THREE-YEAR EVALUATION OF UN INFORMATION ACTIVITIES AMONG ISSUES AS INFORMATION COMMITTEE MEETS AT HEADQUARTERS, 24 APRIL-5 MAY

21 April 2006
PI/1708

THREE-YEAR EVALUATION OF UN INFORMATION ACTIVITIES AMONG ISSUES AS INFORMATION COMMITTEE MEETS AT HEADQUARTERS, 24 APRIL-5 MAY

21 April 2006
General Assembly
PI/1708
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Background Release

Three-year evaluation of un information activities among issues

As information committee meets at headquarters, 24 April-5 may

The twenty-eighth session of the Committee on Information, the intergovernmental body tasked with reviewing progress in the field of United Nations public information, will open its annual session on Monday, 24 April.

Among the issues the Committee will consider are the key findings and final outcome of a three-year review of the activities of the Department of Public Information.  Commenting on the findings of the review, the Secretary-General, in his report on the issue, states that the systematic evaluation has enabled the Department to ensure that a “culture of evaluation” permeates the full range of its work.  It is clear that the Department must consistently evaluate its activities on an ongoing basis to cope with -- and adapt to -- the challenges of a rapidly changing international context.

Assessing the impact of the effectiveness of United Nations communications activities is not an option, but rather the foundation for remaining responsive to the needs of worldwide audiences, the Secretary-General says.  Indeed, without effective evaluation, there can be no effective communication.  As the communications arm of the Organization, the Department has sought to fulfil its worldwide objectives with sorely limited resources and against a backdrop of a sometimes unfavourable environment.

In his report on the Department’s activities, the Secretary-General says the changes introduced by the Department over the past four years of his reform initiatives have fundamentally changed the way the Department defines its mission and carries out its activities.  With the United Nations at the centre of intense media attention and debate, and with the 2005 World Summit fostering media debate on the Organization’s very future, the Department’s principle task is to tell the United Nations story.

To tell that story in a compelling manner and to the widest audience possible, the Department has repositioned itself by identifying three strategic goals, including well-defined and targeted delivery of information activities.  As a result, the Department is now better placed than ever before to be the Organization’s voice, the Secretary-General says.

After adoption of the 2005 World Summit Outcome, the United Nations stands on the cusp of a new era, with new mandates and new perils, the Secretary-General says.  The Department stands ready to meet the challenges of that new era and ensure that the Organization’s work -- new and old, unfinished and just beginning -- is properly understood.

Established in 1978, the Committee makes recommendations on the Department’s policies and activities.  When it begins its two-week session, the Committee will have before it several other reports concerning the continued rationalization of the network of United Nations information centres; an update on new strategic directions in the modernization and integrated management of the United Nations libraries; and recent developments and progress towards parity among the official languages on the United Nations website.

Report Summaries

The Secretary-General’s report on the continued rationalization of the network of United Nations information centres (document A/AC.198/2006/1) notes that the rationalization of the network of the United Nations information centres has now entered a new phase.  Recognizing current budgetary and political factors, the Department has adopted a new strategic approach that combines the realignment of resources, an expansion in the use of information and communication technology and the building of new partnerships.

It further states that the ongoing rationalization process of the network of United Nations information centres is contingent upon the availability of both staff and financial resources allocated to the Department.  The Department’s strategic communications objectives have also influenced the process.  The renewed emphasis on communications activities at the field level as an integral part of the Department’s overall communications planning has guided the development of the new operational model.

The Department, working within existing budgetary constraints, has sought to strengthen its information presence in major media hubs, while giving the centres in those locations a greater coordinating role at the regional level, the report says.  Following the closure of the Western Europe information centre, the Department has been able to reallocate three Director-level posts to centres located in Cairo, Mexico City and Pretoria.  The Department has also made tangible progress towards securing either rent-free or subsidized premises for a number of information centres.  At present, 44 centres operate from rent-free premises provided by local authorities or host Governments.

The enhanced use of information and communication technology is essential to strengthening the impact of the United Nations information centres, the report adds.  Due to budgetary constraints, the Department, since 2001, has not been able to regularly replace computers and other information and communication technology equipment in its field offices, except in emergencies.  As a result, the equipment in many centres is out of date or even obsolete.  The development of websites in local languages remains a priority for the Department as a means of reaching local constituencies with up-to-date information.

In continuing with the rationalization of the information centres, the Department will expedite the placement of staff in several key positions, the report says.  The newly appointed Director in Cairo is providing strategic communications support to the centres in the Middle East and North Africa.  The Directors in Mexico City and Pretoria will assume the leading role in developing their respective regional models of work.  While uniquely qualified to take a leadership role within the country team on communications matters, some information staff have not been able to assume that function given their low grade level within the Organization.  With their intimate knowledge of the local environment, national information officers are the pillars of the Department’s communications objectives at the country level.

Continuing, the report notes that the Regional United Nations Information Centre for Western Europe (RUNIC) in Brussels was renamed the United Nations Regional Information Centre (UNRIC) in late 2005 to increase its visibility in the electronic media.  The Centre completed its first operational year in its permanent premises in July 2005.

At the end of that period, the Department undertook an initial evaluation of its experience, programmatic activities and operations with a view to identifying lessons learned that could be used to strengthen its performance and, where necessary, improve its services.  That evaluation, conducted with the expert assistance of a communications consultant with extensive knowledge about the operation of information centres in Europe and the region’s media environment, identified the Centre’s strengths and weaknesses as a regional hub, and suggested ways to further strengthen it.  The Department and the Centre’s new management have already put the major recommendations into effect.

The thrust of the concept to establish a regional hub for Western Europe was to rationalize and streamline information activities, while at the same time allowing for synergies in the hub and ensuring better coordinated messages, the report states.  The Centre was also to serve as the principal point of access in the region to United Nations material and to articulate its programmes in the countries served around a common list of United Nations priorities.

The Centre had not, however, in 2005, fully adjusted to this new regional approach, the report continues, adding that it was still grappling with the challenges of a dramatic change in the established patterns of doing business and of serving the media and civil society in a large and distant geographical area from a centralized location.  Though new methods of functioning had been envisaged, the physical distance from target audiences had led, in some cases, to a decline in contacts and activities.  As a result, the Centre has yet to achieve the visibility and standing that had been hoped for in the countries it serves.  A regional communications strategy outlining the longer-term communications objectives in the region is being elaborated, taking into consideration the existing opportunities and limitations of UNRIC for Western Europe.

The report states that the Department’s decision to recalibrate its rationalization plan was largely influenced by emerging political, financial realities and new strategic considerations.  Advances in information and communication technology now offer new opportunities for providing quick, effective and meaningful service to a very large audience.  To take advantage of those opportunities, the Department has made a deliberate decision to invest more in information and communication technology.  It has also expanded its operational base by building its information presence in key locations by reallocating resources and strengthening professional staffing.

The United Nations stories are global, but every global story has resonance in a local context, the report concludes.  If the Department of Public Information is the Organization’s public voice, the United Nations information centres are the instruments that give that voice a local accent.  While the centres have always been an integral part of the Department’s global communications strategies, they are now taking a leading role in coordinating the communications efforts of the entire United Nations country team.  With greater horizontal coordination among the centres, United Nations public information will be greatly enhanced, costly duplications reduced and the voice of the United Nations better heard.

The Committee will also have before it the Secretary-General’s report on modernization and integrated management of the United Nations libraries:  update on new strategic directions (document A/AC.198/2006/2).  Significant progress has been made by the United Nations libraries during 2005 in implementing new activities to better support the Organization’s core work and in streamlining traditional library processes.  United Nations libraries have worked together, through the Steering Committee for the Modernization and Integrated Management of the United Nations Libraries, to adopt common standards and find new directions.

The report states that the Dag Hammarskjöld Library has led this process by focusing, among other things, on spearheading innovative services designed to give better support to staff and missions on information management and using technological tools.  Library staff are becoming networking facilitators, creating learning opportunities for the exchange of new ideas and bringing information to those who need it in their workplaces beyond the walls of the library.  To reflect these changes and new focus, the Secretary-General proposes that the official name of the Dag Hammarskjöld Library be expanded to the “Dag Hammarskjöld Library and Knowledge Sharing Centre”.

A main challenge, the report adds, will be for the Dag Hammarskjöld Library and other United Nations libraries to more effectively support the information needs of a diverse clientele in a continually changing information environment.  By streamlining some of the traditional library processes and continuing to retain selective paper-based collections, United Nations libraries will respond to this challenge with a reorientation towards three main concentrations, including information and content management, training and coaching and internal communications.

United Nations libraries are becoming key players in the field of knowledge sharing and are now in a position to play a more significant role in the reform process, the report says.  The combined experience, understanding and institutional memory embodied in the United Nations libraries have the potential to contribute significantly to this effort.  United Nations libraries have continued to fulfil their original mandates while adapting innovative approaches, tools and skills for the twenty-first century.  Paper collections will be maintained, while new methods of custodianship and preservation will allow library staff to devote more time to promoting their relevance and value.

The Secretary-General’s report on the United Nations website:  recent developments and progress towards parity among the official languages (document A/AC.198/2006/3), the seventh in a series of reports addressing the multilingual development of the United Nations website, provides an update on progress towards achieving parity among the official languages.  Since June 1995, when the United Nations website was established on the occasion of the United Nations fiftieth anniversary, parity between the six official languages on the site has been one of the Committee’s major concerns.

The challenge facing the Secretariat in moving towards the goal of language parity on the website has many aspects, the report states.  Fundamental is the reality that every day more material is being placed on the site by author departments in the working languages -- English and French -- but overwhelmingly in the former.  This constant building of the website is carried out within a decentralized governance structure.  The need for continuous renewal of the website means the challenge of achieving parity is made more complex every day.

The report explains that there are several important conceptual issues relating to parity among official languages on the website.  Simply increasing the number of pages in official languages is not a real solution, as there is a need to ensure technical resources to support them.  Every new piece of information going up on the website requires a further commitment to monitoring and updating or the purpose of the website is seriously undermined, especially in today’s world of multiple electronic sources of immediate news and information.  While the fact that continuous new material presents a major challenge in enhancing the multilingual nature of the website, technical changes are nevertheless producing progress towards this goal in a number of ways.

Regarding current website usage, the report notes that visitors from more than 199 countries and territories access the website, viewing more than 1 million pages daily.  Total “hits” have grown from over 2.16 billion in 2003 to 2.7 billion in 2007.  The United Nations website currently receives an average of over 7.5 million accesses daily.

Looking forward, the Department plans to modernize the architecture of the website to provide faster access to the features users actually seek, the report states.  Improving navigation and usability of a website is critical to a successful site.  For this to be achieved, the website development process must include detailed site traffic analysis.  One of the constraints in moving towards language parity is the level of technical expertise available in author departments and offices.  The Department is collaborating with the Information Technology Services Division in the search for an enterprise content management system that will be capable of handling the website’s language, presentation, multimedia and accessibility requirements.  While awaiting the implementation of an enterprise content management system, the Department will continue to redesign portions of the website in 2006.

The Department of Public Information is striving to accelerate the pace of moving towards parity among the official languages on the website, the report states.  The establishment of new P-4 posts goes a long way towards providing much of the resources needed to meet the challenge of parity among official languages.  With the establishment of separate language units, the Department will be able to increase the volume of new material going onto the site and the required maintenance and updating.  It will also have more capacity to work with content-providing offices to accelerate their posting of material in all official languages, backed by a stronger governance mechanism.

Parity, however, should not be achieved at the cost of quality, the report stresses.  The site’s continual development is vital to ensuring user satisfaction and to widening access.  To this end, the technological infrastructure is being overhauled, a new content management is being sought, and the site is being revamped to provide better navigation and improved access for persons with disabilities.  The Department is focusing on key areas, not only with new pages with textual information, but also including webcasting, audio, video and photographic materials -- all enhancing the website’s multilingual nature and continually broadening its outreach to a wider range of audiences in all regions of the world.

Also before the Committee is the Secretary-General’s report on assessing the effectiveness of United Nations public information products and activities:  the results of a three-year evaluation project (document A/AC.198/206/4), which summarizes the key findings and final outcome of the systematic evaluation of the Department’s activities.  The comprehensive three-year review of its major product service lines, conducted in collaboration with the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), has enabled the Department to ensure that a culture of evaluation permeates the full range of its work.

The Department is now in a better position to measure the effectiveness of its work and, on that basis, to strategically communicate the Organization’s activities and concerns with the aim of achieving the greatest public impact.  To that end, the Department will continue to strive to increase worldwide access to United Nations public information products and services and meet the needs of its target audiences by improving the relevance, usefulness and quality of its work.  It will also promote an enhanced understanding of the Organization’s work.

One of the Department’s central goals is to reach target audiences worldwide with the Organization’s messages through key intermediaries such as the media, non-governmental organizations and educational institutions, the report says.  This entails ensuring the creation and widest possible and timely distribution of news and information products on the priorities and activities of the United Nations.  The Department, therefore, consistently aims to increase access of the global public to its products and activities.  Over the past three years, the growth and reach of the Department’s key products have included a 50 per cent increase in subscribers to the United Nations News Centre e-mail service and in the readership of the UN Chronicle print and online magazine.

The public perception of the United Nations, like the image of any public institution, is the sum total of views held in the public mind, the report says.  In the past two years, the picture in many people’s minds of the United Nations has acquired a negative cast, reflecting the way in which the Organization has been portrayed in the international media.  Public opinion polling results and media studies have shown the correlation between an awareness of negative news on the United Nations and poor ratings of the Organization, whereas slightly more favourable opinions correspond with lower levels of negative press coverage.

The report notes that a number of polls conducted in the past two years show that support for the Organization, and understanding about its global role, have faltered around the world, particularly in countries in which negative media coverage has been prominent.  Polls also show, however, that most people around the world want a United Nations that is stronger and more capable of living up to their expectations.  Furthermore, global polling data confirm the public’s belief that the Organization is central to solving world conflicts.

While the image of the United Nations has been badly bruised, largely owing to scandal-driven media coverage, the Organization is still regarded as an important public institution, the report says.  As the communications arms of the Organization, the Department seeks to focus the media on issues of concern to the United Nations.  Though the Department has no illusions about its capacity to counteract much of the negative coverage of the Organization, it has reinforced its media outreach capacity to better tell the United Nations story, to respond to criticism and to promote awareness of the Organization’s achievement in other areas.  As a result, the Organization has been able, to some extent, to offset unfavourable media reports.

It is clear, the report says, that the Department must consistently evaluate its programme and activities on an ongoing basis to cope with -- and adapt to -- the challenges of a rapidly changing international context.  The Department’s senior managers now understand that assessing the impact of the effectiveness of the United Nations communications activities is not an option, but rather the foundation for remaining responsive to the needs of worldwide audiences.  Without effective evaluation, there cannot be effective communication.

Summarizing key advances in the Department’s work from July 2005 to February 2006, the Secretary-General’s report on activities of the Department of Public Information (document A/AC.198/2006/5) notes that changes introduced by the Department over the past four years of the Secretary-General’s reform initiatives have fundamentally changed the way the Department defines its mission and carries out its activities.  The Department’s work is now driven by three strategic choices:  achieving greater effectiveness in its communications work through targeted delivery; making enhanced use of the new information and communications technologies in all areas of its work; and building an expanded grass-roots support base through partnerships with civil society organizations.

During 2005, the United Nations has again been at the centre of intense media attention and debate, the report states.  Such controversial issues as the “oil-for-food” programme and allegations of mismanagement in other areas have continued to reverberate in the press.  At the same time, the Organization has been seen as central to the international response to several natural disasters around the world, in particular the South-East Asian tsunami and the earthquake in South Asia; to the feared avian flu pandemic; and to such issues of current importance as the inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme.

The 2005 World Summit has fostered lively debate in the media around the world about the Organization’s role, relevance and future, the report says.  Promoting the Summit, with its complex and often controversial agenda, was both a challenge and an opportunity for the Department.  Building on the successful communications campaign in the lead-up to the Summit, the Department launched a coordinated effort to bring the Summit Outcome to the media’s attention in the quickest and most effective manner.  Media interest at the time of the Summit was very high, with over 3,000 journalists accredited by the Department for daily coverage.  After the Summit, the Department immediately shifted its attention to keeping the world informed about the implementation of the Summit Outcome.

Among the Department’s thematic communications campaigns outlined in the report is “Ten Stories the World Should Hear More About”, the report notes.  The outreach initiative, now in its second year, has demonstrated the potential to draw media attention to important international issues that often remain underreported.  The Department also found new opportunities to promote the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), Africa’s blueprint for development.  Stories on the goals, challenges and achievements of NEPAD appeared regularly in the Department’s quarterly magazine, Africa Renewal, which reaches a combined audience of some 33,000, including website viewers.

The report further states that, in its efforts to improve the quality of information available to over 1,500 non-governmental organizations associated with the Department, the Department has introduced several additional components to its existing information programmes, weekly non-governmental organization briefings, communications workshops and annual DPI/NGO conference.  Connecting with students and teachers remains a cornerstone of the Department’s outreach efforts.  By using a variety of tools, including electronic communications via the Internet, the Department increasingly finds itself well inside the classroom.  Through its Global Teaching and Learning project and accompanying CyberSchoolBus website, the Department has developed new and innovative approaches to learning about the United Nations.

The Department has continued to improve and expand its delivery of news products and services targeted to the media in all parts of the world, the report says.  Client surveys carried out in the past year show a high degree of satisfaction with the Department’s video, photo, print and web-based products, while at the same time indicating ways in which these services could be further enhanced, many of which the Department has addressed.

Improved and expanded web-based delivery of services to the media and to other target audiences remains a priority for the Department, the report notes.  A redesigned press release website, launched in early 2006, provides direct and quick access to coverage of intergovernmental meetings and other United Nations activities from the United Nations home page.  The page increases the search capability of these resources and includes links to the media pages of United Nations offices at Headquarters and overseas.

The United Nations News Centre on the United Nations website has also continued to demonstrate its growing usefulness to media and other audiences, the report adds.  The number of unique visits to the English site, for example, rose from some 355,000 in June and August 2004 to some 539,000 in the same period of 2005.  Subscriptions to the daily e-mail news service rose by over 30 per cent over the course of 2005.  In a survey, 72 per cent of subscribers gave the United Nations News Service the top two ratings for overall satisfaction.  Webcasting of United Nations meetings and events has also seen a sharp rise in use, by over 50 per cent in 2005, further broadening the Department’s outreach in real time.

The report notes that, with both Web and digital technology transforming the delivery of news and information products, the adaptation and integration of new technology is at the core of the Department’s news operations, in both production and modes of delivery.  The UNIFEED, a satellite delivery of news videos, is just one example of the process of response to changing demands.  Similarly, the growth in webcasting has shown the widening geographic range of the audience for the delivery of news in real time.  The Department is also enhancing other web- and e-mail-based delivery systems for its text, audio and photo products and services.  Internal production systems have also benefited from the introduction of new technology.

The fear that the introduction of new information and communication technologies would diminish the importance of traditional means of communication, such as radio, has proven to be unfounded, the report explains.  Instead, the integration of new technologies has broadened the scope of United Nations Radio broadcast and expanded its outreach.  The Department’s radio and video programmes now reach an estimated total weekly audience of 599 million.  For radio alone, audience reach was close to 300 million a week for the programmes produced in the six official languages and Portuguese, not counting listeners reached through satellite feeds.  This is more than double the reach estimated in 2003 when a similar survey was conducted.  The survey showed that the number of partner stations rose by over 20 per cent.

Regarding the Department’s role in peacekeeping, the report notes that the Department, in cooperation with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, completed two major guidance projects for the public information components of peacekeeping missions during the period under review.  The first provides field operations with complete standard operating procedures for every aspect of implementing public information work in the field, while the second provides instructions to peacekeeping missions on how to communicate on related conduct and criminal allegations and issues.

The United Nations Communications Group, now in its fifth year, has emerged as a strong unifying platform for dealing with common communications challenges facing the United Nations, the report says.  The Group includes 39 communications offices drawn from the entire United Nations system, up from 29 in 2002, when the Group formally replaced the Joint United Nations Information Committee.  The Group uses a variety of ways to achieve greater system-wide coordination, including regular brainstorming meetings at Headquarters, issue-based task forces and special projects.

Member States and the Secretariat have given much thought in 2005 to better equipping the United Nations to face the challenges of the twenty-first century, the report says.  Indeed, after the adoption of the Summit Outcome, the United Nations stands on the cusp of a new era.  New mandates have been established and new priorities have been set.  The Organization is undergoing a “time for renewal” -– the Department’s slogan for the United Nations sixtieth anniversary.  During 2005, the Department has aimed to be innovative, creative, accountable and results-oriented.  It has sought to fulfil its worldwide objectives with sorely limited resources and against the backdrop of a sometimes unfavourable environment.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.