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STRAIGHT TALK

Interview with Hamadoun I. Touré (Mali)

Director, ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau

Q.1

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.

 
 
 

H.T.

The organization of WSIS is a result of a landmark decision of the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference that was held in Minneapolis in 1998. A call was made to all stakeholders to get together with ITU and address the challenges of the digital divide. All the stakeholders positively responded, leading to the success of the summit that was characterized by:
  • The synergy resulting from the combined effort and shared vision by the international community.
  • The unprecedented participation by the leadership of developing countries in WSIS agenda setting, debates and negotiations.
  • The recognition given to civil society and their invaluable contribution from within rather than from the streets, as is often the case in many of UN’s conferences.
  • The constructive contribution made by developed countries and their readiness to bridge the digital divide.
  • The recognition of the increased role of the private sector.

It is true that the summit increased ITU’s visibility. We, however, should do more to blow the myth that only those who are experts in technical matters can participate or contribute to the work of the Union. ITU is home to all stakeholders because information and communication technologies permeate all the facets of human life and impact everybody, regardless of their status, gender, specialty, or geographical location. The potential is there and we must build on the agenda set by the summit and ensure that ITU’s actions act as building blocks towards the attainment of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals set by world leaders in 2000.

The role of the Secretary-General is well defined in the Constitution. The Constitution does not constrain the Secretary-General in any way. Frankly, I believe that the Constitution currently gives the Secretary-General enough power to fulfil his mandate and to deliver digital dividends to the membership. What is required is good, forward looking and visionary leadership that is built on a strong foundation of a participatory leadership style that recognizes that the Directors of the Sectors are part of a team entrusted with the Union’s resources. The Secretary-General is not responsible for the General Secretariat alone. He/she is the chief executive officer (CEO) of the Union and must have confidence in his/her colleagues leading the Sectors, without him having to interfere with the day-to-day operations of the Sectors. This is not sui generis to ITU, it also exists in the corporate world as well as the public service.

The first 100 days are often described as “strategic thinking — no action days” as a new CEO gets to understand his new environment. I have participated in the work of the Union for many years, both as a delegate and as Director of the Development Sector. I know the house and actively participated in the discussions that led to the holding of the summit, in summit proceedings and in post-summit implementation and follow-up discussions. The work on the summit does not stop because there is a new Secretary-General. Stakeholders already know their role in the implementation of the various “Action Lines”. ITU has a well-defined role, and that role must continue. That is why as Secretary-General I will address, from day one, three priorities that will, of course, impact positively on ITU’s credibility:

  • I will ensure that the morale and motivation of the ITU staff are restored, resulting in more efficiency and higher productivity.
  • I will change the perception that people have of ITU, through transparency and accountability.
  • I will build bridges to a digital future through the active and meaningful participation of all stakeholders in line with the decisions of WSIS, and my personal belief that teamwork is the key to success.
     

Q.2

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?

  H.T.

Every elected official is accountable to the membership. Even if the Secretary-General is ultimately responsible for the entire organization, he/she is not expected to do everything. The staff of the Union are experts in the various areas that affect the Union, including legal issues. Whether the staff are in the General Secretariat or in the Sectors, they are expected to advise those they report to, and colleagues, on the dos and don’ts, according to their areas of expertise. Imagine the size of the United Nations and the UN Secretary-General trying to run each of the agencies of the UN because when things go wrong, the ultimate responsibility lies in his hands. Coming back to this issue, let me say that this brings us back to the fundamental question of the federal structure. Yes, this structure has its weaknesses, but it also has strengths. Show me which structure is totally devoid of weakness. What is required is appropriate strategy to make structures work. The current federal structure is attractive to our members, as it provides checks and balances. Again, as I have stated before, there is need for more team spirit. For that reason, as Secretary-General, I will focus on building esprit de corps, confidence and trust with my colleagues. The Secretary-General should ensure that the interests of the Union are protected at all times and this role is in no way contradictory to the interests of the three Sectors.

Since its creation, ITU has encountered different kinds of challenges. In the present situation, we must carry out thorough analysis in order to clearly identify the sources of the problems and tackle them in a collaborative manner. The structure of the organization is often the simplest target when things go wrong. With or without the federal structure, challenges will always be there, as one could find in a host of other organizations. I believe that there is already enough authority bestowed upon the Secretary-General that empowers him/her to carry out duties as provided for in the Constitution. The interdependency and complementarities between the Sectors and the General Secretariat are the cornerstones to the success of ITU. I believe that the Directors of the three Sectors will work closely with the Secretary-General as a team, while still recognizing his leadership.

     

Q.3

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?

  H.T.

Resources are finite. Sound management is the key to survival in this ever-changing environment. Improvement, creativity and innovation are the essential tools in these dynamics. The membership has proposed a number of improvements in managing the resources of the Union. We must not only work hard, but work smart. We must focus on our core business and, for instance, outsource those areas that do not fall in this definition. We cannot ask for more resources from the Member States without demonstrating our willingness to reinvent ourselves, or our commitment to transparency.

Take for instance the current shortfall of CHF 50 million in the next financial plan for 2008–2011. This is a “call for action” situation. From day one, efforts will be directed at restoring a sound financial state of the Union. Effective coordination will lead to efficiencies and elimination of duplications that will cut costs. As Secretary-General, I will provide the leadership required to balance the books, but this will not be my show alone. The trust that I will build at every level in the house, the sense of belonging that will emerge within the staff and a participatory leadership will do away with inefficiencies, low staff morale, and the general malaise within ITU. I have always been a proponent for co-financing arrangements with ITU’s development partners. This is another source of financing for ICT projects. Both Member States and private-sector members are facing these challenges on a daily basis.

     

Q.4

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?

  H.T.

ITU has a qualified staff that has a lot of potential. This staff must be trusted, and it must also trust its management. More transparency in staff management is a prerequisite for building trust. This calls for equal treatment, zero tolerance for abuses, and fair rules for employment and promotion. In periods of financial difficulties, staff can be reasonable in their demands only if they are treated in a responsible manner.

The next four years will witness a turn-around of ITU characterized by new ways of doing things, vigorous partnership building, leading to co-financing of large projects by ITU and its constellation of development partners, increased accountability, and high staff morale. ITU will certainly restore its pre-eminent role of providing information and communication technology solutions, an efficient use of the spectrum and leadership in setting standards. The trend of doing more with less is a reality in human life. Every household has to live with the stark reality that the scarce resources flowing in have to be well managed to meet many demands. Likewise, if ITU is not to be wasteful, it will always have to do more with fewer resources than needed. What is required is to embrace a smart-solution strategy that is well thought out and not wasteful, but must be effective.

We must take the lead in many areas, such as security in cyberspace, efficient use of resources, appropriate strategies and policies, and financing infrastructure development to bridge the digital divide.

For ITU, I am confident that better days are yet to come.

 

 

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