The ‘iron cage’ of multistakeholder governance

In 1983, Paul Dimaggio and Walter Powell authored what would become a seminal article in sociology, The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields.[1] They argued that, because of constraints imposed by the state and professions, “rational actors make their organizations increasingly similar as they attempt to change them.”  The mechanisms facilitating this paradox may be “coercive” (conformity induced by laws, rules), “mimetic” (imitation encouraged by uncertainty) or “normative” (shared practices or beliefs spread inter-personally). One can expect to see isomorphism occur under several conditions, e.g., where there is dependence on another organization, when resources are centralized, or when uncertainty or ambiguity exists about goals.

Why does all this matter? Isomorphism is a useful concept for understanding some of the latest organizational developments in Internet governance and predicting where they may end up. In particular, the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (GMMFIG) in Brazil and 1net are prime examples of isomorphism at work. Knowing that may give us a chance to avoid undesirable outcomes, introduce new ideas and maybe achieve better forms of governance.

Everyone paying attention to Internet governance is aware of the political conflicts between state-centric multilateral and non-state multistakeholder governance. The I* organizations must continually strive to legitimize themselves in the face of continuing pressure from supporters of traditional intergovernmental approaches. Mueller and Wagner recently detailed how the GMMFIG is just the latest iteration of this conflict, another attempt to confront representational and legitimacy issues and institutionalize a political bargain.  Early on, one I* executive sought to diffuse any tensions about organizational competition by arguing that the UN-based Internet Governance Forum (IGF) should be strengthened and that the GMMFIG was a one-time high profile event. 1net, in this narrative, just happened to be concurrently initiated by the I* organizations to facilitate multistakeholder discussion. This may all be true.  However, the GMMFIG and 1net appear display an incredible degree of isomorphism with existing organizational structures in Internet governance.

For starters, the GMMFIG’s High Level Committee (HLC) bears a strong resemblance to the IGF’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG), right down to its questionable 50/50 balance between government and non-government individuals.  If that weren’t enough, the HLC also receives input from its own Council of Governmental Advisors, akin to ICANN’s board receiving advice from a Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). The GAC has a controversial role that is external to and largely inimical to ICANN’s bottom up policy development process. As Mueller and Wagner observe, the Brazil meeting’s Executive Multistakeholder Committee (EMC) will hold substantial administrative power in setting the meeting agenda, selecting proposals and speakers.  In that sense, it too is very similar to the IGF’s MAG. An important deviation is that the EMC is co-chaired by an appointee from the nascent 1net, which is beginning to show signs of serious discussion about globalization of the IANA function. However, the 1net effort continues to suffer from familiar problems and unrealized potential, like almost no participation from people affiliated with governments and an inadequate platform for managing the deliberation and selection of proposed ideas. Regardless, one hopes that a broader set of interests and inputs will help set the GMMFIG agenda. A Secretariat has been established to facilitate this process. It is responsible for a set of operational activities remarkably similar to ones the IGF Secretariat or the ICANN staff manage, most notably contributions of content to the meeting. What is currently lacking are clear procedures for how input is received and assimilated into the EMC, what their criteria are for making decisions between competing inputs, and how transparent their deliberations will be – all questions that the IGF and ICANN have struggled with at times. Finally, the Logistics and Organizational Committee (LOC) is unsurprisingly co-chaired by representatives of two key organizations providing resources, and ICANN.  If you want a casual indicator of ICANN’s influence, one need look no further than the GMMFIG organizational chart file tellingly named the ‘ICANN-cascade-diagram.jpg’.

Viewed through the lens of institutional isomorphism, we can see how uncertainty about how to bring governments into multistakeholder governance is driving a mash-up of existing organizational approaches. Apparently, those creating the GMMFIG continue to insist on a special role for governments relative to other stakeholders.  Is conformity to this arrangement driven by rules or laws? Or is it simply a political bargain, something that certain governments demand and the I* organizations are willing to concede? Similarly, we know the strong normative commitment of the I* organizations to multistakeholder, bottom up governance processes. Are states willing to become socialized to those processes, expanding the interpersonal networks (e.g., to include individuals or contractors affiliated with agencies) necessary to engage as peers with other stakeholders? How can/why would they do so if Internet governance organizations continue to give governments a segregated, special role? Moreover, can the I* organizations institutionalize processes that facilitate the deliberation and organic aggregation of interests and, where necessary, make decision-making structures accountable to stakeholders? It is unclear whether we can break out of the constraints imposed by states and I* organizations.

[1] DiMaggio, P. J. and Powell, W. W. (1983) The iron cage revisted: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields, American Sociological Review, 48(2): 147–60.


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