Send in the Consultants

08/22/2000
There seems to be a return to the trend in the UN these days to hire consultants to lend legitimacy to ideas and proposals that would not otherwise fly. That way, if the trial balloon gets shot down those who floated it can pin the blame on the outsiders for any negative fallout, while taking credit for having the brilliance and foresight to appoint such consultants if all goes well.

Consider, if you will, the current case of the News and Media Division of the Department of Public Information (DPI). A Mr. Stephen Claypole, chairman of a London-based consulting firm, who is described as "a very eminent broadcast executive who is renowned in the television news world", made his entrance several months back, to review the Division's operations and make recommendations which would help it meet the agreed goals. The results of his "one month of intensive research" of the Division are contained in a report entitled "The Digital Future of the UN News and Media Division".

According to the Claypole report, the information disseminating arms of the UN continue to be dysfunctional and poorly coordinated, and the largest of these arms, DPI, is totally out of the loop on the regular strategic deliberations of the Secretary-General's office. There are, says the report, "geologic layers of half-solved problems in the area of public information". The News and Media Division is referred to as "a highly fragmented news operation" in which TV, radio, print and Internet teams produce "discrete programming", thereby undermining the declared goal of creating a fully integrated multimedia United Nations News Service.

While not arguing with some of the report's criticisms, one can readily take issue with many of its proposals: that the Division should package and present its materials on a daily basis in a way that engages the 24-hour global news cycle; that it shift the major part of its effort to providing daily services, acting more like a news agency within the UN system and presenting daily packages of materials in multimedia forms; that the Division should "turn itself inside out and make its Internet service, the UN News Centre, the core of its daily activities"; that the UN News Centre should take the lead in future for this Service rather than the Press operation.

Other recommendations include: four restructured units within the Division, to be called Broadcast News, Online Services, Documentary Features and Media Relations; improving the UN corporate image by more "branding" and "dressing" of locations to be used for the Secretary-General and leading personalities; abandoning the "World Chronicle" programme in favour of major projects like the Secretary-General's Millennium Report (how often are occasions of such significance launched to warrant such drastic action?); the Division should move to a "digital environment" as quickly as possible and fund this technical upheaval in one felt swoop rather than over several biennia (try getting that past the ACABQ and Fifth Committee!).

Issue 1: The idea that the Division can "engage the 24-hour global news cycle" and act more "like a news agency within the UN system" is fanciful thinking. The UN does not generate enough news in any given day to make such an undertaking viable - unless the plan is to usurp and report anything - trivial or otherwise - just to feed the 24-hour news cycle "monster" mentioned in the report, which states, quite bluntly, that the cost of servicing 24-hour routines is heavy. Where will the money come from? From an Organization that is perennially strapped for cash, and in a Department which is the first to be targeted for budget and other cost-cutting exercises? (Ambassador Holbrooke's recent remarks about a bloated DPI versus a resource-strapped Department of Peacekeeping Operations comes readily to mind.) Bear in mind that, at the end of the day, UN staff go home; with zero funds to pay for overtime, News and Media Division staff are gone by 7 p.m. unless there is a Security Council meeting. Who, then, will be supplying news to feed this global news cycle? Anyone who knows the inside operation knows that the Division, by nature, mandate and set-up, is not a news agency, and any suggestion to establish an operation that could compete with the major news organizations like the BBC or CNN would only come from a different planet.

Issue 2: Many in the News and Media Division recall how, from his first meetings with staff, the Director spoke at length about creating a UN news centre, one that would cater to the needs of the world media by providing them, at their request, with up-to-the-minute UN news via the Internet, email and faxes. The News Services and Editorial Section has always been, for this Director, the Division's core service. Small wonder, then, that that idea should become the keystone, and main recommendation, of the Claypole report. But did the Division need to hire a consultant to put in writing what the Director had intended all along?

Issue 3: The proposed structure for the Division displays a fundamental lack of understanding of what many components of the Division actually do. The suggestion, for example, that Meetings Coverage - the Section that is creative, that reports all the Headquarters news - can be led by the UN News Centre which merely redisseminates received information, brings to mind the image of the tail wagging the dog! But isn't that the sign of the times.

At a meeting held to discuss the report, in the presence of its author, a senior officer spoke, as is his wont, eloquently and with great insight. It was a well-thought-out report, he said tactfully, but one that presented "structural challenges". It contained proposals that "go to the depth of the structure". He pointed out that even though the report was addressed to the News and Media Division, there were other players not only in DPI but also in the Secretariat on whom such proposals would impact, if implemented. He saw the document as a "discussion paper", which contained "positive and feasible elements".

Those comments go to the heart of the matter, namely that the News and Media Division does not exist in a vacuum from the rest of the Department, or the Secretariat or the entire UN system, but is a sum/part of the whole. As such, any recommendations to restructure one Division would need to look at the total picture, not merely one part, in isolation.

The word around is that the self-same consultant is interested in the post of Chief of the Radio and Television Service when the incumbent retires at the end of August. That rumour is given credence because the report itself states that, with some key senior retirements now taking place, major opportunities exist to effect change and modernize the Division. It adds that success will depend on how expeditiously the UN is able to tackle the challenge of re-equipping the base operations of UNTV and Radio, recruiting new executives accustomed to the digital environment (emphasis added) and retraining staff. This may give the impression that not only is the consultant interested in getting the job, but he has already decided whom to fire.

The Claypole report contains numerous proposals, which will no doubt be debated in the coming weeks. These preliminary observations, it is hoped, will contribute to, and stimulate, that discussion. All concerned should remember that the decisions that flow from this exercise will impact on the Division, and the rest of DPI, long after its initiators have left the scene. It is crucial, therefore to get any restructuring right. Goodness knows DPI has had more than its share of those!