Committee on Information
1st Meeting (AM)
HARD CHOICES, DECISIONS MUST BE MADE TO ACHIEVE GREATER EFFECTIVENESS,
DPI HEAD TELLS COMMITTEE ON INFORMATION
Committee Begins Twenty-fourth Session Scheduled to End on 2 May
The United Nations was repositioning itself for even greater relevance as the indispensable global institution of the twenty-first century, and the Department of Public Information (DPI) was key to that continuing transformation, the Interim Head of the Department, Shashi Tharoor, told the Committee on Information this morning at the opening of its twenty-fourth session.
A report before the 98-member body on reorienting DPI (document A/AC.198/2002/2) outlined the Secretary-General’s vision on how to position it for greater impact. Mr. Tharoor explained that in an attempt to more effectively allocate resources and achieve greater effectiveness in programme delivery, some hard decisions and choices had to be made. Some activities might need to be discontinued or drastically reduced. Alternatively, there might be a case to transfer certain activities elsewhere within the Secretariat. And, within the Department itself, some consolidation of functions might be necessary.
“Now it is up to you, members of the Committee, to give us your thoughts on these matters, to tell us what you expect from DPI”, he said. Repositioning DPI would not come without some “transitional pain”, and a certain amount of “relearning”, he added, but that was the best way to ensure that the United Nations had the most effective communications mechanisms in place, and to ensure that DPI became a leading voice in communicating the work of the United Nations to the world’s public.
Committee Chairman Milos Alcalay (Venezuela) said that the current session was of fundamental importance. Indeed, the Committee must play a vital role in the twenty-first century, since the efficiency of a public organization depended upon an effective communications policy. In particular, the Organization must have an information policy capable of disseminating the shared values of peace and democracy with all peoples of the world. As a preliminary recommendation for examining the different options before it, the Committee should reject the trend to allow the debate to be influenced by budgetary issues. It should help DPI fulfil its responsibilities and chart a course inspired by the Millennium Declaration.
Opening the general debate today on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, the representative of Venezuela said that the “dizzying speed” of changes in the field of technology had left some countries out, thereby broadening the digital divide between the rich and poor. One major challenge was to reduce differences and reverse the trends that threatened to further broaden that divide. Also crucial for developing countries was for the United Nations to make use of traditional means of communications. He welcomed efforts made to update and improve the radio and television components of the Department.
The representative of Algeria recognized that constant adaptation of communications strategies was required to meet the pressing needs of Member States and the broader public. Only the Committee was able to recommend a comprehensive review of the Department, and any study should go beyond the spirit of accounting and focus on efficiency, so as to better assess the mandates given it by the Organization. He called for strengthened multilingualism in United Nations publications and improved training of journalists from Africa. The communication role of the United Nations information centres was “undeniable”, particularly in developing countries whose access to technology had remained modest, he said.
Among the preliminary ideas of the European Union regarding reorientation was for a culture of public information and communications to permeate all levels and all departments of the Organization, the representative of Spain asserted on the Union’s behalf. The Millennium Declaration should guide the Department in orienting its work towards major issues. In addition, DPI should work primarily through intermediaries, move towards a new “evaluation culture” of increased performance management, and rely, to a greater degree, on existing external media to reach the public.
Statements were also made by the representatives of Egypt, Iran and India.
The Committee on Information will meet again at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 23 April, to continue its general debate.
The Committee on Information met this morning to begin its twenty-fourth session. It was expected to hear statements from its Chairman, as well as the Interim Head of the Department of Public Information (DPI), and begin its general debate.
The Committee, the principal legislative body mandated to make recommendations to the General Assembly on the work of DPI, opens its current session amid a comprehensive review of DPI intended to complete its reorientation.
For further background, see Press Release PI/1410, issued on 19 April.
MILOS ALCALAY (Venezuela), Chairman of the Committee, said this session of the Committee was of fundamental importance to DPI since extremely important issues would be addressed. The Department was prepared to do its work under the leadership of its Interim Head, Shashi Tharoor. The Committee must play a vital role in the twenty-first century since a public organization could not be efficient without an effective communications policy. Communications must be transparent and ongoing.
Real peace, he said, was not only the absence of war. Common fundamental values, such as peace and democracy, must be shared with all peoples of the world. That could only be achieved if the goals of the Millennium Declaration were fulfilled. The Organization must have an information policy that could disseminate those shared values.
Not too long ago, he continued, the Secretary-General had told journalists that he was optimistic about achieving the Millennium Declaration Goals, and that that would depend on the level of awareness by everyone. The Committee should reflect the optimism of the Secretary-General and should project, through DPI, a strong voice. It must also encourage initiatives to bridge the information technology gap. In that regard, it would be up to the Committee to propose a role for DPI in the forthcoming World Summit on the Information Society.
The bureau of the Committee believed that the general debate would make it possible to establish priorities for the Department, he said. The Department must give a new tone to information and communications, and the Committee must examine the different options before it. As a preliminary recommendation, he said the Committee must reject the trend to have the debate influenced by budgetary issues. The Committee’s objective must be to enable DPI to do its work better. It must fulfil its responsibilities in a constructive way and chart a course inspired by the Millennium Declaration.
SHASHI THAROOR, Interim Head of the Department of Public Information, said the Committee was meeting at an unusually interesting time in the history of the Secretariat, as the Organization repositioned itself for even greater relevance as the indispensable global institution of the twenty-first century. The DPI was key to that continuing transformation. At the same time, many States had called for changes in DPI, some suggesting a streamlining of its operations, others asking for it to do more, particularly in the developing world. That debate was not new.
He said that over the years, the work of the United Nations in the field of public information had often come under the close scrutiny of Member States, who had historically been divided on the subject. In the last 20 years, the Department had been the subject of at least seven periodic reviews and reappraisals, with a major restructuring carried out in 1987-1988. Yet, despite those attempts at reform, the Department continued to face criticism, often characterized by the point of view that the Department's functions were not central to the purposes of the Organization and might, therefore, be curtailed. That point of view was not widely held in the Committee, but it often prevailed in the financial and administrative bodies, where some delegates preferred to give priority to funding other activities of the Organization.
As a result, he continued, “we have been caught in the paradoxical situation” of receiving specific mandates from the Committee, while attempts were made in other legislative bodies to curtail the resources required to fulfil those very mandates. That critical view of the Department climaxed last December during consideration of the programme budget for the biennium 2002-2003. While, in the end, the General Assembly approved the relevant section of the programme budget, it requested the Secretary-General to conduct a comprehensive review of the management and operations of the Department. His report on reorientation, which was before the Committee, set out the Secretary-General’s vision for the direction in which he hoped to take a “transformed” DPI -- one with renewed focus and a greater clarity of purpose.
The review of the Department was part of a broader, second round of reform launched by the Secretary-General at the beginning of his second term, he said. With a view to strengthening and revitalizing the Organization, the entire Secretariat would carry out a candid re-examination of all its major activities. The Department’s exercise fit into that overall reform process, and its results would form part of the comprehensive report, which the Secretary-General would submit to the next Assembly session. It would propose institutional, programmatic, and administrative improvements in the DPI’s work.
He said that, in view of the ongoing series of reviews, it was now more critical than ever before that the Information Committee provide its expert guidance regarding what it saw as the core communications functions of the Department. Entrusted with conducting the comprehensive review of the Department, he had not been driven by budgetary considerations in working on the reform, nor had that been conceived as a cost-cutting exercise. The review was aimed at greater efficiency and effectiveness, and if the possibility of savings arose along the way, such measures would be implemented.
What was essential, he added, was that the Department demonstrate its ability to adapt to a changing world, demonstrate its willingness to learn and to change, and make an honest effort to use its resources to obtain the maximum impact possible. In carrying out the comprehensive review, and with the expert pro bono assistance of a highly regarded management consulting firm, Department officials had asked themselves how they would reinvent the Department from scratch if they had to. Which activities would be emphasized and why? What were the functions that most Member States would want to see performed in the service of the substantive goals of the Organization?
Some answers were obvious. Even if DPI were abolished, the United Nations would still need the ability to convey news of its work to the mass media; to provide authoritative accounts of its deliberations and actions to the press, public, governments and academia; to set up facilities to accredit, house, supply and guide the media; to provide written information, visual images and sound to those media not based at Headquarters; and to respond to queries from the media and members of the public across the world. Today, maintaining an attractive and functional Web site on the Internet must be added to that capacity.
Those core tasks were inescapable, he said, and not even the severest critics would suggest that the United Nations could survive without the capacity to perform them. But, how those were performed and to what extent were matters for judgement. Did DPI, for instance, issue press releases covering every official meeting, or should it confine itself to major events and conferences? If the latter, how would it be decided what to cover without offending Member States? Should DPI provide audio-visual coverage of every statement made by every delegate, or only film, record and photograph those speakers in whom there was prior evidence of media interest? he asked.
If it was purely a commercial press relations agency, its decisions would clearly differ from the ones it would be inclined to make as a politically conscious Secretariat, responsive to the wishes of Member States, he said. The issues became more complicated as he moved beyond the unavoidable functions to the desirable ones. In order not to be merely reactive to events, was not a capacity to elaborate a communications strategy needed? If so, did the Department need communicators with background knowledge in each of the major priority areas of the Organization, who were able to convey to ordinary people the nuances of its efforts in promoting such issues as sustainable development or disarmament? Given the importance of the various conferences and special sessions called by the General Assembly, was a capacity needed to advocate their goals? His inclination would be to answer “yes” to those questions.
Then came the traditional activities, such as guided tours, briefing programmes for visiting schools, exhibits, and so forth, he said. No comparable Organization or ministry anywhere in the world could do without such elements. Add to them administrative staff to manage the personnel and budgets of the Department, and “you suddenly find you have three fourths of the Headquarters structure of DPI”. The DPI already had a library, a cartographic section, and several publications, some as old as the Organization itself. Finally, there were the information centres around the world, themselves created by the General Assembly to bring the Department’s outreach directly to the peoples of nations far removed geographically from United Nations Headquarters.
“In other words”, he added, “you end up with something very much like the present DPI.” If those basic elements of DPI were “immutable”, what should be done differently? he asked. For the past couple of months, he and his senior colleagues had grappled with that question. With the help of expert consultants, they had conducted more than 70 interviews with DPI staff, senior Secretariat officials, representatives of Member States, and many individuals representing a range of the Department’s clients. The reorientation report spells out the principal findings and insights. “Now it is up to you, members of the Committee, to give us your thoughts on these matters, to tell us what you expect from DPI”, he said.
The Secretary-General had put forward his vision on how to position DPI for greater impact in the report on reorientation before the Committee, he said. The report was a first step in the comprehensive review of DPI, and outlined several important issues which had emerged from the in-depth analysis and assessment of the Department. Those related to a lack of clarity around DPI's mission; the existence of fragmented activities with unclear linkage to a coherent overall strategy; a limited capacity to understand whether the programmes met "customer" needs, and an organizational structure that did not make clear to external constituencies who did what in DPI, and how its components worked together.
He said the report did not contain proposals for changes in organizational structure, which might result from the review, as those still remained to be elaborated. It was the strong view of the Secretary-General and the Deputy Secretary-General that the participation of staff in the reform process was essential, and they must feel they were first-string players on a strengthened team, if the Department were to be transformed successfully. In the context of the review of DPI, the most fundamental and searching questions were asked, including why it was important for the United Nations to have a DPI.
The basic justification for establishing an information structure within
the Secretariat could still be found in General Assembly resolution 13 (I) of 13 February 1946, he went on. To achieve its objectives, the United Nations relies on an understanding of its activities on the part of the public at large. It is in the support of the peoples of the world that the United Nations’ survival lies, and strong communications outreach was, therefore, critical for the Organization. Staff came to work at the United Nations because without their work the substantive purposes of the United Nations would not be fulfilled.
He said that peacekeeping would not succeed if people did not understand what the peacekeepers were trying to do and how they were doing it. The battle against poverty would not be won if people in the developed world were not aware of the great challenge of development and if people in developing countries could not appreciate the United Nations’ efforts to help resolve their problems. The activities of DPI were not, in other words, ends in themselves; they served as a means to help the United Nations fulfil its substantive goals. Tbe DPI was working to reach people in every region of the world, to garner their support for the work of the Organization. That was especially relevant in developing countries where vast segments of the population still were not part of the information and technology revolution.
The challenge was how to organize the Department to work most effectively on the broad front expected of it, he said. While there was no question that its specific objectives could be refocused, and its working methods enhanced, the Department was seeking the continuing strong support of the Committee for the important role of communications and public information in the life of the Organization. The Committee's renewed commitment to the need for enhanced communications in a new information age, and to developing a culture of communications within the Organization, was essential.
Working together, he said, it would be possible to give the United Nations the “voice” that the world must be able to hear. At the same time, that voice risked being muffled in a multitude of mandates, and "we seek your understanding in helping us focus our energies on the most crucial of them".
He called upon the Committee, at that first stage of the comprehensive review, to endorse broad directions of the Department’s reorientation, embodied, in particular, in its redefined aspirations. Those were captured in the following proposed mission statement: “The Department of Public Information’s mission is to manage and coordinate United Nations communications content -- generated by the activities of the Organization and its component parts -- and strategically to convey this content, especially through appropriate intermediaries, to achieve the greatest public impact.”
That statement was built around the concept that the content which the Department must communicate was generated by the substantive work of the Organization -- and not by the Department itself, he continued. The DPI, as the manager and coordinator of United Nations communications strategy, was responsible for connecting the work of the substantive departments with those best positioned as disseminators. As a result, it was not the responsibility of the Department to create the substantive content, or to reinvent the priorities of the Organization. Instead, the critical work of DPI is to disseminate throughout the world the core messages of the Organization.
In that effort, the Department’s communications outreach would include all the breaking news from the Organization, as well as focus on the long-term challenges faced by humankind and how the United Nations would address them in the framework of the Millennium Declaration, he said. In the context of that mission, DPI was expected to conceptualize and strategize, indeed to “market”, those priorities, using intermediaries, such as the media, to the greatest possible effect. All efforts would be judged against that template. And through the United Nations Communications Group, it would strengthen its partnership with the information offices of the rest of the United Nations system to ensure that "we build on each other’s efforts and speak with one voice", he added.
He said that the proposed new mission statement had inspired the first phase of reform. Activities and processes in relation to that new paradigm were now being evaluated. As part of that analysis, a number of significant policy options for which the Committee’s guidance was required had been raised. Those issues were outlined in detail in the Secretary-General’s report, but he wished to highlight three of the most important: the audiences, or target groups; the work of the United Nations information centres (UNICs); and performance measurement of DPI programmes and activities.
First, the Department must better identify its target audiences, he said. The report sought the Committee’s guidance on the extent to which the Department should remain responsible for other activities that served other “clients”, including delegations. In an attempt to more effectively allocate resources and achieve greater effectiveness in programme delivery, some hard decisions and choices would have to be made. Some activities might need to be discontinued or drastically reduced. Alternatively, there might be a case to transfer certain activities elsewhere within the Secretariat. Within the Department itself, some consolidation of functions might be necessary.
He said that questions concerning some of the Department’s traditional activities had arisen. One special area of review concerned the United Nations information centres, whose operation accounted for 35 per cent of the Department’s budget. Their activities were now being performed in a changing environment, due to the immediate and almost universal availability of information via the electronic media. The United Nations Web site in the six official languages had contributed to addressing the needs for the Organization’s information materials in many countries.
It would, therefore, be necessary to analyse the cost and benefits of information centres as those related to the needs of their local audiences, he said. The creation of regional information centre hubs merited consideration. Also, the high costs of rental space for centres in developed countries needed to be addressed, as the Department sought to get the most value for the limited resources at its disposal.
Performance management must be a vital part of all DPI’s major activities and programmes, and he intended to place greater emphasis on evaluation of the impact of its activities. That was particularly important in view of the new culture within the Organization of results-based budgeting and programme evaluation. As an important step in that direction, DPI was the first department to organize a workshop on evaluation techniques for all its programme managers in January. He also proposed to carry out an annual programme impact review to justify which programmes should be maintained, expanded or eliminated.
The Committee on Information had a key role to play in the reform of DPI. After the current session, taking into account members’ views, he would be in a position to finalize the proposed plan for the reform of the Department and prepare recommendations for the consideration of the Secretary-General.
The Secretary-General would then take decisions on the next steps and, for those measures which were under his authority, implementation would begin immediately. For those measures requiring legislative approval, and as a second stage, proposals would be included in his report on the comprehensive review of the entire Secretariat to the next session of the General Assembly. The final results of the reform process would become a road map for the preparation of the proposed programme budget for 2004-2005, and a revision as required of the medium- term plan for 2002-2005, which was prepared back in 2000, at a time when we worked under very different assumptions.
The Department would be repositioned to work more strategically, as an effective vehicle to communicate the work of the United Nations. There would be greater clarity in its work, and more effective integration with other parts of the Secretariat. Repositioning of DPI would not come without some "transitional pain", and a certain amount of "relearning", but that was the best way to ensure that the United Nations has the most effective communications mechanisms in place, and to ensure that DPI became a leading voice in communicating the work of the United Nations to the world’s public. Even as this vision was being shaped, it was essential that everyone work together with the members of this Committee, to make that a reality.
The reformed, transformed DPI would be one which was a stronger, faster and more efficient operation than in the past, more in tune with the needs of the United Nations and its Member States. He was hopeful that the positive and creative results of this session would help give a new direction to the Department. And with the Committee's support, perhaps he could, once and for all, put an end to the incessant carping about DPI, and empower the Department to live up to the expectations that the Committee and the public at large had of its important information and communications work.
DOMINGO BLANCO (Venezuela), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the current political agenda had included issues related to information, technology and communications. It had become one of the recurring items for discussion in international forums. In Monterrey, at the International Conference on Financing for Development, for example, the need to take advantage of the benefits of technology had been seen once again. In addition to discussions, the United Nations had also begun to deal with the issue in an appropriate manner. He trusted that the current session could contribute to the World Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in late August.
There was an awareness, he said, that the “dizzying speed” of changes in the field of technology had left some countries out. The digital divide between the rich and poor was growing. That was one of the major challenges, to reduce differences and reverse the trends that threatened the broadening of that divide. He expressed appreciation to the Secretary-General for the reports before the Committee, particularly the one on reorientation. The dynamics characterizing contemporary international relations required the constant updating of the structures established to meet the needs of the day.
He also reiterated that it was crucial for developing countries that the United Nations made use of traditional means of communications. In that regard, he welcomed efforts to update and improve the radio and television components of the Department.
MOURAD BENMEHIDI (Algeria) said he fully supported the statement just made on behalf of the Group of 77 and China. The comprehensive review had made it possible to assess the growing importance being given to the area of communications within the United Nations system. That had required constant adaptation of strategies in order to meet the pressing needs of Member States and the broader public. Only the Committee was able to recommend a comprehensive review of the Department, and any study should go beyond the spirit of accounting and focus on efficiency, so as to better assess the mandates given it by the Organization.
He highlighted DPI’s remarkable use of new technologies, in particular, the use of the Internet. That had revealed the public’s thirst for knowledge, particularly on the part of people from developing countries. Another source of satisfaction had been the improvement of the Web site pages, particularly in Arabic, and the efforts made by the Secretariat to develop the principle of linguistic diversity. He emphasized that all existing documentation should be posted on the Web site in all six official languages.
While certain progress had been made with respect to improving the multilingual nature of publications, that effort must be strengthened. He also encouraged the centralization of the production of publications within DPI. Likewise, he sought enrichment of documentation and references in Arabic in the Library. Developing countries of the South still lagged far behind industrialized countries of the North. Particular attention should be given to training journalists from Africa, since the continent lagged decades behind in information, in general, and in journalism, in particular.
The UNICs were very important elements, he went on. Their role in communication was undeniable, particularly in developing countries, where access to technology remained modest. The DPI should further develop those structures and provide them with the necessary resources and competent staff. The centres could even play a leading role making available to local populations the means of modern technological communication, which were sorely lacking in many countries of the South. He also recommended improved coordination with the host countries.
WALID A. HAGGAG (Egypt) said that when looking at means to enhance the performance of DPI, care should be taken not to aim to restrict the activities of the Department, discontinue some of the programmes it was carrying out, or withhold the financing required for them. There must be an acceptance of the need to enhance the capabilities of DPI to implement those programmes that had proven their effectiveness.
On the information centres in industrialized countries, he said his delegation looked forward to the examination by Member States of the proposal put forward by the Secretary-General to consider the viability of maintaining those centres whose host governments did not provide rent-free premises.
He also reaffirmed the importance his country attached to DPI’s adherence to the full implementation of all the information activities endorsed by the General Assembly in the special programme for Palestine.
MOHAMMAD HASSAN FADAIFARD (Iran) saw DPI as the voice of the Organization to the world. Therefore, its main goal should remain providing timely information on the work and achievements of the United Nations in order to strengthen international support for its activities and promote international cooperation. Any review of DPI’s activities should aim at strengthening its role and activities and not gradually diminishing them. The Department should maintain and improve its activities in the areas of special interest to developing countries and continue to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries. He noted that some functions currently undertaken by the Department might not be consistent with its core mission. As such, the review was an opportunity to focus more on relevant mandated activities.
The UNICs and information components should continue to play a significant role in disseminating information about the work of the Organization to the peoples of the world, particularly in the areas of economic and social development. Their role should be strengthened and they should continue to develop their own Web pages in local languages. In high-cost developed countries, whose public had greater access to a wide range of sources of information, there was no need to maintain UNICs, he said. The UNICs could play a more active role in the commemoration of various international days, weeks, years and decades proclaimed by the General Assembly.
As the Secretary-General had stated, reform was a process and not an event, he said. Review and reform in one section of the Organization should be consistent with the reform of the United Nations as a whole and should be treated with the same standards. In the process of the comprehensive review, he expected DPI to arrange more consultations with Member States, particularly developing countries.
A. GOPINATHAN (India) said DPI could play an important role in the global fight against terrorism by spreading and creating awareness of that scourge, which posed a real and dangerous threat to humanity.
The DPI should focus more on publicizing United Nations activities and achievements in the area of social and economic development, he said. Sustainable development issues, poverty eradication, women’s rights and empowerment, children’s issues, health, education and other socially relevant issues should get priority attention.
While enhancing non-traditional means, DPI should continue to reach out by utilizing traditional media -- print, radio and television -- especially through local languages, he said. The idea of reaching out to targeted audiences, such as non-governmental organizations, research institutions, libraries and academic communities, was an attractive one, as this would help improve access to information by all.
Noting the effort to streamline the management of DPI, he said that performance management must be a vital part of all of the major DPI activities and programmes. In order for this effort to become a reality, however, he said Member States must give DPI the required resources to carry out that task.
AGUSTIN GALÁN (Spain), speaking on behalf of the European Union, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus, Malta and Turkey, noted with interest the information activities of DPI in Afghanistan, East Timor and Sierra Leone. He would be seeking clarification on the coordination and common strategy between the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and DPI to strengthen the capacity of information components in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
He expressed full support for the ongoing reform process of DPI and welcomed the report on reorientation, which built on ideas that had been put forward over the past years, regarding performance, effectiveness and efficiency. Briefly summarizing the preliminary ideas the Union wished to make regarding the reorientation process, he said that a culture of public information and communications should permeate all levels and all departments of the Organization. The Department should use the Millennium Declaration as a guide to orient its work toward major issues. In addition, it should work primarily through intermediaries, move towards a new
“evaluation culture” and a culture of increased performance management, and rely on reaching the public through existing external media to a greater degree than at present.
Emphasizing the importance of multilingualism in the United Nations public relations and information activities, he said that all possible efforts should be made to preserve the plurality represented by the adequate use of the six official languages and, to the extent possible, in other available languages, in its external relations and public outputs. Also, he highlighted the close cooperation between the European Union and DPI in the audio-visual sector with the regular weekly broadcast of all United Nations TV programming through Europe by satellite. That helped ensure that Europeans were better informed about the Organization’s role and activities.
United Nations radio and television, he said, should take full advantage of the technological infrastructure made available in recent years, such as satellite platforms, information and communications technology and the Internet. He felt it would be useful to request the Secretary-General to study the feasibility of establishing a United Nations global satellite TV network.
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