Considering Reports on Pattern of Conferences, Budget Committee Voices Concern over Delays in Issuing Documents, Shrinking Use of Conference Facilities

6 November 2013
GA/AB/4085

Considering Reports on Pattern of Conferences, Budget Committee Voices Concern over Delays in Issuing Documents, Shrinking Use of Conference Facilities

6 November 2013
General Assembly
GA/AB/4085
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-eighth General Assembly

Fifth Committee

15th Meeting (AM)

Considering Reports on Pattern of Conferences, Budget Committee Voices Concern

Over Delays in Issuing Documents, Shrinking Use of Conference Facilities

As the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) took up the pattern of conferences today, delegates stressed the need for improvements to the system of preparing documents, calling for more timely availability of documentation in all six official United Nations languages and for higher quality translation.

Member States also discussed efforts to improve utilization rates of conference facilities, arrangements to attract more translators, the linking of the conference capabilities of the United Nations offices with Headquarters, as well as progress in digitization of documents and the trial of the PaperSmart system.

Fiji’s representative, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, was one of several who were vocal on the issue of timely availability of documents, noting that 55 of the 77 documents issued during the sixty-seventh session reached missions less than the mandated six weeks before they were due for consideration.  In the present session, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions’ first report on the proposed programme budget for the 2014-2015 biennium was issued less than two weeks before the Fifth Committee was due to consider it.

“The ‘Group of 77’ and China cannot accept this kind of delay and will look for a thorough explanation during the informal consultations and the measures the Secretary-General would take to avoid this constant situation,” he said.  It would not accept that there was not enough staff to translate and prepare the documents on time.

As well as urging prioritization and acceleration of the digitization of 3.7 million United Nations documents, which was predicted to take 20 years and cost $9 million, he also expressed concerns over the impact of shrinking conference utilization rates system-wide.  Ethiopia’s representative focused on the situation at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), pointing to a 14 per cent decline in use of ECA’s conference facilities since 2009, from 76 per cent to 62 per cent.  He noted the personal efforts of ECA’s Executive Secretary to boost utilization and called for more and innovative efforts to tackle chronic underutilization.

Cuba’s representative, who spoke on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, addressed the quality of translations, welcoming strengthening of training of language professionals, but also noting a seeming lack of serious quality control over work done.  He concurred with ACABQ that savings and efficiencies arising from increased use of external contractors should not come at the expense of quality and timeliness, and, with a push for more use of contractors, he would seek detailed clarifications on quality controls.

Enhanced multilingualism was also a priority for Argentina’s representative, as a member of the Group of Friends of Spanish at the United Nations.  He went on to take up the issue of PaperSmart, which improved transparency and efficiency and was environmentally friendly.  More analysis was needed, however, with particular account to be taken of the technological gaps that existed between countries.  Certain contexts also demanded hard copies of documents, notably the United Nations depository library, which was vital to disseminating information to countries that did not have the capacity to maintain electronic versions.

The Chair of the Committee on Conferences, Chamithri Rambukwella, presented the Committee with that body’s report, which covered its work in 2013 and was adopted after conclusion of its substantive session held between 3 and 9 September 2013, while reports on the pattern of conferences and on the PaperSmart concept were introduced by Tegenework Gettu, Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management.  Jean Christian Obame, Vice-Chair of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), introduced the Advisory Committee’s reports on the pattern of conferences and the PaperSmart concept.

Also making statement’s during today’s debate were the representatives of Peru, Japan, Congo, Russian Federation, United States, Philippines and France.

The Fifth Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 8 November, to continue its consideration of the proposed programme budget for the 2014-2015 biennium, focusing on the administrative expenses of the United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund.

Background

The Fifth Committee had before it several reports as it considered its agenda item on the pattern of conferences.  This included the Report of the Committee on Conferences for 2013 (document A/68/32), the Secretary-General’s report on the Pattern of Conferences, (document A/68/122), his report on The PaperSmart concept (document A/68/123), and the report of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) on the Pattern of conferences (document A/68/567).

Introduction of Reports

CHAMITHRI RAMBUKWELLA, Chair of the Committee on Conferences, introduced that body’s report (document A/68/32), which covers its work in 2013 and was adopted under a silence procedure after the Conference Committee’s recently concluded substantive session from 3 to 9 September 2013.  The report provided a comprehensive overview of its discussions on all items in its annotated agenda (A/AC.172/2013/1.)  She noted that in 2013 two members from the Latin American and Caribbean States were to be appointed to the Conference Committee.

The report identified the United Nations conference resources that had been consistently underused over the past decade and the Conference Committee’s secretariat made suggestions to the secretariat of each of the United Nations bodies on ways to boost their use of the resources, she said.  Some delegations had urged practical measures to reduce conference servicing, such as planning fewer meetings and shortening their duration.  The Conference Committee also was concerned by the repeated underuse of the conference centre of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and it asked the Secretary-General to explore more ways to boost its use, including with partners such as the African Union.

Regarding the impact of the Capital Master Plan detailed in Chapter III B, the Conference Committee was concerned that several problems in the newly renovated conference rooms still existed, she said.  The issue would be referred to the Fifth Committee.  Chapter V dealt with documentation and publication issues and the late issuance of documents for the Fifth Committee remained a concern for several delegates.  There was a consensus that the PaperSmart concept should be further developed with existing resources.  This issue was also referred to the Fifth Committee as delegates differed over whether the concept should be endorsed or contained on a trial basis.

Chapter VI dealt with translation and interpretation-related issues and the Conference Committee could not agree on one delegation’s proposal for a Secretariat report outlining the criteria used to determine which documents would be translated by staff members and which by external contractors, she said.  This issue was also referred to the Fifth Committee.

TEGENEWORK GETTU, Under-Secretary-General for General Assembly and Conference Management, introduced reports on the pattern of conferences and on the PaperSmart concept.  He said the draft resolution adopted by the Committee on Conferences had provided important guidance for the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management, notably supporting integrated global management, and he hoped the Fifth Committee would adopt the draft.

The pattern of conferences report referred to the need to delineate lines of responsibility between the Under-Secretary-General of the Department and the Directors General at United Nations offices for conference management policies, operations and resource use, he said.  The report proposed managing common financial and human resources globally on a unified technological platform, common performance indicators and standard operating procedures.  Document processing had advanced, with technology supporting changing work processes.  The report also discussed the global conference management system.  It addressed harmonization of work processes in translation and he appreciated the support and guidance he received to help expand efforts to improve competitiveness in the market for qualified language professionals.

The report on the PaperSmart concept traced its roots, and reviewed progress of the concept and in implementing and evaluating it, he said.  The results of the trial phase were to be analysed to improve the tool.  He stressed that PaperSmart would not prevent access to hard copies; rather it would mark “a shift from printing by default to printing on demand.”  The concept would be developed further and more work would be done to make the portal fully multilingual.

Efforts to enhance and standardize quality assurance of contractual efforts were underway, with implementation of “gText” important to boosting the quality of external translation, he said.  He was also considering new approaches to identifying, attracting, coaching and training younger language professionals.  A mentoring scheme had been introduced whereby students were paired with in-house revisers who volunteered to review the students’ work, thus providing in-house training to qualified external candidates.  Efforts to expand the pool of professionals qualified to provide contractual translation would foster the economical use of resources.

He noted concerns about the lateness of Fifth Committee documentation and pointed to the Department’s alleviation efforts.  More documents were submitted on time by author departments during the 68th session.  While there was room for improvement in author departments, planning documentation was also a problem for the Department.  Reasons included the unavailability in advance of the programmes of work of the Fifth Committee and the Advisory Committee and their lack of synchronization.  Fifth Committee documents were prioritized but some documents had still not met the six-week issuance benchmark.  Taking full responsibility, he apologized, explaining the reasons for some failures, which included the length of Board of Auditors reports and the fact that International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) was a new idea to many processing staff.  Nonetheless, the Department was looking to improve.

He said the Advisory Committee had requested identification and analysis of systemic bottlenecks that were delaying issuance of reports and implementation of practical solutions to prevent further delays.  The Department had requested a change to the historical pattern of documentation processing, which allowed only four weeks for editing, translation and related tasks, while Member States had six weeks for review of issued documents.  The pattern assumed that documents needed to be physically shipped to national capitals, which was nowhere near as necessary in the modern age of electronic communications.  With two additional processing weeks, editing efficiencies could be implemented.  He also pointed to the volume of documentation coming from the Human Rights Council and human rights treaty bodies as another major challenge.

JEAN CHRISTIAN OBAME, Vice-Chair, Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), introduced the Advisory Committee’s reports on the Pattern of Conferences (A/62/122) and the PaperSmart concept (A/68/123).  The Advisory Committee regretted that, despite a marketing strategy and local and international appeals, the use of the ECA conference centre had decreased by 14 per cent over the past five years, down 76 per cent in 2009 and 62 per cent in 2012.  The Advisory Committee was concerned about the centre’s future viability and asked the Secretariat to present alternative options if the trend was not noticeably reversed during the 2014-2015 biennium.  Regarding document management, the Advisory Committee welcomed efforts to improve the timeliness of document submission in Nairobi but regretted that the timeliness of document submission among duty stations was still below the targeted compliance rate.  It believed concrete ways to reverse the low compliance rate should be presented to the Assembly.  Turning to the PaperSmart concept, the Advisory Committee recognized the concept’s potential to create greater transparency, efficiency and reliability in the flow of information.  But it stressed the importance of making paper documents available as needed and recommended the Secretary-General be asked to include an update on the concept’s implementation in the next Pattern of Conference report.

Statements

PETER THOMSON ( Fiji), speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” and China, said the Group placed great importance on the effective delivery of quality conference services that equally treated the six official languages, particularly in their support of intergovernmental and expert bodies.  Regarding the conference use rate for meetings at all four duty stations, the Group was concerned that the overall use factor in New York kept decreasing and was 79 per cent in 2012, compared to 82 per cent in 2011 and 81 per cent in 2010.  It waited for Secretariat efforts to improve this situation.  The Group also was concerned about the drop in the use of the conference centre at ECA, from 70 per cent in 2011 to 62 per cent in 2012.  The Group welcomed efforts by the Commission and the Department to reverse this trend and was convinced innovative strategies and improvement of the facilities could do so.

Regarding the digitization of important older United Nations documents, the Group believed it was very important to keep these documents as a source of data and historic decisions, he said.  The Secretariat informed the Group there were still 3.7 million documents that needed to be digitized, a 20-year process with a $9 million price tag.  The Group urged the Secretariat to make the digitization process a priority and find ways to accelerate it.  It agreed with the Advisory Committee that a delay could jeopardize the retention of historical knowledge and information.  The timely issuance of documents to the Fifth Committee was very important and during deliberations for the sixty-seventh session, 22 documents were issued, as mandated, six weeks before their consideration.  Eleven documents were issued four weeks in advance and 18 documents at least two weeks beforehand.  But 26 documents were issued less than two weeks before the respective meeting. 

In this session, the Advisory Committee’s first report on the proposed programme budget for the 2014-2015 biennium was issued less than two weeks before its consideration by the Fifth Committee, he said.  “The ‘Group of 77’ and China cannot accept this kind of delays and will look for a thorough explanation during the informal consultations and the measures the Secretary-General would take to avoid this constant situation,” he said.  It would not accept that there was not enough staff to translate and prepare the documents on time.

The Group would continue to determine how the PaperSmart concept affected human resources, finances, the smoothness of inter-governmental bodies’ proceedings, cost transfers to Member States, and closing the technological gap between developed and developing countries, he said.  Stressing the importance of quality translation and interpretation, the Group stressed the importance of pinpointing the criteria used to determine whether a document should be translated by in-house staff, short-term staff or contractors and the measures used to review the quality of work carried out by contractors.  The Group also emphasized that meetings, conferences, special events and exhibits held on United Nations premises had to be consistent with the Organization’s purposes and principles.

JORGE CUMBERBATCH MIGUEN (Cuba), speaking on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, said the quality of Member States’ deliberations relied on the timely issuance of documents.  Consultations among Member States and with their respective nations’ capitals were vital and he reiterated his concerns over continued and constant delays in issuing documents.  The Advisory Committee’s first Report on the proposed programme budget for the biennium 2014-2015 was an example, even though the report had been issued in August.  He also addressed the quality of translations, welcoming strengthening of training of language professionals, but also noting a seeming lack of serious quality control over work done.  He concurred with ACABQ that savings and efficiencies arising from increased use of external contractors should not come at the expense of quality and timeliness.  With a push for more use of contractors, he would seek detailed clarifications on quality controls.  He noted implementation of the trial phase of PaperSmart and welcomed the establishment of the Group of Friends of Spanish at the United Nations, which aimed to promote the use and spread of the Spanish language in the work of the United Nations.

GUSTAVO MEZA-CUADRA ( Peru) aligned himself with Group of 77 and China and with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.  Regarding the pattern of conferences, he said it was very important that the Department be given sufficient resources to carry out the mandates approved by Member States.  Cutting the budget for the next biennium by $100 million would make it very difficult for the Department and was placing obstacles in its way.  His delegation also was very concerned by the submission of late documents to the Fifth Committee and that some reports of the Advisory Committee were not translated into all official languages. The fact that the Security Council sanctions lists were only prepared in English also was a concern.  Regarding the contract translation system, Peru was concerned about the criteria used to outsource documents for translation and how the quality of these outsourced documents had been monitored.  He understood that, except for Council and Fifth Committee documents, other documents were sent out for translation depending on the work load.  Quality control was random.  The translation staff could not be reduced and maintain the quality of its work.

RAFAEL HÉCTOR DALO (Argentina), aligning with the Group of 77 and China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, supported optimization of conference services, including any proposal to improve translation services and ensure the timely publication of documents, especially those of the Fifth Committee, to allow delegations proper consultation with their respective nations’ capitals.  As a member of the Group of Friends of Spanish in the United Nations, he welcomed support for multilingualism, including a recent resolution on the subject.  The Group was concerned by the poor quality of translation on the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) website, saying it highlighted shortfalls in current quality control procedures over external translation.  Also of concern was the lack of translation of the consolidated lists of the Council’s sanctions committees, which hampered national level implementation.  He was disappointed that the Secretary-General’s recent report on the matter said translation of several consolidated lists, including that of the Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee, were still to be translated.

Turning to the issue of PaperSmart, he said he appreciated the initiative because it improved transparency and efficiency and was environmentally friendly.  Continual analysis of PaperSmart was needed, however, taking into account the technological gaps that existed between countries.  Certain contexts also demanded hard copies of documents, notably the United Nations depository library, which was vital to disseminating information to countries that did not have the capacity to maintain electronic versions.

HIROSHI ONUMA ( Japan) said conference services were essential to proper decision-making by Member States.  The Secretariat should provide those services as efficiently as possible, he said, while Member States should refrain from adding unnecessary conference resource requirements.  The Committee on Conferences had held fruitful discussions in September on several issues and he hoped to continue and deepen the discussion on PaperSmart that had taken place.  He welcomed the various initiatives introduced by the Secretariat to increase utilization rates but hoped for more concrete and practical measures to reduce the costs of conference services, like planning fewer meetings and shortening the durations of meetings.  He strongly supported efforts to realize further savings with regard to integrated global management and he was concerned, regarding translation and interpretation, that the Secretariat had made substantive changes to draft and adopted resolutions.

JEAN DIDIER CLOVIS NGOULOU ( Congo), aligning himself with the Group of 77 and China, said he was very concerned about the increase in the cancellation of meetings by intergovernmental bodies.  This practice would waste the resources of the Organization’s conference services.  He commended the Organization’s translation services.  He was concerned with the underuse of conference services at the ECA conference centre and urged the Secretariat to take measures to deal with the increasing competition from other sources.  On the issuance of documents, he noted that the rates in New York and Geneva in 2012 had improved, but the trends in Nairobi and Vienna were very low.  He was concerned with the late issuance of reports in the Organization’s six official languages during the budget session.  He noted that Congo, like many developing countries, did not have the adequate technology to use the PaperSmart concept.  He urged the Secretariat to increase its recruitment efforts in Africa for translation and interpretation staff.  He urged the Organization to forge partnerships with African universities to serve as hubs for staff recruitment.

AMAN HASSAN BAME ( Ethiopia) noted the personal efforts of the Executive Secretary of ECA to try to increase its utilization and encouraged further efforts in that regard.  He also noted the initial review of the pricing structure with a view to producing competitive conference packages that simplified the logistics for organizing venues and other needs of meeting planners.  He was, however, concerned over the continuing decline in ECA’s utilization, with a slip of 14 per cent, from 76 per cent in 2009 to 62 per cent in 2012.  He supported efforts to address that chronic underutilization, noting that the growth in availability of alternative conference facilities in Addis Ababa could be the reason.  But considering the relatively low price of the facility at ECA, it was important to explore innovative options for increasing its utilization.

ALEXANDER KALUGIN ( Russian Federation) supported further implementation of initiatives outlined by the Department and called for more resources and the introduction of a comprehensive global management system.  He welcomed work to enhance relationships with language institutions for training of staff and supported equal, favourable work conditions and equitable availability of personnel and financial resources for all languages, as provided for in the resolution on multilingualism.  During the Fifth Committee’s forthcoming session, he hoped to study the concept of PaperSmart and did not have any objections to expanding digital access to information for Member States.  Implementation needed to be balanced and sensitive to the fact that not all delegates had access to contemporary technical resources.  Hard copies needed to be available on request.

STEPHEN LIEBERMAN ( United States) called for the Assembly to endorse the overall concept of PaperSmart and acknowledged that necessary safeguards and accountability measures were needed.  PaperSmart enhanced transparency and accessibility and saved taxpayers money.  With the use of an electronic portal to access documents, Fifth Committee members could save time by sending colleagues in their delegations’ capital cities a link to the latest Fifth Committee report, rather than faxing or mailing the papers.  This business practice was widely used in the private sector for years, yet some people at the United Nations wanted to delay its progress.  PaperSmart also drastically reduced the amount of paper used by the United Nations each year, which saved money and helped protect the environment.  The output of the Department’s printing operations had been reduced to 40 million impressions in 2012, down from 300 million impressions in 2009.  The budget of the Meetings and Publishing Services in New York had decreased from $103.05 million in 2010-2011 to $97.65 million in the 2012-2013 biennium.

PaperSmart did not mean paperless and the programme ensured that paper copies of documents were always available, he said.  The United States strongly supported the continued availability of paper documents and guaranteeing that Member Sates had the same access to paper documents. The programme had been well managed and implemented yet it had been only implemented on a trial basis.  The United States was ready to engage in constructive discussions on delegations’ concerns and called on Member States to give the Secretary-General the authority to use existing resources to improve the project and move it forward.

NOEMI TAN DIAZ ( Philippines) aligned with the Group of 77 and China, noting with concern the overall utilization rate of 84 per cent and the lower rate in New York of 79 per cent.  She noted also that five intergovernmental bodies had utilization rates below the 80 per cent benchmark and acknowledged that the Department had made suggestions to those bodies to base meetings’ requests on actual utilization and to give timely notices of cancellations.  She looked forward to the Secretary-General’s report on integrated global management, especially its suggestions on integration of the four duty stations into a coherent and complementary global operation.  Turning to Flextime, she was interested to see how it related to the Secretary-General’s bulletin on flexible working arrangements of 2003, hoping also for more information about the telecommuting pilot arrangement for two regular staff translators in the United Nations Office at Nairobi that were telecommuting from Argentina.  Regarding PaperSmart, she acknowledged savings and satisfactory feedback from end users, especially delegations, but was concerned with some lapses in the Department’s commitment to print on-demand services.

BERTRAND FURNO ( France) said it wanted to ensure that documents were translated in a timely manner into all six official languages.  The documents needed under the Pattern of conferences agenda item were not published entirely on time.  This harmed the intergovernmental process.  The delays in the publication of documents for the Fifth Committee also were a concern.  It was necessary for the Secretariat to identify the reasons behind these delays and provide remedies.

Closing Remarks

Mr. GETTU made additional comments in response to delegations, highlighting key areas discussed and reasserting the key points from his report.  He did not go into detail, referring delegations instead to technical staff who could handle any specific queries they had.

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