Rethinking Consumers in the Digital Age and Their Role in Shaping Policy, Regulation and Practice

A personal response to Communications Consumer Panel consultation of 25 April 2019

Bill Dutton

12 May 2019

I was a former member and Chair of the Advisory Committee for England, and have followed the Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC) for years. Having returned from working in the US for four years, I’ve also attended the last several meetings of the CFC as an unaffiliated individual. My major involvement in communication has been as an academic, involved in teaching and research on the social implications of the Internet and related media, communication and information technologies. 

Image Courtesy of Arthur Berger

I am pleased to learn of Ofcom’s decision to increase support for the Communication Consumer Panel (CCP), particularly in light of diminished support for the Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC). I have been impressed with the breadth of expertise and exceptional commitment of members of both organizations. However, I have comments on how the work of the CCP might be improved in the coming years.

Let me preface this by noting that the various schemes for organizing committees and individuals outlined in the consultation document on ‘strengthening the consumer voice in the communications sector’ appear to be wedded to a previous era of communication in which there were clear demarcations between the telecommunications industry and its consumers. This distinction is less meaningful today as the general public acts in a variety of roles, such as in producing, providing, sharing, using content, and more—and not just as consumers. 

The mission of the CCP recognizes this in part when saying the body is designed “to protect and promote the interests of consumers, citizens and small businesses in the communications sector by giving advice to Ofcom, the EU, Government, industry and others.” For example, people are increasingly talking about ‘digital citizens’ and using other broad terms that go beyond ‘consumer’. Clearly, the interests of consumers are a huge aspect of the public interest, but serving the public interest in communication is no longer limited to meeting the needs of consumers. And the regulation of communication is increasingly tied to multiple agencies and public officials. Is there a way to move away from this overly simplistic and dated dichotomy between industry and consumer, while also broadening the scope of our definitions of communication? I have a suggestion. 

Instead of creating an ‘industry forum’ and/or creating ‘focused, direct engagement with consumers’, why not create a truly broad communication forum, open to all actors in the design, production, and use of media, communication and information technologies and services, from the post and phones to the Internet of Things? There are tools available today for organizing collective intelligence across the nations of the UK on any topics that actors in this increasingly complex ecology wish to address. If well moderated from the outset, with clear rules of order, such as not posting anonymous comments, and supported by Ofcom, then there is no reason not to have it open to everyone interested in how communication can better serve the public interest. 

An open communication forum – not simply a blog or website – would enable direct involvement with the entire ecology of actors, surface issues before they become problems, and create a source of insights for the CCP that it would never otherwise be able to have at its service. As a forum of Ofcom, this would have the ability to attract input from key actors, and be able to translate what is learned into meaningful discussions at Ofcom and other appropriate agencies with the potential for effecting policy and practice. Given the growing number of industries, companies, SMEs, consumers, and other individuals playing multiple roles in our new communication ecology, why would you not want to exploit new communication technologies to tap the wisdom of civil society to identify and discuss contemporary communication issues in the public interest? 

An open communication forum would not replace the various advisory committees of Ofcom, but complement and inform all of them, and also the officers of the regulator and related agencies and ministries involved with communication, broadly defined. It is possible that state of the practice, off-the-shelf software could be purposed for this role. However, an open forum would need the engagement and leadership of the CCP to enable a national forum for communication in the public interest to thrive. 

Pluralist Empowerment versus Populism or Democratic Elitism

A rising discourse on the dangers of ‘populism’ seems to be expanding the concept in ways that literally demonise the empowerment of citizens – the people. There is evidence of a rise of populist parties, but that is being used as a hammer to bash a more general empowerment of individuals or citizens and networks among the public as dangerous.

This may be a consequence of too simplistic of a dichotomy being drawn between the empowerment of individual citizens and the empowerment of democratic institutions, such as elected and appointed officials, or a tradeoff between the ‘people’ versus ‘elites’. Instead, the role of the Internet and social media in helping individuals to be more informed and better able to hold politicians, business and government more accountable is also an element in the increasing vitality of democratic pluralism.

To make my case, it is useful to go back to some of the key terms in describing different forms of democratic control? So let me try, and ask others to correct me if I don’t get this right.

Pluralistic forms of democracy emerged inductively from studies of power structures. It conveys the degree that ideal forms of democracy are an impossible dream, but one feasible approximation of democratic control in practice is through governance by a pluralistic set of elites. While the few who are active, knowledgeable and committed to an issue are likely to govern the many, in the sense of Michel’s (1915) ‘Iron Law of Oligarchy’, elite empowerment in modern liberal democratic states is relatively democratic in that it is specialised across separate sets of elites. Elites influential in education, are not influential in defence, and so on. We have separate and pluralistic elites, including politicians and public officials, and this pluralistic control is more democratic than influence being concentrated in a single set of elites. The concept of pluralistic democracy is linked to many, but perhaps most often to Robert Dahl and his classic, Who Governs? (Yale Un Press, 1961), which described the power structure of New Haven, Connecticut.

Pluralism is most often contrasted with elite control, which generally assumes that power is concentrated in a relative small set of economic elites. While government most often held formal symbolic power in cities and nations, real, informal power was lodged primarily in the hands of a so-called ‘power elite’ of those with the wealth and institutional resources to control public affairs. This concept has been linked to the work of Floyd Hunter’s Community Power Structure (Un of North Carolina Press, 1969), as case study of Atlanta, Georgia, and before this, to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 1956).

Compared to an elite power structure, pluralism was good news. Economic elites might be powerful with respect to some issues, some of the time, but others are powerful as well, including public officials, the press, educators, and so forth in their particular areas of expertise and focus. But an interesting normative twist on the value of pluralistic democracy was the notion that this is not only the most feasible form of democratic control in practice, but also the most desirable. This is because, according to those adhering to what has been called ‘democratic elitism’, it is only the elites in society that will protect democratic institutions and processes. This and other elite theories basically assume that:

‘the masses are inherently incompetent’ … and ‘at best, pliable inert stuff or, at worst, aroused, unruly creatures possessing an insatiable proclivity to undermine both culture and liberty.’

Peter Bachrach, The Theory. of Democratic Elitism: A Critique (Little, Brown and Company, 1967: 2)

Citizen therefore should rely on a pluralistic set of elites to govern, as they have the expertise and judgement, honed by democratic values, to rule. For example, while Americans might agree with freedom of expression as a basic human right in the US, they are unlikely to protect freedom of expression in particular, concrete circumstances, such as by not allowing an extremist to speak in one’s community or online. So those who adhere to the concept of democratic elitism generally support pluralistic elite rule as not only feasible but also desirable, given that the public at large is by and large too fragmented, unorganised, and ill-informed to govern, except in limited respects, such as voting for elected officials (also E. E. Schattschneider, 1960).

In the digital age, the rise of the Internet, social media and related information and communication technologies, such as mobile Internet, has been associated with the empowerment of individuals and networks of citizens, what I have called the rise of a Fifth Estate (Dutton 2009). Put in the most simple terms, the idea of the Fifth Estate is that use of the Internet and social media can enabled digital citizens to get access to information and network in ways that can enhance their communicative power relative to others and enable them to hold governing elites more accountable. The empowerment of individuals does not mean that these digital citizens are antagonistic to elites, but that they realise that intelligence is widely distributed and that the Internet enables them to get access to information and networks more easily and effectively than ever before.

For example, when a patient goes to a doctor, they might search for information about the problem diagnosed by the physician to learn more about what problem they have and how it is treated. This does not mean that they quit going to a doctor, but that they can have a more informed discussion with their doctor, such as by being able to ask intelligent questions. In other words, information and expertise is more distributed, less concentrated in the physician.

In contrast, populism tends to view elites self-interested or corrupt to the point that they do not trust such elites as elected officials or scientists. This is the problem as populists may fail to listen to experts and authorities in particular matters because they don’t trust elites in general. The reaction to rising signs of populism has been an increasing reification of democratic institutions and processes, and a demonisation of the people – a return to democratic elitism but in the digital age.

I’m an inductivist and see pluralist democracy as achievable and desirable, and more pluralism as a positive step for democratic control. The empowerment of digital citizens, such as suggested by the rise of a Fifth Estate, is therefore a contribution to the ideals behind democratic control. A fear of the people gaining more influence generated by the rise of populism is feuling the return of a democratic elitism unfit for the digital age. Just as populists are wrong to dismiss experts and authorities, it is wrong for elites to dismiss the people as a modern day digital mob.

 Trust in the Public
Trust in Elite InstitutionsLowHigh
HighDemocratic ElitismPluralist Democracy
LowBroken DemocracyPopulism

Democratic pluralism suggests that we use the Internet and related ICTs to inform, educate, and empower digital citizens, not to distrust them as incapable or unruly and dangerous. Likewise, it suggests that digital citizens retain a learned level of trust in elites and institutions, while being comfortable with maintaining a level of scepticism in any given pronouncement, opinion piece, or policy, because they are equipped with the tools to discover information and participate in networks of individuals that can inform and empower their understanding of policy and practice.

The Fifth Estate can broaden democratic processes at every level, from the household or neighbourhood to globe, but only if digital citizens respect the role of other actors, including experts, as sources of information and learn how to distinguish the valid arguments from deluded conspiracies.

References

Bachrach, Peter. (1967), The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company).

Dahl, Robert A. (1961) Who Governs? New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Dutton, William H. (2009), ‘The Fifth Estate Emerging through the Network of Networks’, Prometheus, Vol. 27, No. 1, March: pp. 1-15.

Dutton, William H. (2015), ‘The Internet’s Gift to Democratic Governance: The Fifth Estate’, pp. 164-73 in S., Moss, G., and Parry, K. (eds),Can the Media Save Democracy? Essays in Honour of Jay G. Blumler. London, Abington: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Michels, Robert (1959), Political Parties, trans. by Eden & Cedar Paul. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Mills, C. Wright (1951), The Power Elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schattschneider, E. E. (1960), The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

Cybersecurity and the Rationale for Capacity Building: Notes on a Conference

The fifth annual conference of Oxford’s Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre (GCSCC) was held in late February 2019 at the Oxford University’s Martin School. It engaged over 120 individuals from the capacity building community in one full day of conference sessions, preceded and followed by several days of more specialized meetings.*

The focus of the conference was on taking stock of the last five years of the Centre’s work, and looking ahead to the next five years in what is an incredibly fast moving area of Internet studies. So it was an ideal setting for reflecting on current themes within the cybersecurity and capacity building community. The presentations and discussions at this meeting provided a basis for reflections on major themes of contemporary discussions of cybersecurity and how they come together in ways that reinforce the need for capacity building in this area.

The major themes I took away from the day concerned 1) changing nature of threats and technologies; 2) the large and heterogeneous ecology of actors involved in cybersecurity capacity building; 3) the prominence of cross-national and regional differences; and 4) the range and prevalence of communication issues. These themes gave rise to a general sense of what could be done. Essentially, there was agreement that there was no technical fix to security, and that fear campaigns were ineffective, particularly unless Internet users are provided instructions on how to respond. However, there was also a clear recommendation not to throw up your hands in despair, as ‘cybersecurity capacity building works’ – nations need to see capacity building as a direction for their own strategies and actions.

Bill courtesy of Voices from Oxford (VOX)

I’ll try to further develop each of these points, although I cannot hope to give justice to the discussion throughout the day. Voices from Oxford (VOX) has helped capture the day in a short clip that I will soon post. But here, briefly, are my major takeaways from the day.

Changing Threats and Technologies

The threats to cybersecurity are extremely wide ranging across contexts and technologies, and the technologies are constantly and rapidly changing. Contrast the potential threats to national infrastructures from cyberwarfare with the threats to privacy from the Internet of Things, such as a baby with a toy that is online. The number of permutations of contexts and technologies is great.

The Complex Ecology of Actors

There is a huge and diverse set of actors and institutions involved in cybersecurity capacity building. There are: cybersecurity professionals, IT professionals, IT, software, and Internet industries; non-governmental organizations; donors; researchers; managers of governments and organizations; national and regional agencies; and global bodies, such as the World Economic Forum and the Internet Governance Forum. Each has many separate but overlapping roles and areas of focus, and each has a stake in global cybersecurity given the risks posed by malicious actors that can take advantage of global weaknesses.

One theme of our national cybersecurity reviews was that the multitude of actors within one country that were involved with cybersecurity often came together in one room for the very first time to speak with our research team. Cybersecurity simply involves a diverse range of actors at all levels of nations and organizations, and with a diverse array of relationships to the Internet and information and communication technologies, from professional IT teams and cybersecurity response teams to users. Developing a more coherent perspective on this ecology of actors is a key need in this area.

National and Regional Differences

Another clear theme of the day was the differences across the various nations and regions, including the obvious issues of the smaller versus larger nations in the scale of their efforts, but also between the low and high income nations. We heard cases of Somalia juxtaposed with examples from the UK and Iceland. And the range and nature of actors across these nations often differed dramatically, such as in the relevance of different global facilitating organisations, such as the World Bank.

Communication in So Many Words

Given this ecology of actors in a global arena, it might not be surprising that communication emerged as a dominant theme. It arose through many presentations and discussions of the need for awareness, coordination, collaboration (across areas and levels within nations, across countries, regions), as well as the need for prioritizing efforts and instruction and training, both of which work through communication. Of course, the conference itself was an opportunity for communication and networking that seemed to be highly valued.

What Can Be Done? Capacity Building

However, despite these technical, individual, and national differences, requiring intensive efforts to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate nationally, regionally, and globally, there were some common thoughts on what needs to be done. Time and again, speakers stressed the lack of any technical fix – or what one participant referred to as a silver bullet – to fix cybersecurity. And there was a general consensus that awareness campaigns that were basically fear campaigns did not work. Internet users, whether in households or major organizations, need instructions on what to do in order to improve their security. But doing nothing was not an option, and given the conference, it may not be surprising, but there did seem to be a general acceptance that cybersecurity capacity building was a set of instructions on a way forward. Our own research has provided empirical evidence than capacity building works, and is in the interest of every nation.**

A short video of the conference will give you a more personal sense of the international ecology of stakeholders and issues: https://vimeo.com/voicesfromoxford/review/322632731/ec0d5e5f9f 

Notes

*An overview of the first five years of the centre is available here: https://www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/cybersecurity-capacity/system/files/GCSCC%20booklet%20WEB.pdf 

**An early working paper is available online at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2938078

 

 

 

Has Brexit Broken Parliament? No. This is Democracy!

The frustration of so many people over the machinations of the UK Parliament during the debates and votes over Brexit is understandable. So it is not surprising to see article after article, and opinion pieces piled on one another about how parliament, if not democracy itself, is broken. The GuardianJournal on 16 March notes: ‘Brexit – a niche production that brought the house down’. The Guardianon 16 March talks of the ‘UK Divided: Disbelief and anger as faith in politicians evaporates’ (p. 15). The political editor of The Guardian writes in The Observer on 17 March of ‘The Week that all but broke British politics (p. 38).’ As an American residing in Britain, I respectfully disagree.

British Parliament Debates Brexit

EU Parliament Debates Brexit

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is no doubt but that this debate is extraordinary, by British, or any liberal democratic standards. Of course, these are not normal, routine debates, but among the most serious in decades for the UK and Northern Ireland. But to say this is the democratic process at work, I am sure I will be branded an enemy of whatever position seems to be prevailing at the moment. Yet I am not evaluating the process on the basis of its likely outcome. No one knows what the outcome will be – still.

Let me explain why I believe this is democracy in a good way – not broken. First, and foremost, it is a real debate. Take a look at the British parliament and the EU parliament. Both are liberal and democratic bodies. But which looks better managed? Which looks like a more democratic process? Which looks more interactive? Given the scale of the EU parliament, the British parliament would be unworkable. But the British parliament remains the model of a democratic political body.

But, you may say, “the parties have lost control, there is no discipline”? Yes, factions have developed within the parties, and individuals seem to be following their own guidance at times. But I see this as a consequence of how serious the issues are (leading all members of parliament to inform themselves) and how much time has been devoted to the issues. In normal legislative processes, most members vote most of the time on the basis of cues. They do not have the time to read every paper on every motion or proposition put before their body. In most cases, they look for cues from their party leaders, from the committee that reports the motion, from experts in the area. In the case of Brexit, every member of parliament has had abundant time and motivation to develop their own positions on the matter. That is good in light of a classic rational model of democracy, but in the real world of politics it means that there are many individually honed and differing judgements on what to do. Therefore, it will take a great deal more time than normally expected to sort out what the collective body will decide.

However, we live in a time of live media coverage of every debate, every repositioning, motion, leak, speech, mistake, raised eyebrow, etc. In earlier days, so much of what is reported routinely today would never be seen or heard, much less broadcast live, and spread on social media. The saying that legislation is like sausage in that it often tastes good in the end, but you don’t want to see it being made. Well, we are seeing negotiations over Brexit unfolding in real time and it is not pretty, but it is what is necessary in order to find ways to accommodate multiple, intense, and firmly held opinions on the way forward. To say that this is not well managed is actually a compliment.

Somehow, whether it is this week, this year, or over decades, decisions will continue to unfold in the Brexit process, or UK-EU relationship. The process may be frustratingly slow, but the most critical issue is that the process seeks to accommodate as many interests or positions as possible and is (and is seen) as legitimate at the end of the day. Not managed. Not rammed down anyone’s throat. But led to accommodate as many individual, strong-minded parliamentarians as possible to achieve a majority – an inevitable compromise to all of the minority opinions in the mix.

In contrast, think whether you would be happy if this were brilliantly ‘managed’ and the position of any one parliamentarian reigned supreme in this process. The idea of having a citizen jury comes close to this idea of doing something, anything, to get this over with. No, the key is to ensure that the end will be the result from a truly democratic process.

Postscript

The day after I wrote this blog, the Speaker of the House of Commons ‘plunged’ the government into ‘constitutional chaos’ by stopping the Prime Minister from resubmitting her same motion to the House unless it included substantial changes. Given the many constraints on the withdrawal agreement from the EC, the DUP, and various factions of the Conservative party, this threw a proverbial wrench into the machinery of the legislative process. But it brought home the degree that Brexit will be the outcome of an ecology of many games being simultaneously played by actors competing and cooperating to achieve a variety of other goals. And in contrast to board or parlour games, in the real world ecology of games, players can sometimes change the rules, as Speaker John Bercow did by invoking his interpretation of a rule from the 17th century. But this is democracy. It is how it works.

Getting to a Brexit Strategy: Focus on the Process

Press coverage of Brexit negotiations is focused on the politicians in support of different exit strategies, from a no-deal Brexit to no Brexit at all. As one consequence, the debate then focuses on whose right or wrong and why. All very newsworthy, but not an approach to reaching any consensus on the approach the UK or the EU should take. It is an approach to cementing divisions.

In today’s climate of polarization, and the normalization of hate from each side, it might be difficult to recall, or even give some thought to, a literature focused on resolving differences of opinion. One of my favorite treatments of this issue was a book entitled ‘Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In’ by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Program on Negotiation  (Fisher, Ury and Patton 2011 [1981]). It spoke to the processes likely to support a negotiated resolution of conflicting positions, which identified some general rules that could help reach a consensus on contentious issues, such as focusing on the interests of different stakeholders rather than their positions in the debate – whose right and whose wrong.

Decades ago, I read this book when puzzling over how to make sense of my study of how computer models were being used in the policy process (Dutton 1982; Dutton and Kraemer 1984). My colleagues and I were looking at how computer models were shaping urban development decisions in the US, since local governments were adopting models that purported to project the fiscal impact of alternative decisions, such as urban infill versus sprawl. Such decisions were in no way as major as Brexit, but they were nevertheless very contentious, promising to reshape everything from the economic vitality of the city to the racial composition of neighborhoods.

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 12.33.32 PM

My colleagues and I were skeptical of the role that models could play in such a contentious process. We realized it was naïve to expect models to simply enable a more rational decision by providing more reliable forecasts of the outcomes of different alternatives. At the same time, we were not convinced that modeling was simply a tool for supporting partisan political decisions, using models to provide support to positions and decisions that had already been made.

What we found was far more interesting. The modeling process was inherently political, but political in ways that helped the contending parties to reach a negotiated consensus on the likely outcome and therefore to help reach a decision. For instance, the modeling process helped focus debate on the assumptions of the model, rather than on the positions of parties to the debate. Stakeholders began to focus on what outcomes should be forecast, rather than which decision they supported. In such ways, the modeling process provided a boundary spanning object and a process for stakeholders to understand the likely outcome of alternative decisions.

The success of this approach was evident is some unanticipated consequences. For example, by the time the modeling process was near completion, all the stakeholders tended to agree on the likely outcomes. This was so much the case that no one was really interested in reading the final report – the stakeholders already knew what should be done. If all the major stakeholders are represented in the modeling process, then they are brought along through this process such that the final report is old news.

My sense from a distance – informed only by press coverage – is that the proponents of different Brexit strategies are marshalling evidence and arguments for their own positions. They are not sitting around the same table trying to understand the likely outcomes of alternative strategies. Getting the right stakeholders within and across the EU and UK around a single modeling process could be one way to gain some level of consensus on the most sensible way forward.

A major limitation of such an approach is the degree that democratic and ethical concerns can be more critical than information about the outcomes of any decision. However, at this moment, most debate is focused on the Brexit strategy, and not whether or not to exit the EU, which is the decision most fraught over respecting the outcome of democratic process, regardless of the purported outcomes. So to the degree that this remains the case, and the focus remains on strategies for exiting the EU, then all parties in the EU and the UK should have a major stake in getting to yes.

References

Dutton, W. H. (1982), ‘Computer Models in the Policy-Making Process,’ Information Age, 1 (2), 86-94.

Dutton, W. H. and Kraemer, K. L. (1985), Modeling as Negotiating: The Political Dynamics of Computer Models in the Policy Process, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Fisher, R., Ury, W., Patton, B. (2011) [1981]. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (3rd ed.). New York: Penguin Books.

The Chatham House Rule Should be the Exception

Can We Make the Chatham House Rule the Exception?

gargoyleBalliol
May I quote you?

It is common to debate the definition and correct implementation of the Chatham House Rule. My issue is with its over-use. It should be used in exceptional cases, rather than being routinized as a norm for managing communication about meetings.

To be clear, the Chatham House Rule (singular) is: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”*

One of the central rationales of this rule was to enable more transparency by freeing governmental and other officials to speak without attribution.** Clearly, there are cases in which individuals cannot speak publicly about an issue given their position. Think about the many cases in which news sources do not wish to be identified by journalists. Similar situations arise in meetings, and it is good that The Chatham House Rule exists to use in just such occasions to promote greater transparency.

However, it is arguable that The Chatham House Rule is used in ways that do not promote transparency. For example, it is often misunderstood and used to prevent members of a meeting from conveying information provided at the meeting. Clearly, the original rule left participants ‘free to use the information’, just without identifying the source. This expansion of the Rule runs counter to the aim of the rule’s establishment.

In addition, all too often the Rule is invoked not because the content of a meeting is particularly sensitive, but because it creates a sense of tradition, and an aura of importance. It conveys the message that something important will be discussed at this meeting. However, the function of this is more in marketing a meeting rather than creating a safe setting for revealing secret, confidential, or new information.

A related rationale is that it is just ‘the way we do things’ – the tradition. In this case, there is likely to be no need for less transparency, but a case of blindly following tradition, resulting in information being inadvertently suppressed.

In many ways, the times are making The Chatham House Rule more problematic.

First, history is pushing us toward more transparency, not less. The spirit of the Rule should lead us to apply it only when necessary to open communication, such as around a sensitive issue, not to routinely regulate discussion of what was said in a meeting.

Secondly, the authenticity of information that comes out of a meeting is often enhanced by knowing more information about its source. If a new idea or piece of information is attributed to an individual, that individual can become a first source for authenticating what was said, and for follow up questions.

Thirdly, technical advances are making it less and less realistic to keep the source of information confidential. Leaks, recordings, live blogging and more are making transparency the norm of nearly every meeting. That is, it is better to assume that any meeting is public than to assume any meeting is confidential.

Over a decade ago, I once organized and chaired a meeting that included the UK’s Information Commissioner (the privacy commissioner, if you will), and it was conducted under The Chatham House Rule. At the break, I checked with my IT group about how the recording was going, as we were recording the meeting for preparing a discussion paper to follow. Lo and behold, the meeting was being Webcast! This made for a good laugh by the Commissioner and all when we reconvened, but it also reminded me that everyone should assume the default of a meeting in the digital world is that all is public rather than private.

Finally, there are better ways to handle information in today’s technical and political contexts. Personally, I usually record meetings that are about academic or applied matters, as opposed to meetings about personnel issues, for example. So if we convene a group to discuss a substantive issue, such as a digital policy issue like net neutrality, we let all participants know that presentations and discussions will be recorded. We do not promise that anything will be confidential, as it is not completely under our control, but we promise that our recording will be used primarily for writing up notes of the meeting, and that if anyone is quoted, they will be asked to approve the quote before it is distributed publicly.

Of course, when individuals request that something remains confidential, or confined to those present, then we do everything we can to ensure that confidentiality. (As with The Chatham House Rule, much relies on trust among the participants in a meeting.) But this restriction is the exception, rather than the rule. This process tends to ensure more accurate reports of meetings, enable us to quote individuals, who should get credit or attribution, and support transparency.

The Chatham House Rule was established in 1927 with Chatham House being the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. The worries at that time were more often about encouraging government officials to participate in a discussion about sensitive international concerns by assuring anonymity. Today there are still likely to be occasions when this rule could be useful in bringing people around the table, but that is likely to be exception and not the rule in the era of the Internet, distributed electronic conferencing, and live Tweeting.

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Chatham House, London

Notes

* https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

** As noted by Chatham House: “The Chatham House Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It is now used throughout the world as an aid to free discussion.” https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

 

The Interpersonal Politics of Silence

Sitting in a large number of meetings – as academics do – I have been intrigued by the frequency of individuals remaining silent, and not expressing their views on issues, even to the point of listening to uncomfortable silences. I’ve been sensitive to this, since from my earliest memories of being a student sitting in classes, I was one of those who could not stay silent, trying to respond to questions whether or not I had a knowledgeable response. Perhaps everyone has a psychological disposition to be more comfortable remaining silent or in expressing themselves, and I’m sure this varies cross-culturally and across meetings. There are meetings when I am the only person speaking and meetings in which I cannot get a word in edgewise.

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Clearly, some business pundits, such as Kevin Eikenberry, view silence in meetings as functional and often positive, such as by giving individuals time to think. Others see silence in meetings as a consequence of the speaker or the chair – not the problem of the audience. I’ll get back to the functional value of silence below.

That said, I cannot help but think that silence in meetings is a political strategy – conscious or not. This is not my area, as I am not focused on interpersonal communication, but some cursory search suggests that very little research has been done on the interpersonal functions of silence. While under-researched, others such as Richard Johannesen (1974), have identified this as a topic in need of more systematic research – apparently to little effect.

Ambiguity. In politics, silence is often read as a lack of support. If politicians do not express their support for their leadership, for example, it is generally assumed that they are opposed, or at least not supportive. Alternatively, in many meetings and in interpersonal communication, silence is often read as a sign of deference – as if one is listening or thinking about what was said. Of course, the degree that silence could be read as supportive or oppositional suggests that it is a safe position. Others can read what they want to read in silence, but not be able to prove their case, leaving the silent in a more ambiguous position. And ambiguity is good in politics.

Time Delay. In addition, silence and the ambiguity it creates will enable individuals to take more time to decide on their response. If you can wait to express your views, you can take a more politically acceptable position.

Private Flexibility. Silence in public also permits multiple positions in private. One can tell the proponents and opponents of a particular idea that they support their position.

So this ambiguity, strategic delay, and private flexibility make silence golden in the interpersonal politics of meetings. But is it constructive for the group or institution?

Here I think the idea that every organization needs idea generators, idea killers, and idea maintainers to innovate provides with  a different take. I like this idea, and believe it could be applied to meetings as well. The problem is that those who remain silent are neither generating ideas, killing ideas, or maintaining them. This is okay if silence gives space to those who generate, kill, or maintain new ideas. But if too many remain silent, this could be dysfunctional for the meeting, and the organization.

Others have argued a stronger case against silence, with Leslie A. Perlow and Stephanie Williams suggesting that silence could be killing companies, finding that:

“But it is time to take the gilt off silence. Our research shows that silence is not only ubiquitous and expected in organizations but extremely costly to both the firm and the individual. Our interviews with senior executives and employees in organizations ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations to government bureaucracies reveal that silence can exact a high psychological price on individuals, generating feelings of humiliation, pernicious anger, resentment, and the like that, if unexpressed, contaminate every interaction, shut down creativity, and undermine productivity.”

My sense is that they are right to challenge conventional wisdom on the value of silence. Silence might well be politically strategic for individuals, but potentially not strategic for group or organizational innovation. So if you want to be politically safe, and organizationally conservative, if not deadly, then sit on your hands and hold your tongue.

Reference

Johannesen, Richard L. (1974), ‘The Functions of Silence: A Plea for Communication Research’, Western Speech, 38 (1): http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10570317409373806?needAccess=true

Perlow, Leslie A., and Williams, Stephanie (2003), ‘Is Silence Killing Your Company?‘, Harvard Business Review, May.