Mike Callaghan is Director of the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre. Mark Thirlwell is Director of the Lowy Institute's International Economy Program and a G20 Studies Centre Fellow.

Is the G20 agenda expanding too widely at a time when its top priority should be on reinvigorating global growth, as we have suggested?

David Shorr from Democracy Arsenal says he is a sceptic when it comes to laying 'blame for the G20's modest progress on the leaders supposedly being distracted by secondary matters'. Shorr agrees there is a problem with the G20 agenda becoming messy, but sees the source of the problem coming from the G20's well-intentioned desire to take a comprehensive approach, rather than having too many items on the agenda.

Whatever the source – either an ever-expanding agenda or a prevalence to take a comprehensive approach to all issues – the G20 is spreading itself too thin. Shorr believes leaders of the G20 have sufficient diplomatic and policy bandwidth to tackle issues beyond the group's core responsibilities for global economic growth and finance stability. But do leaders have the time? Meetings of G20 leaders, finance ministers and central bank governors are very crowded affairs. There is already little time to focus on the core responsibilities.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron prepared a report on global governance for the 2011 Cannes G20 Summit at the request of President Sarkozy. Unfortunately, it was not discussed at the Cannes Summit – insufficient time! But it contained an important observation:

...resources, particularly its leader's time and political capital are limited. It [the G20] must therefore manage its formal agenda accordingly, by balancing the changing agenda of an annual presidency with the need to retain focus and avoid overstretch.

So however you define the problem confronting the G20, the danger is that it is being stretched too far. The solution lies in prioritising G20 resources, particularly the time of leaders. But as Prime Minister Cameron suggests, this is easier said than done, because each year's chair inherits a long list of legacy items and wants to add its own priorities. 

We agree with Shorr that what the G20 needs is an agenda discipline 'whereby each issue comes with a theory-of-change showing how the blessing or impetus from world leaders will contribute to progress on the issue'. But the issues being considered by leaders also have to be of the highest priority.

Photo by Flickr user Pablo Manriquez.