Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Editorial: The U.S. National Commission for UNESCO

National Commissions for UNESCO are an important innovation, written into the charter of UNESCO after considerable debate; the U.S. National Commission is similarly chartered in U.S. law. The Commissions are intended to assure that the intellectual communities of the member nations and not just their governments, are fully involved in UNESCO. Sixty years ago, the U.S. National Commission was a powerful and active organization, with a vigorous program promoting knowledge and understanding of UNESCO in the United States. It is not that now, and this year's annual meeting appeared to involve much less than half its members.

This editorial addresses the advisory function of the National Commission. That is an important function, and indeed the Commission is regulated under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). The advisory function is difficult because UNESCO has a very complex program, involving 193 member nations, focusing on intellectual changes that are difficult to measure and to benchmark. It is also difficult because the Commission constantly changing membership of 100 people meets infrequently and its members are generally strangers to one another. After the long absence of the United States from UNESCO, there are relatively few Americans who really understand UNESCO and its programs.

For some 20 years I was involved in managing the provision of scientific advice to government agencies. That experience makes me recognize that people when asked for advice will almost always provide it, but if they are poorly chosen and the process poorly organized, the advice may well be of poor quality. Advisors must be experts. They must be asked the right questions, and be given the time and resources to respond rationally to those questions. The management of scientific advisory committees is a highly skilled activity for agencies such as the Office of the Science Advisor, the National Academies, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.

The State Department needs not only scientific advice, but other forms of professional advice to deal with the complex programs of UNESCO. Still, many of the lessons learned in the provision of scientific advice must be relevant also to provision of professional advice on cultural and educational activities of UNESCO. The State Department has not assigned experts in the management of advisory services to that function in the case of the National Commission for UNESCO, and the staff of the Commission's secretariat, while working hard and imaginatively, is still learning on the job.

The operation of the National Commission's Natural Science subcommittee provides an example that should be replicated in its other subcommittee. That subcommittee works through specific subcommittees on hydrology, oceanography, and geology (with another on man and the biosphere in abeyance). These in turn are not limited to members of the National Commission, but include specialists in the specific programs and their international dimensions, often with decades of experience working with UNESCO. When the Natural Science subcommittee meets, it has the chairs of those subcommittees to present their detailed considerations of the issues at hand, and it is only left to review and interrelate those recommendations. (It would have been better had those subcommittees also been asked to review the budget priorities and make recommendations.) The geologists, oceanographers, and hydrologists participating in these efforts are not only generally experienced in the provision of advisory services within their disciplines, but they also often know each other and form a true rather than a nominal group, able to communicate via phone and email during the year (rather than briefly once a year in group). The subcommittees are also small, allowing real discussion.

Even the operation of the Natural Science subcommittee could be improved, for example by the resuscitation of the Man and the Biosphere Committee and the creation of a Basic Science and Engineering specific science subcommittee. Moreover, the subcommittee reports could be provided to the members of the Natural Science subcommittee in writing before their meeting.

The other subcommittees of the National Commission appear to be in need of reform and rethinking. The education sector is UNESCO's lead sector, and faces a huge and complex task involving primary, secondary and tertiary education, as well as non-formal, literacy, and vocational education, and all of the educational policy and management functions. Comparably, there are few experts who can span cultural areas ranging from museums to cultural aspects of democratization, economic development, and the search for peace.

The 100 person National Commission when meeting as a committee of the whole is a very unwieldy entity. It requires a very strong Chair. Currently the Commission is chaired by a political appointee in the State Department. Compare that with the original chair, who was Milton Eisenhower, the brother of President Eisenhower, who was himself the president of a major university and a recognized leader of the American educational community.

Similarly, to increase effectiveness of the larger Commission, there would have to be a very strong Executive Committee that meets frequently. It would seem likely that the members of that committee should be elected by the Commission itself, rather than selected by the bureaucracy, and perhaps based on nominations by the sectoral subcommittees.

The rethinking of the processes of the National Commission should be one of the first tasks of the new administration that will take office in 2009. While the structure of the Commission is defined by law, the Commission charter must be renewed every two years under the conditions set by the Federal Advisory Committee Act. Fortunately the FACA recognizes that flexibility is required in the structuring of advisory services, especially when they are specified in legislation as well as by the needs of the bureaucracy. Thus the next rechartering of the Commission would be an important opportunity for reform.

The most important factor in the success of an advisory committee is a client who actively seeks that advice, and takes it seriously. It is important that the new administration place people in charge of its relations with UNESCO who fit that description.

John Daly
(The opinions expressed in this editorial are mine, and do not necessarily reflect those of Americans for UNESCO or any other organization.)

No comments: