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Should ICANN cut free travel, or its own staff?

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2018, 23:31:02 (UTC), Domain Policy

Is ICANN’s suddenly limited budget best spent on its staff wages or on flights and hotels for certain volunteers?

That’s the debate that’s been emerging in the ICANN community in the last few weeks since ICANN revealed it would have to make some “tough choices” in the face of lower than expected revenue from a stagnant domain industry.

Members of the ICANN Fellowship program have started a petition calling for the organization to look at its own staffing needs before cutting the number of Fellows it supports in half.

The petition is not signed (though I have a pretty good idea who started it) and at time of publication, it has 194 signatures.

The Fellowship program sees ICANN pay for the travel and lodging, along with a per diem allowance, of up to 60 community members at each of its three annual major meetings.

They’re usually ICANN newbies and generally from less-developed regions of the world.

But because ICANN is trying to cut $5 million from its fiscal 2019 budget it wants to reduce the number of supported Fellows down to 30 per meeting.

ICANN says (pdf) that the average cost to send a Fellow to a meeting is $3,348, which would work out at or $200,880 per meeting or $602,640 per year.

Cutting the program in half would presumably therefore save a tad over $300,000 a year.

It’s not nothing, but it’s chickenfeed in a budget penciled in at $138 million for FY19.

While Fellows are not the only people seeing budget cutbacks, the only one of five broad areas that will actually see growth in ICANN’s FY19 budget is staffing costs.

The organization said personnel spend will go up from $69.5 million to $76.8 million in its next fiscal year.

That’s based on the staff growing by 34 people in the fiscal year to June 30. Those people will then earn a full year’s wages in FY19, rather than the partial year they earned in FY18.

It also plans to increase headcount by four people in FY19, and to give employees an average of 2% pay rises (cut from 4%).

The end-of-year headcount would be 425. That means headcount will have doubled since about September 2013. It was at under 150 when the new gTLD program kicked off in 2012.

Does ICANN really need so many staff? It’s a question people have been asking since before headcount even broke into three digits (over 10 years ago).

The petition organizers wrote that ICANN could not only maintain but increase funding for Fellows by just lowering staffing levels by one or two people, adding:

Given that most of the fellows are from developing countries, the Fellowship Program is not only a learning platform for capacity building to empower volunteers with the skills needed to create a positive impact both within ICANN and in their home countries, but also it is practically the only way to overcome the insurmountable financial burden faced by individuals coming from world regions where even access to drinking water is problematic, not to mention access to computers and quality IT infrastructure that is taken for granted in developed countries.

There’s no denying that attending ICANN meetings can be a pricey undertaking. I come from the developed world and I’ve skipped a few for cost reasons.

But there’s no point ICANN splashing out its cash (which is after all a quasi-tax gathered ultimately from domain registrants) on a Fellowship program unless it knows what the ROI is.

Are the Fellows worth the money?

There’s a kind of running joke — that, disclosure alert, I participate in regularly — that Fellows are mainly good for being strong-armed into singing ICANN’s praises at the open-mic Public Forum sessions held at two of the three meetings each year.

But that’s probably not entirely fair. The program has supported some committed community members who are certainly not slackers.

There are two former Fellows — Léon Felipe Sanchez Ambia and Rafael Lito Ibarra — currently sitting on the ICANN board of directors, and at least one I know of on the GNSO Council.

There are also about 10 members of ICANN staff who were former fellows and ICANN has documented several more participants who are still active in formal roles in ICANN.

Would these people have gotten so involved with ICANN if that financial support had not been there for them originally? I don’t know.

ICANN has attempted in the past to put some hard numbers on the value of the program, and the results are perhaps not as encouraging as when one cherry-picks the success stories.

It conducted a survey last year (pdf) of all 602 former Fellows and managed to get a hold of 597 of them. It wanted to know whether they were still engaged in the ICANN community.

But only 53%, 317 people, even bothered to respond to the survey. Of those who did respond, 198 said they were still involved in the ICANN community.

Basically, of the 600 Fellows ICANN has subsidized to attend ICANN meetings over the last 10 years, just one third say they are still participating.

Is that a good hit rate?

Would it be worth firing a couple of ICANN staffers — or at least allowing a position or two to fall to attrition — in order to keep the Fellowship program funded at current levels?

I honestly have no strong opinion either way on this one, but I’d be interested to hear what you have to say.

No doubt ICANN is too. Its public comment period on the FY19 budget is still open.

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Comments (8)

  1. Richard Funden says:

    Not signed but 194 signatures? How does that work? Sounds like it is signed, 194 times…

  2. Snoopy says:

    They clearly need to reduce staff.

  3. Bob says:

    In any organization when the mother ship starts missing growth targets, the underlying divisions suffer. The Fellowship Program is no exception to this rule, and is not helped by lack of a real quantifiable benefit to their existence.

    As for ICANN they are an easy target but their charter is incredibly broad and diverse. If the community expects them to continually step up to meet new challenges, cutting staff isn’t going to make that any easier.

  4. Vrikson Acosta says:

    Where is the link to sign?

  5. Vrikson Acosta says:

    As the article mentions, so few of the fellows keep on participating in ICANN issues, including the so-called “next-gen”.
    They should focus on granting fellowship to excluded people who have been involved, and will continue to be, for a long-time in ICANN issues.

    • Jay Daley says:

      If a fellow learns about ICANN and multi-stakeholder governance and takes that learning with them into a role that intersects with either of those then that’s a job well done. The real question is how much do Fellows and NextGen actually learn? Judging by the same questions trotted out at the public forum it appears they are taught the mechanics of ICANN but not the fundamental principles.

  6. John Laprise says:

    To start with, we all should acknowledge that ICANN is arcane and esoteric to begin with. It’s structure and operation are unique and oftentimes confusing even to a PhD coming from a liberal western democracy. The least we can do to help people from around the world is to offer fellowships and offer them learning opportunities. That said, there may be efficiencies that we haven’t availed ourselves of. The meetings rotate globally on a regular schedule. Surely it would be more cost effective to limit fellowships to regional applicants to reduce cost and potentially also alleviate any culture clashes.

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