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Meeting fatigue? G20 needs to guard its brand

Meeting fatigue? G20 needs to guard its brand

The Turkish presidency of the G20 is scheduled to host an astounding 86 meetings in 2015. That's an average of more than one and a half per week and it's a lot more than the then-record 60-odd meetings held in 2014. This year's official tally also underestimates the total number of gatherings. To give one example, the Think20* grouping of G20-focused think tanks has convened 11 meetings this year, but only the November T20 summit makes it onto the official meeting list.

Scheduling all these events is a significant logistical challenge, and one that highlights the magnitude of the task awaiting future G20 hosts. But it's not just the sheer volume that's a concern.

The nature of interaction has shifted as well this year. While government officials and ministers are still there, convening ever more frequently (41 such meetings scheduled in 2015) and making most of the decisions on G20 outcomes, two new trends have also become apparent.

The first is the ever-expanding list of consultations that now includes energy ministers, agriculture ministers and trade ministers, among others. Through these interactions, the G20 is taking up more of the machinery of governments the world over. As the links within governments increase, the focus becomes more niche and 'forward leaning'. Overall, the forum feels less dynamic. There is less expectation that any meeting will yield significant advances. [fold]

The second, surprising addition has been the sheer number of 'indirect' meetings. These are the symposia, workshops and conferences where decision-makers take a back seat and the objective is to come up with ideas and innovations to influence future policy. Given there are 45 such events this year, they will account for the majority of G20 meetings. 

This means attendees at the typical G20 meeting in 2015 are more likely to be 'track two' representatives, drawn from international organisations, academia, business or some other group , as opposed to officials or ministers responsible for G20 policy.

The latest G20 Monitor calls for a top-down strategic review of G20 'second track' outreach and communications, with a particular focus on G20's formal engagement with business (B20), civil society (C20), labour groups (L20), think tanks (T20), women (W20) and youth (Y20). The main goal of this alphabet soup of engagement groups is to provide a conduit into particular segments of society. They suggest G20 policies of interest to their constituency, and give feedback on G20 actions. They have the potential to increase G20 legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

However, engagement is not a cost-free exercise, and G20 officials must weigh up the time spent on these discussions with the time that could otherwise be used to target substantive outcomes on the G20 agenda.

A frank assessment is that all engagement groups need a sharper focus that translates into fewer, more pragmatic and high-impact policy recommendations to justify ongoing investment by the G20 in second track events, particularly in the context of increased questioning of G20 dynamism and relevance.

There are several areas where the G20 can act. In the new book The G20 and the Future of International Economic Governance, Susan Harris Rimmer suggests that China commission a strategic review of G20 outreach and communications, and seeks to formalise the structure of negotiations through a three-year troika strategy. I agree. Future hosts will need to guard the 'G20 brand' more jealously, streamline engagement and cut down on the number of G20 conferences organised by international organisations.

A top-down assessment of the value of indirect meetings has become essential. The bar should be set high, and only those that can demonstrate value should be involved in the G20 process.

Engagement recommendations should become more timely and give a president the chance to respond in a considered manner to the calls from society. Barry Carin from the Centre for International Governance Innovation and I believe that, instead of disparate meetings held in the lead-up to, or during, a leaders Summit, a single, Davos-style engagement summit event early in a G20 presidency would provide an appropriate opportunity for representatives of 'society' to consult, prepare, and cogently present their views in a single public forum.

G20 presidents should also sponsor a website for collating and publicly disseminating the recommendations of all engagement groups, and guarantee funding only for those groups that have been found to add value. The focus should be on ensuring that G20 outreach is more narrowly targeted towards assisting leaders and finance ministers in making decisions that deliver substantive economic policy outcomes.

G20 bashing has become a bit of a tradition in some circles, typically by those with only indirect input into the process. Some of the criticism is valid, but much is unjustifiably harsh. Critics would do well to remember that, while there is always room for improvement in the forum itself, society also needs to improve its interactions with the G20.

*Disclaimer: the author has been a part of the Think20 process in 2015.

Photo Ercin Top/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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