Principles of Policy Making

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

Over the last couple of weeks, there’s been an increasing amount of discussion amongst the IT community over the need for a national ICT policy. We were all encouraged when someone from the Prime Minister’s Office spontaneously responded, suggesting that the best way to get things moving was to start moving ourselves.

One of the key points that came out of the discussion so far is that ni-Vanuatu feel that it’s time start taking issues of national policy in their own hands. That’s really heartening news. It’s always good to see a healthy amount of impatience when it comes to technical issues. Unless and until people are willing to invest something of themselves in the process, there’s little chance that the policy will take a meaningful or useful form.

In the interests of helping move the process along, I’m going to repeat a few lessons I’ve learned myself over the years….

1) Change is… Change.

The benefits of the rapid and fundamental transformation that technology offers society are undeniable. Health, education, literacy and business development are all areas where the potential improvements are obvious. Governance and civil society should improve as well, if only because people in the village will at last be able to keep track of their MPs, even to the point of calling and reminding them of their promises periodically.

But what about the other side? What will happen when a young man, ripe with ideas he’s acquired on the Internet, begins to question the words of his chief? The ideas may be good, and the chief may even be wrong, but what will the villagers do when they see his guidance being second-guessed?

Rest assured that local beliefs will be assailed. Kastom will be affected, for better and for worse. We need a few people to play a guiding, reconciling role in this process in order to ensure that we don’t become a nation adrift. They would serve – not supplant – kastom, helping it to remain relevant and useful in an age when Vanuatu’s villages take on a global dimension.

2) Learn Your History.

Go back and study in detail the how the Internet came to be. Pay special attention to the open, cooperative spirit that was instilled right from the beginning.

Talk to those who were there. Most of its inventors are still alive, and many of them are genuinely interested in what’s happening here in the Pacific. Vinton Cerf, widely known as the Father of the Internet, is an honorary member of the Pacific Islands Chapter of the Internet Society. He’s taken time from his schedule to join us in Apia at the PACINET conference, so it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that he’d be happy to spend an hour to two talking with someone helping to plot our national IT strategy.

Now do the same with your grandparents, with the Malvatumauri, with the Kaltoral Senta. Reconciling everything you find out will be difficult, but if you can’t do it, who can?

3) Keep Asking ‘Why?’

One of the fun parts of being a geek is that we get to indulge that very trait that makes every three year old insufferable: We can be – no, we have to be – insatiably curious. Just like the toddler who never stops asking why, we are expected to challenge every assumption, all the time.

The most interesting area of IT is where it comes into contact with society. Ask yourself why IT planning models are built the way they are, in spite of the systemic and often colossal failure that results. Study software licensing through the last three decades. Watch how it changes, consider what that means in terms of code quality, in terms of product management and sales, and most importantly, what its effect is on people.

For example, keep asking yourself, “If I can copy something for free, why should I pay for it?” The answers, you’ll find, are not nearly as simple as you think, and they will keep changing.

4) Technology is a Process, Not a Product.

If Ecclesiastes were written today, and David were a geek, he would no doubt say: Process of processes, all is processes. Ultimately, technology consists of layers upon layers of processes. Generations of software come and go, licenses change, products change, and so do capabilities. The only thing we can rely on, then, is the process. The process of learning, applying, then learning some more.

5) Information is a Gift.

The principle of vastly increased demand for communications in an economy of plenitude needs to be well understood by everyone involved in development. Planning becomes quite difficult when the landscape changes at such a rapid rate. In fact, the traditional process of descending from vision to strategy to policy to activity is going to require a fundamental reassessment.

Improved human communications means improved ability to act. Improved efficiency and effectiveness at the grassroots level means that organisations had better be ready to react to new demands, or they will either be opposed or ignored.

Remember as you act to protect people from certain information or to protect information from certain people that, in this case, more is always better. Certain things can never be un-learned, un-seen or un-heard. But our understanding of them can be changed by other things we learn, see and hear.

Someone once joked, “Information is like violence; if it doesn’t solve your problem, you’re not using enough.”

6) Let Kastom Guide You.

The biggest tension that exists today is that between Kastom and Business. Kastom often manifests itself as a process of lengthy consultation and the constant search for consensus, no matter how long it takes. The traditional European ‘business model’, on the other hand, consists of arbitrary groupings of individuals given legal rights and mandated to operate in particular areas. People are united for the purpose of commercial gain, and their roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. This is an effective and efficient way to deliver products and services, but it does not always serve to foster coordination and cooperation.

Most importantly, when decision-making is limited to a few leaders sitting together behind closed doors, it’s possible to make decisions quickly, but it’s also possible to be very, very wrong. Somebody once described this phenomenon thusly: “Put a bunch of smart people into a room and they emerge dumber than when they went in.”

We have a tremendous opportunity right now in Vanuatu. While the rest of the world is just beginning to rediscover what we already know, we can charge ahead. In technological terms, there are tons of collaborative tools available that will allow local groups to create a virtual nasara.

The Vanuatu IT Users Society (VITUS) already does this, and we would be happy to assist others. We invite all IT stakeholders to join in the ongoing dialogue. With a little time and a willingness to work in a manner that’s appropriate to Vanuatu, we will all emerge from the room wiser than when we entered.