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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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'.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Ignoring cultural variants : This technique emphasizes paradigms
typical of a dominant culture to ensure that alternative cultural perspectives
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- '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.
- 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).
- 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
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 :
- 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.
- Interaction Council : This body groups many former heads of state and seeks to
clarify and influence issue framing through the reports it produces.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 .
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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:
- 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 ?
- 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
- 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 https://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/romework.php)
- 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
- 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).
- Interacting fruitfully with un-civil society: the dilemma
for non-civil society organizatios. Transnational Associations,
1997, 3, pp. 124-132 (includes section on 'definitional games') [text]
- Systems of categories distinguishing
cultural biases. Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1993, 10
- Governance through confidence artistry. In: Encyclopedia of World Problems
and Human Potential, K G Saur, 1994, vol 2, pp. 543-545
of Conceptual Insights from the World's Cultures Proposal to UNESCO in
relation to the Decade on Cultural Development, 1988 [text]
- Configuring globally and contending locally: shaping the global network of
local bargains by decoding and mapping Earth Summit inter-sectoral issues.
(Document for Inter-Sectoral Dialogue, Rio de Janeiro, June 1992). Geneva,
International Facilitating committee, 1992, 55 p
- Beyond edge-bound comprehension and modal impotence. Brussels, Union of International
Associations, 1981, 9 p. (Notes for the project on Goals, Processes and Indicators
of Development of the Human and social Development Programme of the United
Nations University.) [text]
- Integrative dimensions of concept sets: transformation with minimal distortion
between implicitness and explicitness of set representations according to constraints
on communicability. Brussels, Union of International Associations, 1981, 5
p. (Notes for the project on Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development
of the Human and social Development Programme of the United Nations University.)
- Anti-development biases in thesaurus design. In: Fred W. Riggs (Ed), The CONTA
Conference: proceedings. Frankfurt/Main, Indeks Verlag, 1981, 99 185-201 (Paper
for UNESCO-sponsoered Conference on Conceptual and Terminological Analysis
in the Social Sciences, Bielefeld, 1981)
- Wrecking an international project: 114 notes from a saboteur's vade mecum. International Associations, 24, October 1972, pp. 487-490