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The Art of Non-Decision-Making

and the manipulation of categories

- / -

Some basic practices in non-decision-making
The Hidden Art : category manipulation
Who possesses these skills and how do they operate ?
Reframing the issue context : some examples

Substantively revised by Reframing the Art of Non-Decision-Making -- and the manipulation of global categories (2017)


 It has become strikingly evident that most major international conferences and summits have become exercises in non-decision-making. Indeed decision avoidance has become an art form in its own right.

The clearest examples of this in the first half of 1997 have been the 'Rio + 5' United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (New York), the Group of Seven - plus a half (Denver), and the major European Union conference on institutional reform (Amsterdam). There is little difficulty in citing equivalent examples from previous years - of which the responses to the crisis in Bosnia are possibly the most painful.

Much intellectual effort has gone into the process of 'decision-making'. There are libraries of books and documents on the matter. Little attention has however been devoted to non-decision-making processes -- the process of not deciding. As possibly the prime mode of response of the international community, it merits some attention.

Some basic practices in non-decision-making

  1. Stress positive achievements : It is essential to use the full panoply of public relations skills to stress the positive achievements of an international community initiative - no matter how insignificant they may be, or how unrelated to the basic challenge. For example one of the five 'solid' achievements claimed by negotiator Richard Holbrooke, during an August 1997 visit to Bosnia, was to have ensured a three digit telephone code for the country. Unfortunately, in the case of the G7 Summits and others, journalists have become increasingly sceptical about the lack of significant content in the Final Communiqués -- many regular intergovernmental conferences are no longer considered to be of media interest. The efforts to stress the positive may be taken to such lengths that any critical questioning is rejected. This provides an excellent cover for non-decision-making since minimal, token, cosmetic responses can then be extolled as significant positive achievements.

  2. Exclude critical reporters : Strong criticism of non-decision-making can however be toned down, and even eliminated, by implying that journalists, and others, who are too critical will not necessarily receive an invitation to the following event. Since for some journalists, this is a direct threat to their career path, this can be very effective. Overt exclusion on this basis is of course not possible, but for the inviting body, it is only necessary to imply that critics may not be invited. A major controversial intervention to the 1999 Davos Forum was simply suppressed from the official report of it -- although journalists commented extensively on it in the media.

  3. Rotation of praise and blame : It is vital for parties to international initiatives to appear successful, especially to their national constituencies. Basic to the art of non-decision-making is to allow each party to take turns in proposing an initiative in response to a crisis, thus achieving widespread positive recognition. One or more of the other parties must then be prepared to oppose this initiative in some way - thus ensuring that no decision is taken. Other parties can remain neutral during this process. For this process to be viable over a period of time, each party must take turns in proposing initiatives and opposing them. In this way the group can maintain media interest and an impression of getting somewhere, provided individual parties are prepared to weather their turn as 'opposer' and the heavy criticism this may arouse. The advantage of this technique, is that those making proposals do not have to face up to any possibility that these may be accepted. The procedure is therefore risk free. This process is somewhat analogous to price-fixing rings in business in that their existence can be easily denied.

  4. Proposal of solutions based on unacceptable criteria : In the event of an international crisis, such as the massacres in Rwanda, the party in need may specifically exclude assistance or intervention of a particular kind. It is then possible for those desiring to be seen to be taking an initiative, but unwilling to do so in practice, to gain widespread approval by proposing precisely the form of assistance which has been rejected in advance as unacceptable. This is absolutely risk free for the proposer. The French and Belgian governments have been able to use this technique with great success with respect to the Rwandan crisis.

  5. Focus on monitoring, review and study : This is a classical technique that is widely used. In the case of any crisis, attention is focused on the need for more information, study and analysis -- in the absence of which appropriate action can naturally not be taken. The impression is created that something is being done through a "study commission" -- indeed a decision of a kind has been made to undertake the study. No action is however taken on the crisis itself. Indeed the period of study may well exceed the period of duration of the crisis. This approach is much appreciated by academic groups who receive scarce funds to engage in the study. This approach was extensively used in relation to the 'Gulf War syndrome' and to the BSE ("mad cow") crisis. It is an easy way of dealing with many environmental issues, since many of the critics earn their living from monitoring-related processes.

  6. Displace attention to reframe the challenge : In a crisis, as in the Middle East, where two parties are engaged in acts unacceptable to each other, if media attention can be focused on the acts of one, then those of the other can be treated as of little consequence. In the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the media focus on "terrorist bombing" by Palestinians has successfully obscured the 'settlement building' by Israelis. Israelis are then able to insist that every priority be given to security restrictions on Palestinians as a prerequisite to wider discussions - but without in any way diminishing their ongoing settlement building programme. Since this programme, as a form of structural violence,  is a prime cause of continuing Palestinian protest, the Israelis are able to set up a situation in which nothing will be done about the crisis as a whole. This approach succeeds best when "settlement building" can be framed as a positive, innocent, non-violent activity in no way comparable to 'suicide bombing'.

  7. Celebrate achievements : Under conditions of effective non-response to pressing issues, much may be achieved by engaging in celebration. Any suitable anniversary may be chosen - let's have a party. Recent examples include the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations, or the forthcoming millennium - although the Olympic Games also serve this function to some extent. By devoting sufficient resources to the celebration, the media are distracted. Critics are marginalized as engaging in 'sour grapes'. If the celebration requires several years planning, then attention can be usefully channelled over that period from other concerns on which action is more difficult.

  8. Scapegoating : This is the classic technique of imputing inability to act effectively to the actions of some other group. Provided it remains possible to locate or create scapegoats, decision-making can effectively be avoided. This has been extensively practiced in the Northern Ireland crisis.

  9. Claim unproven links : This approach is used to deny the relationship between two phenomena : acid rain and deforestation, offal reinforced feedstuffs and BSE, etc. It is then possible to avoid decision-making on the 'unproven' causative factor. Scientists can always be found to question the evidence for any link found by some other group of scientists.

 The Hidden Art : Category Manipulation

 The techniques and examples reviewed above are some of the more visible aspects of the art of non-decision-making. More challenging to detect, comprehend and communicate to others are various forms of category manipulation. Each is easily denied.

  1. Definitional games : This is the process of defining categories in one way in one document or organizational unit, and then defining them in another way elsewhere or at some later time. Whether deliberately or inadvertently, the United Nations system has, for example, demonstrated great skill in using this technique in framing its approach to 'nongovernmental organizations' and 'civil society' ( see). The art is to use this approach to obscure opportunities or to selectively advance particular strategies. At the same time competing definitions may be used to justify apparently incompatible strategies.

  2. Neglected or repressed categories : This approach is familiar to those who experience discrimination, whether in terms of race, gender, age, intelligence, class or culture. Women experience exclusion through exclusive reference to the male gender in documents supposedly relevant to both female and male. Unwritten rules may specifically exclude those of a particular ethnic group or class. Non-English speakers, for example, may be handicapped in their access to information. On the occasion of the 1997 World Assembly of Youth (Paris), the Pope refused to meet with non-Catholic youth because in reality the conference was a 'world assembly of Catholic youth'. Skillful neglect of certain categories can ensure that any initiative will be subsequently undermined. Certain approaches to 'unemployment' may be specifically excluded from 'comprehensive reviews' of the challenge at the highest level.

  3. Over-simplification : This technique is typical of those forcing through an agenda in which it is convenient to exclude categories and especially the relationships between them. A classical example is Agenda 21, whose chapter and paragraph structure avoids any recognition of relationship between the included elements, even though these necessarily have functional relations to each other. Many declarations of principles and ethical charters follow this pattern. This is commonly justified by the necessity to render the text simple enough to be communicable to the media and to various constituencies. Unfortunately the process of simplification seldom ensures the memorability of the text and tends to guarantee limited life for initiatives based on such oversimplification.

  4. Over-complexification : This technique is widely practiced by experts to limit access to their field of knowledge. It becomes a means of requiring that the expert be personally consulted in order to convey the insights in practice. In the medical profession, it is the basis for the abusive use of the referral system.

  5. Narrowing the time-frame : This technique consists of elaborating initiatives without any reference to historical precedents from which insights might be usefully obtained to ensure the viability of the new initiative. By encouraging ignorance of the past, in pursuit of the current initiative, there is every probability that the new one will remain equally unmemorable. Similarly, by avoiding sensitivity to more than the short-term future, factors in the medium and longer term (that will probably counteract the initiative) can be ignored. Effective non-decision-making can be achieved by benign positive focus on action in the immediate present.

  6. Focusing on the inaccessible : In one form this technique involves one of the parties in a decision-making arena indicating that they are prepared to go ahead 'only if everybody else agrees'. This gives the appearance of a positive approach. It is especially successful in avoiding decision-making if it is unlikely that others will agree in this way. In another variant, the party indicates that it is only prepared to consider an issue within a broader framework (eg not overfishing of a particular species but of fish stocks in general). This ensures avoidance of decisions if other parties are not prepared to explore broader issues even though there may be scope for agreement on narrower issues. As with the 'Peter Principle' of personnel promotion, this technique can be an excellent way of positioning issues at a level at which institutions are incapable of dealing effectively with them.

  7. Ignoring cultural variants : This technique emphasizes paradigms typical of a dominant culture to ensure that alternative cultural perspectives (see Encyclopedia of Conceptual Insights from the World's Cultures Proposal to UNESCO in relation to the Decade on Cultural Development, 1988) are demeaned, ignored or treated as irrelevant or outdated. This is widely practiced in the English-speaking Western world. Faced with this inadequacy, a response may simply be to provide translations without recognizing that these do not necessarily provide an adequate vehicle for other cultural perspectives.

  8. Favouring the fashionable : At any one time, there are fashionable conceptual approaches to issues, and consultants 'on the circuit' who enthusiastically promote their use. Institutions can be successfully panicked into exploring the latest intellectual fad for fear of offering a competitive advantage to their competitors through inaction. Because an approach is fashionable 'nobody gets fired' for adopting it. By encouraging institutions to take up a succession of particular fads, a broader view of the range of possible initiatives is inhibited. No sense of the strengths, limitations and complementarity of the fads emerges.

  9. Rejection through negative association : Genuine innovations can be successfully marginalized and rejected by focussing attention on any disasters associated with their development. In this way social experimentation on alternative lifestyles and modes of employment has been conceptually linked to "sects" and therefore tainted as dangerous because of widely publicized incidents (Rajneesh/Antelope, Jonestown, Waco, Heaven's Gate, Order of the Solar Temple, etc). Such experimental failures are in no way considered equivalent to disasters associated with the development of any new technology.

  10. Disqualification : Evidence and insights are easily dismissed by claiming that the witnesses or originators are in some way unqualified to comment on the topic in question. This process is used by a given discipline against those outside it, including other disciplines. It is used within a given discipline, between schools of thought and universities, between "seniors" and "juniors", between 'top' specialists and 'mediocre' specialists. It is used by clusters of disciplines against "practitioners" or the general public. Alternative approaches to healing have provided a number of examples. Many conceptual innovations have been subjected to this process, especially since it is difficult to be 'qualified' in a field which is only in the process of emerging.

  11. Conceptual 'roll-on, roll-off' : This process involves apparent acceptance of a new perspective - but for a period only. When collective attention is focused elsewhere, decreasing weight is attached to the new perspective, until it can finally be ignored. This is widely used in the treatment of elite, or well-connected, offenders. When resistance to their punishment is finally overcome, they may indeed be convicted -- but after media interest has died down, their sentences can be shortened and they can be released. A similar approach is used in matters involving regulation, notably with respect to the environment. Regulation and inspection may indeed be introduced, only to be relaxed or 'rolled back' once the pressure is off and other pressures are given priority.

  12. 'Classification' to protect interests : New insights and approaches can be effectively quashed by appropriating them - whether in the national interest or under corporate copyright. This process may be undertaken preemptively by requiring that all personnel sign nondisclosure agreements. This is characteristic of both national and international civil services. Nobody is then qualified to comment publicly on issues documented in classified documents. The quantity of classified material indicates the extent to which insights are suppressed in this way.

  13. Exertion of pressure : This is one of the most developed techniques. It can be effectively used in any peer group simply by implying that failure to act in a particular way will cast an unfavourable light, prejudicing career advancement, funding, honours, etc ('the stick'). Pressure can be increased by offering rewards, career advancement, or promises of honours ('the carrot'). There is suspicion that attribution of a number of major prizes is occasionally affected by this process. Pressure can be further increased by unadulterated bribery and intimidation (including threats of exposure or even physical violence).

  14. Delay: This classical technique may be used in combination of several others. A variety of excellent reasons may be found to delay decision-making until 'the right moment'. The effects of delay are most evident in response to crisis situations, including massacres and those requiring disaster relief such as the Kobe earthquake. The 'international community' is very skilled in the use and justification of delay as has been most clearly seen in the case of Bosnia and Rwanda.

 Who possesses these skills and how do they operate ?

It is probably true that most people possess these skills in some measure. Parents make extensive use of them in persuading children to act, or not act, in particular ways. Employers, or superiors, may use them to persuade, or dissuade, employees regarding issues on which they differ. Teachers may do the same with students. Sales personnel make use of these skills in dealing with customers or in handling product complaints - as do confidence tricksters. Generals pride themselves on being able to use them to suitably motivate soldiers or demoralize the enemy - "psychological operations" are now a recognized military specialty. Physicians also use such skills in providing, or withholding, information to patients or their relatives. Couples use them in navigating their relationships.

Use of these skills may be portrayed as innocent or fair practice. In the case of couples : ' all is fair in love and war'. The much cited Harvard study on Getting to Yes is an example of what is now considered fair practice. Whether their use in the sale of Manhattan by Indians for a few 'beads and trinkets' can be considered fair practice is another matter. This however proved to be a model for interaction of colonialists with most indigenous peoples. Would it be ironic if aliens were to employ similar skills in their dealings with humanity - even if it were 'in our own interest' ?

The concern here is not so much with such instances but rather with the manner in which these skills are deployed to inhibit effective response to conditions of society and the planet. Who plays these games ? Where do they acquire their skills ?

For a conspiracy theorist, the response is no doubt straightforward. For those with strong political orientations, this would also be true. For someone with fundamentalist religious beliefs, the answer would also be obvious. It is not clear that these answers would be helpful. Moreover, the skills are currently explicitly recognized as being the art of the 'spin-doctor'.

Who employs spin-doctors ? Most obviously it is the highest government office in a country -- as part of ensuring fruitful relations with the media and an appropriate public image - possibly assisted by state-controlled media. In this sense it is merely an extension of public relations and as such would be common to major corporations and to military operations. Ironically the first head of UN Public Information after its creation was the person formally responsible for British war propaganda. Upbeat reporting has become a requirement of international initiatives.

The question is then who frames issues and initiatives for the international community. The question goes beyond particular issues, which may indeed be successful promoted by certain lobbies. Of more interest here, is how the set of issues is managed as a whole. Who ensures that certain issues and approaches are given priority and that others are neglected ? Clearly a number of bodies aspire to this role and many lobbying organizations seek to intervene in ways they consider most strategically appropriate.

Consider some examples in no particular order :

  1. Club of Rome : This much-publicized body has long aspired to an agenda-setting role. It prides itself on the influence it has on major international institutions through its members, who may well have a prominent role in such groupings.

  2. Interaction Council : This body groups many former heads of state and seeks to clarify and influence issue framing through the reports it produces.

  3. Semi-formal international elite groups : These tend to take the form of periodic gatherings of politicians, opinion makers, and academics. They may occasionally coopt outsiders. They include such bodies as : the Bilderberg Group, the Pinay Circle (Le Cercle ), and others.

  4. Catholic Church : The Vatican has a well-developed ability to influence governments directly, though its diplomatic status and the official church-state relationship in many countries (including Germany and many Latin countries). Through membership of key decision-making figures in some of its recognized semi-autonomous institutions (such as Opus Dei, or L'Oeuvre), it may seek to influence and inhibit decision-making. Its role in ensuring non-decision making on population issues is well-recognized.

  5. Secret societies : There are numerous national and international secret societies, of which the various branches of freemasonry provide the most cited examples. They may be associated with particular religions (as in the case of Opus Dei, or Muslim brotherhoods), with political or ideological beliefs (as in the case of some extremist groups), or with esoteric beliefs. Some groups may be not so much secret as secretive in their attempts to infiltrate and influence decision-making environments. Through their contacts they may also aspire to influence and inhibit decision-making .

  6. Organized crime : The current economic importance and opportunities of organized crime, notably with respect to the drug trade, have resulted in many documented attempts to infiltrate decision-making environments in order to inhibit decisions which would modify the status quo. Some of these initiatives have been undertaken with the complicity of intelligence agencies.

  7. Fundamentalist religious groups : The major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc) all have their active fundamentalist wings with strong agendas. These may involve exerting considerable influence on decision-making, as is currently evident in both the USA and the former Soviet Union.

  8. Intelligence agencies : The range of initiatives and ambitions of national secret services has been widely documented. Their efforts to influence individuals, or to politically destabilize countries through covert operations and "dirty-tricks", are well-recognized. The partial displacement of their activities from national security into economic espionage and presumably "economic destabilization" introduces a new dimension.

  9. World Economic Forum : The annual Davos Forum of this group brings together CEOs of multinational corporations and leading politicians with selected others, including academics and representatives of intergovernmental bodies. In terms of influence and agenda-setting in the economic world, this event is close to rivaling the United Nations. It is a focus for the ambitions of multinationals to exert a greater strategic role in managing world society.

  10. State of the World Forum : This annual event, currently in San Francisco, endeavours to bring together elites from around the world to review the conditions of the planet and clarify future agendas.

All these groups lay claim to assemble together, or to be able to influence, 'the leading opinion makers' and 'the leading thinkers' in the light of a special understanding that they may believe they uniquely possess. With the possible exception of the last, they are all essentially conservative and interested in maintaining the status quo - their current way of doing business and managing arrays of issues. Few are assailed by doubts concerning the validity of their perspective. Some, such as the religious and corporation-oriented groups, are especially interested in expanding their role and style of action and curtailing the actions of those out of sympathy with them.

Reframing the issue context : some examples

In the light of the above it is useful to explore some issues in which non-decision-making has been most evident:

  1. Security : Many intergovernmental agreements provide for national security, with the UN and NATO perhaps the foremost amongst them. The past 10 years have made it quite clear that no country can depend on others for effective protection, and that pleas for effective assistance may be acted upon too late, if at all. Bosnia has proven to be the most striking example. Rwanda was another. The failure of the Somalian operation was another. The inability to respond effectively to the conditions of peoples, such as the Kurds or the Tibetans, is another. How has non-decision-making, or deciding not to act, in response to peoples in danger become such a refined art ?

  2. Over-population : If there is a single issue which is systematically undermining national and international efforts to remedy the conditions of society and the planet, it is over-population. The Catholic Church has, aided by a unique coalition of religious groups, has been highly successful in ensuring that this issue is removed from international agendas (as in the case of the Rio Summit on Sustainable Development in 1992) or framed in such a way that action is minimized (as in the case of the Cairo Population Conference of the UN).

  3. Unemployment : This issue, affecting the quality of life of multitudes, is endlessly debated in national and international arenas. No coherent new approach has emerged. Many isolated initiatives are proposed and some are implemented, but with little real hope of responding effectively to the problem. Perhaps most interesting, is the manner in which the official and unofficial debates on the matter are separated. Little attention is devoted to the process whereby some possibilities get on to the official agenda, and others are excluded from it. But whether within the official or unofficial contexts, most significant is the way in which employment itself is framed. The question of the appropriateness of the frame is not addressed. Who controls the framing ? (see

  4. Cultural diversity : The increasing enthusiasm for 'globalization' and the information society, is accompanied by rising concern about global homogenization and cultural imperialism (whether by the USA over Western Europe, or by the West over other regions). Many language groups feel the dominating pressure of English. Although there are many isolated responses to these pressures, often of a tokenistic kind, there is widespread resignation that little can be done about it. It is not foreseen that humanity may lose as much conceptually (if not more) through this process as it is losing through destruction of the rainforests.

  5. Environment : The Rio+5 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (New York, 1997) focused attention on international inability to decide effectively in response to environmental crises, or having decided, to act. There is widespread failure to ratify or implement international environmental treaties. Action is often articulated in terms of military metaphors such as 'targeting' with the naive assumption that targets are somehow static and passive (see

In relation to such issues, consideration could also be given to the paradoxical potential of negative strategies (more).


Anthony Judge:

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