Press Releases

    Background Release

    22 April 2002


    NEW YORK, 19 April (UN Headquarters) -- The Committee on Information, the principal legislative body mandated to make recommendations to the General Assembly on the policy and activities of the Department of Public Information (DPI), will open its twenty-fourth session on Monday, 22 April, amid a comprehensive review of DPI intended to complete its reorientation.

    DPI seeks to promote an informed understanding of the work and purposes of the United Nations among the peoples of the World. It communicates the complex work of the United Nations through a variety of outreach efforts, including promotional campaigns, the United Nations Web site, radio and television, the United Nations News Centre, press releases, publications, documentary videos, special events, public tours and library facilities, with the assistance of its 77 information centres, services and United Nations offices with information components around the world.

    Among the reports before the Committee will be one on the reorientation of the Organization's public information and communications activities (document A/AC.198/2002/2). The report, which outlines a new vision for how DPI might approach its mission, lists the principal issues and findings emerging from the ongoing comprehensive review and the strategic direction being considered by the Department. When completed, the results of the current review, one of about seven in the Department’s last 20 years, will be included in the report by the Secretary-General on the comprehensive review of the entire Secretariat to the fifty-seventh session of the General Assembly.

    A thorough, top-to-bottom examination of DPI was conducted in order to align its core competencies with its long list of mandates and activities, the report states. Despite numerous attempts at reform and the progress made in reorienting DPI’s work, the current review has demonstrated that it continues to face a number of "critical deficiencies, which adversely affect its ability to deliver its work programme effectively and with the greatest impact".

    According to the report, it was not possible to continue all of DPI's present work and simultaneously emphasize priority tasks. While the reform of DPI will be a continuing process, the Secretariat and Member States will be obliged to make some difficult choices. The Secretary-General believes that the process now under way and the resulting changes that will emerge will permit DPI to fulfil its cardinal role as the "torch-bearer" of the Organization.

    When the Committee begins its annual two-week session, members will have before them the following additional documents: provisional agenda and programme of work; and reports of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations (2001), integration of United Nations information centres with field offices of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), role of DPI in United Nations peacekeeping, development, maintenance and enrichment of the United Nations Web site in the six official languages, and activities of the Joint United Nations Information Committee in 2001.

    With respect to the role of DPI in peacekeeping, that report notes the widespread agreement that sustained public and governmental support is critical for the success of those operations. To enable DPI to contribute more effectively to the planning and ongoing support of those operations, particularly in the case of large and complex peacekeeping operations, the need for adequate resources cannot be overemphasized, the report says.

    In the report on the United Nations Web site -- the fifth in the series addressing the need to ensure language parity in the site -- the Secretary-General presents two possible courses of action to be considered by Member States: replicating all materials on the English Web site onto the other sites; or allowing the Web sites to develop independently in each language, on the basis of the resource capacities of author departments and offices.

    The report concerned with integration of the United Nations information centres with field offices of UNDP says that, since the launch of the integration exercise in 1992, there has been some confusion with regard to both the aims and the implementation of the process. That led to the creation by DPI and UNDP of a joint working group last year to review all aspects of cooperation in the area of public information at the field level.

    Report Summaries

    The report of the Secretary-General entitled Reorientation of United Nations activities in the field of public information and communications (document A/AC.198/2002/2) is the fourth on reorienting DPI. Through the adoption of resolution 56/64 B in December 2001, the General Assembly encouraged the Secretary-General to continue the reorientation exercise and report to the Committee at its twenty-fourth session.

    These reports have followed up on the earlier recommendations made by the Task Force on the Reorientation of UN Public Information Activities. The Task Force was appointed by the Secretary-General in 1997 to examine possible ways and means for the Department to reorient its work in order to convey the United Nations story with more vigour and purpose, and to greater effect.

    The fundamental premise underlying the Department's reorientation efforts remains General Assembly resolution 13 of February 1946, establishing the Department. That text instructs the Department to organize and direct its activities in a way that promotes an informed understanding of the work and purposes of the United Nations among the peoples of the world.

    Previous reorientation reports have focused on the Department's efforts to achieve that basic objective by ensuring that communications is placed at the heart of the strategic management of the United Nations, the current report states. They had highlighted the steps taken by the Department to implement the programmes necessary to fulfil this goal. They have also reflected the Department’s progress in responding to the Secretary-General's strong commitment to enhanced communications as a key element in the reform and revitalization of the Organization in a new information age, and to developing a culture of communications within the Organization.

    The current reorientation report says that the Assembly’s call for a comprehensive review in the December 2001 resolution provides the Department with an opportunity to take further steps to rationalize its activities and outputs, enhance its efficiency and effectiveness, and maximize the use of its resources. Assembly approval of the DPI’s programme budget for the biennium 2002-2003 and its overall support for the goals and new directions of the Department have not given it any grounds for complacency.

    The fundamental problem identified in the current review relates to the prevailing ambiguity surrounding its mission (or "aspiration"), as well as a lack of definition in the target audiences for the Department’s various activities, the report states. The principal reason for the lack of clarity is that the Department has been given more than 120 mandates by the Assembly and undertakes more than 60 formal activities, as well as the numerous ad hoc requests generated within the Secretariat. This proliferation of mandates has not only created a heavy workload for the Department, but has contributed to the fragmentation of DPI’s activities, many of which do not attain the high impact that is desired.

    The basic question is what do Member States expect of DPI, the report says. At one level, it functions as a Department of the Secretariat whose programmes are designed to execute the mandates assigned to it by governments, including providing specific services to Member States. At the same time, it is seen as the principal arm of the Organization's outreach to the world, providing services to media, non-governmental organizations, educational institutions and the general public. Some of its functions, however, such as the provision of cartographic services to the Organization and the provision of library facilities to delegations, do not fall comfortably in the "public information" category.

    A related issue is the Department’s target audiences, the report continues. It is recognized that performance management must be part of all of DPI's activities and programmes. The need for the Department to institute a mechanism for continuous feedback and evaluation was reinforced when the Department sought views of Secretariat departments and discerned a measure of dissatisfaction with the communications support provided to them by DPI. It is a key objective of the present exercise to address these areas of dissatisfaction.

    Under a section entitled "Positioning DPI for Greater Impact", the Secretary-General says that the overarching strategic vision for the Department remained that crafted in 1946 -- "to promote to the greatest extent possible an informed understanding of the work and purposes of the United Nations". He proposes the following mission statement to achieve that vision and build the widest public support for the Organization: "The Department of Public Information's mission is to manage and coordinate United Nations communications content -- generated by the activities of the Organization and its component parts -- and strategically to convey this content, especially through appropriate intermediaries, to achieve the greatest public impact."

    The report finds that the Department's major challenges in positioning itself for greater impact include: developing more focused messages, with less fragmentation of its output; better identification of target audiences and attracting new audiences; prioritizing the allocation of its limited resources among the many mandated activities; identifying those programmes and activities that can be improved upon or eliminated; and, finally, establishing a departmental structure to accomplish these goals.

    Included in a section on services to Member States, the report states that some of the criticism of DPI has tended to overlook the extensive nature of the services it provides to Member States, going beyond the function of public information, as such. Examples include the library and the cartographic section. In addition, the major DPI publications, notably, the Yearbook of the United Nations, Africa Recovery and the United Nations Chronicle, are distributed to each Permanent Mission.

    When requested by delegations, DPI will organize special events. Also, DPI’s visual and photo libraries handle frequent requests from them for current video and photographic coverage, as well as archival requests.

    An example of a service provided to delegations, while ostensibly aimed elsewhere, is the large number of daily press releases in English and French issued by the DPI’s meeting coverage staff in New York and Geneva. The structure and lengthy speaker-by-speaker format means that they provide an informal summary record of intergovernmental meetings, available the same day (unlike the official Summary Records, which are issued sometimes weeks after a meeting by another department). While DPI’s purpose in producing these press releases is to serve the media, their principal consumers are the delegations. The Department has repeatedly been told how necessary these summaries are for the work of delegations and how extensively they are used in their reports back to capitals.

    The report says that if the cost of this service (which, because of the unpredictable nature of the duration of most intergovernmental meetings, perenially runs over budget) was justified purely in relation to its use by the press, there would be a reasonable case for its discontinuation or drastic reduction. Once again, it is for Member States to determine whether they wish DPI to continue to provide this service.

    It could be argued, the report continues, that if the Organization were to create a DPI from scratch, in the present climate of straitened resources and belt-tightening, activities such as the library, cartography, United Nations publications, and press releases might not find a place in it. Yet, given that the Department exists and that Member States have become accustomed over five decades to the availability of these services, it is difficult to disregard the reasons why these practices have evolved. The question remains whether they detract from the impact the Department can make in its core mission, or whether they are essential components of that mission. If they are found to detract, there is a case for discontinuing some of them and for transferring some to other departments of the Secretariat.

    A section called "The Road Ahead" states that the ongoing review of DPI is occurring in the midst of an effort already begun, in response to the Secretary-General’s call for the creation of a culture of communications in the Organization. The insufficient degree of coordination between the Department and other Secretariat departments, and the dissatisfaction some have expressed with regard to the communications support they receive from DPI, will need to be redressed. There is a strong case in some departments for the maintenance of an in-house capacity for communications and advocacy by staff working directly on a daily basis with the substantive officials of the departments concerned.

    Continuing, the report finds that the information staff in the substantive departments do not work under the guidance of DPI.

    This is an area where remedial action should ideally be taken, in close coordination with those departments. This is not to suggest that all information staff should be regrouped within DPI, but rather that coordination should be improved and that DPI, in turn, should restructure itself so as to provide a more direct interface with the substantive departments. Part of the onus falls on those departments, as well. DPI should be included in their decision-making processes and, for major activities, should participate in the relevant planning meetings from the beginning of the preparatory processes.

    Other chapters in the section "The Road Ahead" include: performance management; information technology; United Nations conferences; and United Nations information centres. Among the report’s conclusions is that the Department must prioritize its work programme to better focus its message and concentrate its efforts, and, as a function of performance management, to match its programmes with the needs of its target audiences, on the basis of improved feedback and evaluation mechanisms. Then, it will be in a position to better balance the allocation of its resources and, over time, make the necessary changes in its organizational structure to optimize its core competencies. Although much has been done in the area of technology, it will also be necessary to enhance the technological infrastructure of DPI to widen its outreach.

    The Department has made an honest effort in the context of this report to acknowledge its shortcomings and articulate the challenges it faces in improving efficiency and productivity, the report further concludes. It acknowledges that it has suffered from being pulled in too many directions, with a corresponding fragmentation of its efforts and a dilution of its effect. In the environment of budgetary restraint, realistic goals must be set and programmes tailored accordingly, so that all the activities of the Department will become more forward-looking and performance-driven. The Department might consider a new name for itself to better reflect the redefined aspirations outlined in this report. Among the proposals being considered is to rename DPI the Department of Communications and External Relations.

    Also before the Committee is the report of the Secretary-General on United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations (2001) (document A/AC.198/2002/3), which describes activities carried out by DPI to promote the Year and publicize the findings of the Group of Eminent Persons appointed by the Secretary-General for the Year. In designing a promotional campaign, the Department considered the observance of the Year an opportunity to emphasize the role of dialogue as a means to remove threats to peace and strengthen interaction among civilizations.

    The report states that initial efforts of the Department were focused on developing the key messages of the Year in a way that made them both clear and accessible to people from different countries and cultures. A series of promotional products, such as brochures, posters, public service announcements and a press kit, was developed and widely distributed.

    The work of the Group of Eminent Persons for the Year, appointed by the Secretary-General to prepare a book on the issue of dialogue, was considered crucial by the Department in promoting the Year and generating greater international debate on redefining diversity as an opportunity, rather than a threat. Among other things, an executive summary of the Group’s publication, entitled "Crossing the Divide", was issued in the six official languages in advance of the plenary meetings of the fifty-sixth session of the Assembly dedicated to the Year.

    With regard to the plenary meetings, the report states that the Department mobilized all available resources to publicize them and raise global awareness about the challenges presented by the Year. Among other things, the plenary meetings were broadcast live by United Nations television and web cast in real time through the United Nations Web site, and press releases covering each session of the two-day plenary were issued in English and French.

    The Committee also has before it the report of the Secretary-General on integration of United Nations information centres with field offices of the United Nations Development Programme: continued implementation of the views of host governments (document A/AC.198/2002/4). It states that DPI has continued to implement the views of Member States hosting United Nations information centres integrated with the field offices of UNDP to further strengthen the efficiency in the implementation of public information activities. Presently, there is no pending proposal to integrate any additional United Nations information centre.

    Should any such request be received, states the report, the Department would review it jointly with UNDP and the government of the host country concerned, prior to submitting it to the Committee for its consideration. Building on their 20-year working relationship, the Department and UNDP continue to look for ways and means of rationalizing the use of the limited resources at their disposal, to improve the delivery of public information programmes, and strengthen the unified image of the United Nations worldwide.

    According to the report on the role of the Department of Public Information in United Nations peacekeeping (document A/AC.198/2002/5), DPI has continued to provide planning and operational support to information components of peacekeeping operations, to the extent possible. Enhancing this capacity would enable the Department to contribute more effectively to mission planning and support and to efforts undertaken by mission information components to build and sustain public and governmental support for peacekeeping operations.

    Concerning the need for adequate resources, the report argues that Assembly approval of additional resources for the Department would enable DPI to enhance its capacity to backstop public information activities in peacekeeping operations and maintain its mandated promotional activities in the area of peace and security. Meanwhile, despite the Assembly's endorsement of the information support functions of the DPI, the number of staff dedicated to public information in United Nations peacekeeping has remained at the same level.

    The report says that, for this reason, and as a follow-up to the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), the Secretary-General’s report to the Assembly on requirements for funding under the support account for peacekeeping operations for the period 1 July 2002 to 30 June 2003 will include a provision for additional resources for DPI for the purpose of backstopping peacekeeping operations.

    The Assembly has reiterated on numerous occasions that it attaches priority to effective public information programmes in peacekeeping operations. They should be carefully identified and implemented according to the specific needs of the missions concerned, and adequate resources should be allocated. In the same vein, the Assembly stressed in its resolution 56/64 B that DPI should continue its efforts to strengthen its capacity to contribute significantly to the functioning of information components in United Nations peacekeeping operations.

    The report of the Secretary-General on continued development, maintenance and enrichment of the United Nations Web site in the six official languages (document A/AC.198/2002/6) is presented to the Committee for its guidance on the policy decisions required for timely implementation. The report presents two possible courses of action for consideration by Member States. No cost estimates are provided, because it is felt that guidance is required from Member States on the principles of parity before proceeding to a detailed costing exercise.

    Action 1, according to the report, involves replicating all materials on the English Web site onto the other sites. This action would involve translation of all materials and databases by the respective content-providing offices into all official languages. Each content-providing office would need to determine the level of resources associated with the translation and processing for the Web site. This action would entail extremely high costs, should Member States decide that all current materials should also be translated.

    Action 2 would allow the Web sites to develop independently in each language, on the basis of the resource capacities of author departments and offices, states the report. This appears to be the most prudent and cost-effective course of action, in that material would continue to be added on an incremental basis in each of the official languages. All materials that are currently produced, in whatever combination of languages, will be processed and made available on the Web site.

    This could be accomplished, continues the report, by having content-providing offices, including DPI, adjust the publication of information materials to assure a steady supply of materials in each of the official languages. Content-providing offices would determine the amount of information to be made available in each of the languages, based on their respective resource capacities for this purpose. It should be noted, however, that most content-providing offices have not been able to create their respective Web sites in the non-working languages of the Secretariat.

    The report recommends that Member States approve action 2, with the full understanding that, given the level of resources for translation available in the author departments, full parity among official languages on the United Nations Web site will not be achieved for some time to come.

    Also before the Committee is the report of the Secretary-General on activities of the Joint United Nations Information Committee in 2001 (document A/AC.198/2002/7), the subsidiary body of the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC) responsible for coordination in the field of public information. At its twenty-seventh session in July 2001, the Information Committee addressed issues relating to the development of web communications, the communications strategies for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, poverty eradication, and the fight against HIV/AIDS.

    In October 2001, as part of its review, the ACC, now renamed the United Nations System Chief Executive Board for Coordination, decided to do away with permanent subsidiary bodies and, instead, rely on flexible, substance-driven and ad hoc arrangements. Consequently, as of January 2002, inter-agency coordination in the field of public information and communication will take place through a new informal and flexible mechanism, the United Nations Communications Group.

    The Communications Group, in addition to the annual meeting, continues to hold weekly meetings at Headquarters with the Participation of New York-based representatives of all organizations of the United Nations system, to provide a regular forum for consultation and coordination on communications policy and issues, as well as on joint strategies and programmes. To develop and coordinate the implementation of joint communications strategies on priority issues, often in the lead-up to major conferences and other events, the Group will establish task forces, such as the current one on the World Summit, involving the organizations active in the preparation of the activity concerned.

    Committee Membership

    The Committee on Information consists of 98 Member States: Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chile, China, Colombia, Congo, Costa Rica, Côte d'Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Gabon, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Guinea, Guyana, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, and Kazakhstan.

    Also, Kenya, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Nepal, Netherlands, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Senegal, Singapore, Slovakia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United Republic of Tanzania, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, Viet Nam, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

    The Bureau is composed of the following members: Milos Alcalay (Venezuela), Chairman; Ivan Matchavariani (Georgia), Tserenpil Dorjsuren (Mongolia), and Peter Mollema (Netherlands), Vice-Chairmen; and Walid A. Haggag (Egypt), Rapporteur.

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