Interview with Matthias Kurth
President of the Federal Network Agency for Electricity,
Gas, Telecommunications, Post and Railway
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) has put ITU in the
spotlight of the world community. For the first time, ITU’s leading role in
information and communication technologies (ICT) was recognized at the political
and grassroots levels; it is now generally seen as much more than a purely
technical organization. This recognition has not only created enormous potential
for ITU, but also great expectations of what it can and should do to connect the world by 2015 as prescribed in the WSIS Plan of Action.
Given that most of the activities to bridge the digital divide fall within
the mandate of the ITU Telecommunication Development Sector, how would you
reconcile the world’s expectations and the current role of Secretary-General,
which is constrained by the Constitution and the Convention to general
management with no specific authority over Sector policies or programmes?
What would you do in the first 100 days of your mandate to leverage the
visibility and leadership gained by ITU through the WSIS process? And how would
you maintain the momentum? Please provide specific examples.
ITU’s leadership in the WSIS follow-up and the action lines has to be proven and
highlighted by the expertise and knowledge of all ITU Sectors and by the quality
of concrete and definitive projects.
There is no need for additional resolutions, papers or strategic plans. The
draft Strategic Plan for 2008– 2011, which was prepared by an ITU Working Group
and which will be discussed at the Plenipotentiary Conference in Antalya, is a
very good basis for ITU’s work in the future. If I am elected as
Secretary-General, my main task will be to fill all these plans, commitments and
agendas with real life.
ITU is the ideal body to organize a worldwide transfer of knowledge and
expertise in advanced information and communication technologies.
The work carried out by study groups in the Standardization,
Radiocommunication and Development Sectors should be streamlined in the light of
the WSIS action lines and our strategic plan.
I would initiate, for example, guidelines and principles to enhance the goal
of supporting the most cost-efficient technologies for broadband access, in
order to boost their worldwide penetration.
In the days of convergence, both efficient spectrum use and the search for
affordable standards are crucial if the digital divide is to be bridged.
Next-generation networks (NGN) are also a great opportunity to reduce costs
and to speed up innovation. ITU can help to organize the transfer process
worldwide and to keep the principles of global connectivity, openness,
affordability, reliability, interoperability and security in the focus of
I also want to initiate an ITU competition for the best and most successful
access and ICT projects worldwide. A possible ITU award could bring the
attention and focus of industry, governments and the press to these “best
practice” projects, especially in the developing nations.
In my first 100 days I would want to convince our private-sector members and
the ICT industry to seek more cooperation and partnership projects with ITU. The
Union can assist governments and private investors in building new networks and
capacity, particularly in developing countries, by providing a predictable,
pro-competitive, legal and regulatory framework to offer appropriate incentives
for investment in ICT infrastructure. The cooperation projects and their
progress should be published, and the results should be accessible to the
Being a regulator for nearly seven years, I know from my day-to-day work how
crucial the regulatory environment is for the growth of innovative ICT
technologies. I would like to bring this practical experience and knowledge to
the ITU management.
As Secretary-General, I would like to be the ITU‘s public promoter in
international events and fairs and I want to balance the leading operational
tasks in Geneva with much travelling and worldwide presence and dialogue with
governments and ICT industry leaders.
The nominal role of the Secretary-General is to manage the Union and
act as its legal representative, with most of the substantive work carried out
in the Sectors. This creates a situation whereby the Secretary-General is
accountable to the membership without having the required authority to decide or
to implement members’ decisions across the Union. At the same time, Directors of
the Union’s three Bureaux are vested with de facto authority which they
derive from their responsibilities, but for which they are not answerable. This
puts the Secretary-General in a position where he or she can exercise his or her
authority only through a veto of the proposals that he or she receives.
As Secretary-General, how would you lead the organization on behalf of the
members without the required authority over what the Sectors do, taking into
account the fact that irrespective of personalities, this divorced principle of
accountability and responsibility has led to difficult working conditions with
other elected officials and ultimately their staff?
One of the question’s assumptions is wrong. Nothing in life is “irrespective of
There might be restrictions in the ITU Constitution which will be discussed
and modified at the Plenipotentiary Conference, and it may be advisable to
look at the structures of other UN family organizations.
But as elected Secretary-General, I would have to take the Constitution as it
is or as it will be changed by the Plenipotentiary Conference, and make the best
If constraints are imposed by the Constitution, I would try to convince my
colleagues through argument and discussion. In all my past jobs I have always
experienced constraints, but managed to get ahead through intensive, constant
communication, trust, fairness, enthusiastic and motivating ideas and team
In my present job as spectrum regulator, I need to convince 15 separate and
completely independent media regulators in the German regions to take digital
broadcasting forward. The result is that Berlin, in 2001, was the first city in
the world to abandon analogue terrestrial broadcasting in favour of DVB-T.
Today, 60 per cent of the German population can receive digital terrestrial
On the management boards of our private-sector members, the chairman often
has only one vote, like the other members. He is only a speaker for the board
and has to persuade and convince his fellow board members.
In my opinion, the chance for success is linked as much to the willingness of
all elected officials to cooperate and the ability to persuade and convince, as
to the rules and constitutional structures.
Since 1999, cost efficiencies of the order of 25 per cent have been
achieved against a background of requests for increased output and cost
increases. At the same time, members are not willing to increase resources to
meet the spiralling demands placed on the Union for new activities, more
deliverables and faster turnover.
With little room for any further cost efficiencies, how do you plan to
deal with the problem of shortage of resources?
In concrete terms, how would you
tackle the CHF 50 million shortfall in the next financial plan for 2008–2011?
My principle is: “If you don’t have enough money, you need ideas”.
In the last 10 years, I have always had management jobs with budget
restraints and the obligation to cut expenses, to restructure and to save money.
In most of our Member States the situation is similar, and even our Sector
Members after the year 2000 had to cut expenses dramatically and reduce staff by
up to 50 per cent.
One solution is to set clear priorities. It is wrong to do a bit of
everything; the results will not be satisfying if we are not focused on the
topics for which we have the best expertise and experience.
Our strategic planning must therefore be realistic and linked from day one to
our existing resources, not to fantasy resources, which it would be nice to
If you deliver excellent results in the priority areas, then you can ask for
more contributions and maybe increased funding.
I would also try to make agreements for closer cooperation with the World
Bank and with other public and development funding banks and UN-family
institutions, so as to focus existing development funds more on the crucial role
of ICT. ITU could deliver a valuation of project concepts and follow through
their implementation and realization phase. The financial resources would be
delivered by various partners in cooperation with government and ICT industry
The ITU staff have been measured as having above-average productivity
levels. However, several years of financial constraints, which resulted in
higher demands placed on them together with a deep reduction in career
opportunities for professional development, has led to low staff morale with
an unwillingness to shoulder more work without any hope of improvements.
What immediate measures would you take in order to improve the situation?
What steps do you plan to take in the next four years to reverse this
trend of having to do more with less?
There is no fundamental contradiction between restructuring and keeping staff
motivation and morale high.
Over the last six years as President of the German Federal Network Agency, I
have had to close offices and shed around 500 jobs. But with the remaining staff
we have focused on new activities, such as combating the abuse of telephone
numbers and protecting consumer rights in ICT.
The agency was nevertheless among the top three from more than 200
public-sector enterprises in Europe in the 2004 competition of the famous
Bertelsmann Foundation for improvement in performance and progress in the public
To keep staff motivated, you need a constant dialogue and feedback about
necessary change and clear signals for personnel development.
Promotion should be possible by transparent rules and only on the grounds of
qualification and merit, not according to the time a staff member has spent at
ITU. As in every team, you have excellent, good and average players — and every
team, once in a while, needs fresh blood and a good balance between experienced
experts and new, qualified outsiders. An international organization also needs
a suitable balance between permanent and temporary jobs, in order to keep the
exchange of knowledge up-to-date with scientific and industry developments.
The Secretary-General has the leading role in establishing a good working
climate and spirit among the ITU staff.
I would talk comprehensively to staff members on every level of the
hierarchy, visit them once in a while in their offices, or ask them to write
down on a sheet of paper three ideas that they believe could inspire improvement in ITU and how they think they could make a personal contribution.
In all my management jobs, even with tough restructuring obligations, I have
had excellent working relations with the staff council. If you do not believe
me, you are welcome to call the head of the BNetzA staff council, Mr Ralf
Gymnich (Tel.: +49 228 14 4554). He is the elected representative responsible
for 2500 staff members of the organization of which I have been the President