 21st Century ICANN: A Blueprint.” Distributed Knowledge Blog. February 12, 2014.
  5. Froomkin, A. Michael. “Wrongturn in Cyberspace: Using ICANN to Route Around the APA and the Constitution.” Duke Law Journal. Vol. 50:17 (2000) at 33 (“ICANN’s board and staff operate largely in secret, it is difficult for outsiders to know how much influence DoC has over ICANN’s decisionmaking.”).
  6. Palfrey, John. “The End of the Experiment: How ICANN’s Foray into Global Internet Democracy Failed.” Harvard Journal of Law & Technology. (2004)  at 414.
  7. Verhulst, Stefaan G. “Public legitimacy: ICANN at the crossroads.” openDemocracy. September 5, 2001.
  8.  Basham, Partick. “Term Limits: A Reform that Works.” at 1.
  9. Ibid. at 4-6.
  10. Manville, Brook and Ober, Josiah. A Company of Citizens: What the World’s First Democracy Teaches Leaders About Creating Great Organizations. (Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. 2003) at 127.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Euben, J. Peter, Wallach, John R. and Ober, Josiah. Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy. (1994) at 339.
  13. Manville, Brook and Ober, Josiah. A Company of Citizens: What the World’s First Democracy Teaches Leaders About Creating Great Organizations. (Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. 2003) at 127.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Otten, Laura. “Term Limits for Nonprofit Boards.” Nonprofit Resource Center. (August 2009) (“Institutional history should be documented and in a format that is easily shared with others.”).
  16. Cain, Bruce and Kousser, Thous. “Adapting to Term Limits in California: Recent Experiences and New Directions.” Joint Project on Term Limits. (2004) at 2.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid. at 11. See also Basham, Patrick. “Assessing the Term Limit Experiment: California and Beyond.Policy Analysis. No. 431. August 31, 2001.
  19. Rotation of Board Members (Fixed Terms).” Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
  20. FAQs.” Presidential Innovation Fellows.
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The Tags . . .

  • Chuck Gomes

    Except for once or twice at the beginning of this document, the line-by-line annotation plugin would not allow be to insert comments so I am inserting them all here.

    I found this to be an interesting statement: “Experts note that “the bottom-line principle when implementing the practice of rotation must be that if a competent citizen wishes to serve his organization, he should have a chance to do so.”” A key word here is ‘competent’; in my opinion competency would need to be defined relative to the needs of the ICANN organization involved. Also does mean that every ‘competent individual’ should eventually be able to serve on the Board? That seems like a stretch considering how many ‘competent’ individuals there are in our global environment. A similar argument could be made for all ICANN organizations.

    The panel says, “Experimenting with rotating term limits could help to address some of these critiques – whether real or perceived – that the Board is not a mirror of the community as much as a distinct bureaucracy that doesn’t fully leverage the power of the global community as well as it could.” To accomplish this at the Board level would of course require major changes to the Bylaws, the biggest one possibly being to add a requirement that Board members serve as representatives of different sectors of the community instead of serving the corporation. In contrast, other organizations such as the SOs are designed to be more representative already.

    Below are some of the potential advantages of rotating term limits that the panel lists with my comments following:
    • “Increase “voter choice” and the diversity of the candidate pool” – A common reality in ICANN SOs and ACs is the difficulty of finding candidates. It is possible that rotating term limits could exasperate this problem rather than help it.
    • “Increase the level of “learning and on-the-job experience” throughout the ICANN community” – On-the-job experience might be more appropriately gained in working groups rather than in leadership positions.
    • “Avoid entrenched, incumbent bureaucracy” – This is one of the clear benefits of rotating term limits. Within ICANN, Board term limits tend to be the most liberal, 3 terms at 3 years each. In contrast, the GNSO Council has 2 terms at 2 years each.
    • “Prevent possibility of “long-term incumbents abusing power or gaining extraordinary financial or political power in office.” – This is just one example of many where it seems that the panel members do not understand very much about ICANN. It might be possible for incumbents in some cases to abuse power although it doesn’t seem very likely. I don’t think there is any way to gain financial power or political power.

    In discussing implementation of this proposal as well as in the proposal description in its entirety, it is not clear that the panel is aware that rotating term limits are in place for most ICANN organizations. Does the panel think that they are insufficient? If so, how should they be changed?

    The panel says: “Rotating term limits are likely more appropriate in those “gate-keeper roles” within ICANN where votes are cast, as opposed to where individuals contribute insights, expertise or perform facilitative functions.” Would this conclusion be the same in cases like the GNSO Council where votes are cast as directed by constituencies and stakeholder groups?

    The panel rightfully recognizes that “membership continuity has merit in order “to preserve a presence of ICANN’s organizational knowledge in its decision-making processes.”

    The panel lists some very good questions that would need to be asked when evaluating this proposal for implementation in ICANN:
    • “What institutional or cultural barriers may pose challenges to implementing this proposal?
    • Should rotating term limits apply to ICANN’s consensus-based working groups? Why or why not?
    • What is the appropriate term limit for which positions within ICANN? Would it be appropriate for ICANN to run controlled experiments to determine which make-up works best for which group or structure?
    • How could ICANN assess the successes and shortcomings of those voting bodies that embrace some form of term limits at present in order to design the most effective pilot?”

    It is not at all clear to me that the panel members understood enough about ICANN when making this proposal. They make the case for the value of rotating term limits in a general sense but do not evaluate the ways in which rotating term limits are already implemented in ICANN organizations nor do they identify ways in which those implementations are unsatisfactory.