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Background information

Reforming ITU

The outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) that was held in two phases in Geneva (2003) and Tunis (2005) have brought new commitments and responsibilities to be shouldered by ITU as the United Nations specialized agency dealing with ICT.

What is the appropriate role for the Union in the overall implementation and follow-up of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)? What changes might be required to ITU’s Constitution and Convention to accommodate the WSIS outcomes? Should ITU’s mandate and scope of activities be expanded and the range of participants broadened to embrace the new issues arising from the Summit?

These are some of the questions that the ITU membership has been asking in the wake of WSIS.

Different regions have put forward their viewpoints to the 2006 Plenipotentiary Conference in the form of “common proposals.” The ITU Council Working Group on WSIS (WG-WSIS), set up to guide ITU’s strategy regarding the World Summit on the Information Society, has also held meetings to share views on the way forward, and tabled a report to the conference on how ITU has assisted the WSIS process over the last four years.
 

Implementing action lines: new role for ITU

A European common proposal advocates “a structured and focused approach” to implementing the WSIS action lines. In a draft resolution to the conference, European countries state that ITU’s resources and expertise should be used in a way that takes account of the WSIS outcomes and the rapid changes in the telecommunication world. They acknowledge that “ITU is competent under its mandate to work on a range of new challenges facing the Information Society, including spectrum management and standards in a converged telecommunication environment, and all manner of matters concerning the integrity, functioning and security of infrastructure, networks, services and applications, including helping to counter spam.” But they also underline that in order to achieve the best results in implementing WSIS action lines, “ITU must review its own functioning and management practices so as to be able to deploy its expertise in telecommunications globally.”

They point to the need to ensure that any work undertaken with regard to WSIS implementation “is appropriately resourced and, in particular, that there is adequate funding.” They emphasize that the ITU membership from the private sector is “essential to the success of the Union in meeting its goals.”

Asia-Pacific countries on their part consider it time to move towards implementation, making sure that commitments reached at WSIS are realized in an effective way. They note the high priority attached to the implementation of WSIS in the draft strategic and financial plans for 2008–2011, which will be considered by the conference. They propose that achieving the goals of WSIS by the target year of 2015 would require setting objectives and deadlines now.

According to these countries, ITU should therefore develop a concrete plan for implementing the WSIS outcomes and for ensuring their successful implementation. However, the Financial Plan as currently tabled does not include the resources needed for any additional work arising from WSIS, and any reallocation of funds to post-WSIS tasks will have to be made at the expense of other currently planned activities.

The impetus for reform of the Union began in 1989 at the Nice Plenipotentiary Conference which called for an overhaul of ITU to respond to a fast-evolving global environment. In 1992, an additional Plenipotentiary Conference radically overhauled the structure of ITU to create three core Sectors: Telecommunication Standardization (ITU-T), Radiocommunication (ITU-R) and Telecommunication Development (ITU-D). In 1994, the Kyoto Plenipotentiary Conference adopted the Union’s first Strategic Plan, emphasizing its policy-making role to complement its traditional technical mandate.

In 1995, a group called ITU-2000 was set up to conduct an in-depth examination of additional non-structural reform issues, including an enhanced role for the private sector, actions to broaden the Union's membership base, and the need to diversify funding sources and overhaul existing financial arrangements. In the end, however, ITU-2000's recommendations disappointed many, who felt the catalogue of proposed reforms did not go far enough. Forced to mediate between a highly conservative "old guard" and an impatient pool of new players, the task force had been obliged to seek a middle ground that ultimately undermined its attempt to fully reform ITU processes.

The 1998 Minneapolis Plenipotentiary did make some progress towards reform; most notably it streamlined ITU standardization processes that reduced time to market to a few weeks and gave private sector the right to approve technical standards; it created a new Associate category that provided private companies with enhanced possibilities for participation in ITU activities within the context of a single Study Group and introduced new cost-recovery programmes in key areas like satellite filings. But, ITU-2000's inability to deliver proposals for more radical restructuring of the Union prompted the Minneapolis Conference to establish a new Working Group for Reform (WGR).

The work of the WGR served as a basis for the decisions of the Plenipotentiary Conference on a further round of reforms. The conference agreed to improve the status of Member States who participate in the Council as observers by allowing them to submit information documents and to address the meetings. Observer status was also granted to Sector Members, albeit on a provisional basis to be confirmed by the next Plenipotentiary Conference. The Convention was also amended to allow for the creation of groups other than Study Groups with terms of reference and working methods developed by the Assembly or Conference of the Sector concerned.

Expanding ITU’s scope and mandate

At its September 2006 meeting of the Working Group on WSIS, some members suggested that time had come to expand the scope and mandate of ITU, in order to reflect the outcomes of WSIS and reaffirm ITU’s pre-eminent role in global ICT affairs. Others felt that the Union’s mandate is already broad enough to incorporate other aspects of information and communication technologies and to respond to the changing environment.

In Antalya, proposals from countries in the Regional Commonwealth in the Field of Communications (RCC) and a group of African countries stress the need to broaden the scope and mandate of ITU to reflect the responsibilities it has received as a result of WSIS if it is to remain a vibrant, adaptive organization. For them, the basic instruments of the Union no longer fit the realities of the environment and the challenges of today.

While the RCC suggests that a working group of the Council should be established to adapt the Union for the implementation of WSIS outcomes, African countries go one step further in proposing the setting up of a group to recommend the necessary amendments to the ITU Constitution and the Convention.
 

Expanding membership

During the WSIS process, ITU pioneered the participation of all stakeholders, including civil society, as a means of building a truly inclusive Information Society. Civil society was included for the first time in an intergovernmental negotiation process and it is now widely recognized that implementation of the action lines will require the commitment and energies of all stakeholders. Following the success of WSIS, there are proposals from States to widen the Union's membership by including the participation of new actors such as civil society.

As a treaty-based organization, ITU needed to be able to rely on State-based members to implement international agreements such as the Constitution and Convention or the Radio Regulations. But the Union has also relied earlier on the contribution of its private sector members, who make a vital contribution to the Union’s standards-making process and in undertaking technical studies — crucial work which remains one of ITU’s prime responsibilities. With privatization, liberalization and deregulation, the balance of power gradually shifted with more clout being wielded by the private sector. Now, the baton is also being taken by the end-user — and civil society sees itself as a watchdog for the larger public interest.

A number of countries agree on the “desirability of engaging civil society in ITU’s work” and a specific category of observer status at ITU should be created for civil society organizations. On the other hand, others consider that these organizations can already be accommodated within the existing framework of Associates and Sector Members. However, most civil society organizations generally operate on fairly limited budgets and the cost of membership, except in the development sector, would act as an insurmountable obstacle for them. Civil society expects to participate in ITU as they do in most other UN agencies.

A resolution developed by the Working Group of Council on WSIS will be considered by the Conference calling for a study to recommend ways to further enhance the participation of civil society entities and organizations in ITU activities, taking into account existing practices in the UN system.
 

A new name for ITU?

Some regions have put forward proposals to the conference arguing in favour of a name change for ITU. For RCC countries, ITU’s name should reflect its broader perspective as a result of WSIS and suggest that the term “infocommunication” should replace “telecommunication” (although the acronym “ITU” should not be changed). In the context of ITU’s name, they define infocommunication as meaning “the reception/storage/processing and transmission of information using public facilities without any change in location of the physical carrier, excluding questions of intellectual property or content.”

The Arab States agree with the RCC countries that ITU’s name should reflect the results of WSIS. But they propose the “International Telecommunication and Information Technology Union,” as the new name. They add that amendments to ITU’s Constitution or Convention might be required owing to the additional executive responsibilities devolving upon the Union in relation to the WSIS Plan of Action. Amendments might also be needed in order to include a clear definition of the term “information technology”.

However, countries from the Asia-Pacific region believe that there should be no change of name for ITU. They say that “telecommunication” is the most appropriate and useful descriptor of ITU’s mandate. They add that “this does not limit the significance or scope of ITU’s competence” because “telecommunication” is “a very broad and inclusive term that covers all the network-related aspects of information and communications technology.” Asia-Pacific countries further point to the costs of implementing a change of name, and argue that “changes in names and language should reflect actual ITU roles and not set out new areas of activity that remain controversial.”

For several countries, changing the name of ITU would risk diluting the “brand image” that ITU has established through the WSIS process and add that the financial implications of a name change would require further study.
 

Revamping the federal structure

As ITU evolves, the basic federal structure of the Union has come up for review. In addition to electing members of the Radio Regulations Board and Member States of the ITU Council, and unlike other United Nations agencies, ITU has five top elective posts: Secretary-General, Deputy Secretary-General and a Director for each of its three Bureaux that deal with radiocommunications, telecommunication standardization and development.

All five are elected at Plenipotentiary Conferences. Given the complexity and rapid evolution of today’s telecommunication environment, however, some ITU members are questioning whether the Union’s leadership should continue to be chosen in this way.

Calling for change

One of the European Common Proposals to the Plenipotentiary Conference calls for “the appointment rather than election of the Directors of Bureau”. It states that “the large number of elected officials in ITU, in contrast to most UN agencies, adds complexity to the management of the Union and compromises its efficiency”. According to the proposal, “the existing arrangement of five elected officials politicizes the management of the organization, and creates a lack of clarity as to who is accountable for resolving problems of concern to Member States.” A draft resolution says that these officials “should be appointed according to usual United Nations practice,” and that “the Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General should be the only officials elected.”

While recognizing that methods for selecting the Directors of Bureau, duration of their tenure and other matters will need to be resolved, the proposal from 16 European nations stresses that “appointments should be made on the basis of fair tendering for jobs, with candidates selected on merit and taking into account the desirability of equitable geographic representation.”

As well as cutting the time and resources needed for elections, the new approach, they say, would have “many advantages,” including clarification of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General regarding the management of the Union.

European countries propose that a group of Member States and Sector Members should be set up to consider the process by which the Directors of the Bureau could be selected and appointed. The group would report its conclusions in time for preparations for the 2010 Plenipotentiary Conference.

Keeping the status quo

A number of African countries state that they are in favour of retaining “the current federal structure of five elected officials of the Union”. They say that the current structure “gives a fair opportunity for geographical regional representation” and that it “does not concentrate power in one office of the Union.” A similar position is expressed by some RCC countries. They say the existing ITU structure and number of elected officials should remain unchanged, arguing that it “ensures the necessary balance, including in geographical terms, and democracy in the management and direction of the Union”. According to these countries, “the existing provisions of the Constitution and Convention on the ITU structure afford both the Secretary-General and the Sectors sufficient flexibility to improve their working methods and procedures.”

Exploring the possibilities

Looking at these divergent views on how to select ITU’s top management, countries in the Asia-Pacific region suggest that all options should be studied by a group of experts open to ITU Member States. Like the European proposal, Asia-Pacific countries want such a group to report its findings in time for preparations for the 2010 Plenipotentiary Conference.


 

 

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