Concept of the Future UN Development Information System
- / -
Part of: International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change (UAI Study Papers INF/5)
UN/UNDP bias concerning control information
Operational information bias
Bias against some categories of operational information
Lack of interest in effects of programmes
The proposals for an information system are a key feature of the Study. It points out that each Agency functions in a similar fashion. Each has to deal with program planning and budgeting, formulation of projects, program information and evaluation, data on projects.
"But, despite the broad similarities, numerous differences prevent UN bodies from having a unified information system. The problem starts with the absence of a unified policy or systematic organizational and procedural approach to UN development cooperation. There does not yet exist a framework within which UN development cooperation decisions are made nor a system for managing development cooperation activities. Decisions affecting development cooperation resources and activities are made in numerous places without sufficient knowledge of or reference to one another. As a result, most information systems or system design efforts to date have suffered from the same fragmentation...This fragmented approach, in turn, leads each Agency to classify differently data relating to the same or similar objectives and to the same or similar types of activities....As a result, governing bodies and senior officials throughout the UN system do not have the information required in order to make rational system-wide policy and program decisions. In short, there are now simply too many separate, inconsistent, incomplete information systems relating to some facet of development cooperation activities, and these systems are undirected or uncoordinated by any central authority." (II, pp. 222-3)
The above description of the current situation is extremely important. The Study then goes on to describe an information system to resolve these difficulties. This is of course achieved by focusing on the development cooperation activities. It is nowhere recognized that the reason for the lack of coordination in the current system is the variety of topics with which the UN is forced to deal and the variety of ways in which topics must be approached. Priority cannot necessarily be given to the development aspect of a project, although there may be development side-effects. There has been no study of a system, which could cope flexibly with the variety of information needs.
The Study avoids these difficulties with the assumption that the only important system will be the development system. It is not clear what will happen to other projects, or projects, which are only "10% development". Perhaps they will be treated in duplicate. But by ignoring the special features of projects, which do not fit the development straight jacket, the proposed system merely creates the need for a series of inefficient minor information systems to cope with the unconsidered topics. The fact that there will be some interaction is ignored.
By opting for the proposed system, the Study is therefore creating the sort of problems, which it criticizes in the quote above. Unless an information system is designed for the multi-purpose solution of general problems, it must give rise to the need for other information systems. The Study can ignore this, because non-development problems (like pollution) are not within its terms of reference -- but can the UN as a whole afford to ignore this and be led into a cul-de-sac? The importance of the interaction between fields of activity and problem areas was dealt with in an earlier section.
No investigation appears to have been made of whether a new information system could not be made to deal with both development and non-development problems so that the current political interest would not jeopardize information needs of the future.
The whole information system is organized in terms of countries.
"The overall systems concept and information flow...shows the country as the starting point, the focus, and the end point of all activities. It is in the country that primary subject-matter collections of statistical data would be generated, and it is in the country that the data would be finally used." (II, p.255)
Is all economic and social information (even of relevance to development) directly linked to a country? Is it all easily divisible by country? National political boundaries are quite arbitrarily related to the geography of the regions across which they cut. It may be useful, mainly for political purposes, to be able to attempt to split data by country but even the development of a country is not of the country as a whole but of geographical regions blocked out by the political barriers. The approach is certainly not scientific, particularly where geographical regions crossing political frontiers in different parts of the world have similar problems.
The Study is forced to recognize the artificiality of this approach in a section on "The Case for UNDP Financing "Non-Country Actions". The key phrase is:
"Since, however, the varied and pressing needs of governments of developing countries make it unlikely that the aggregate of their requests for cooperation from the UN system will equate exactly with the desiderata established at the global level, it can be argued that it would not be consistent with the requirements of long-term development objectives to concentrate all the resources of UNDP on country programs". (II, p. 127)
From the tone, it is apparent that the authors do not believe that there is much chance of this view being accepted. Some of the "inconvenient" topics requiring such attention are meteorology, civil aviation, application of science and technology, population, natural resources, proteins, education, marine science and environmental problems. It is not made clear how the information system will sort out the interaction between country and non-country projects and whether the line of demarcation can be satisfactorily drawn for computer purposes.
It is merely stated that
"At the same time the country approach must be effectively reticulated into the global and regional objectives for many fields of human endeavor..."
but these are of course
"...evolved by the Agencies under the impulse of Member Governments..." (I. p. 16)
The underlying assumption is that freezing the information system into a country basis is the most useful for development purposes. If, however, problems are now becoming non-territorial, as was shown in a quote in an earlier section, then this decision is suspect, and may even prejudice the analysis and solution of future problems. It is of course very tidy for administrative purposes, except for the real difficulty of deciding what is currently to be considered a nation. It is ironical that the United Nations should want to take the lead in opting for an information system which stresses national interests rather than highlight the problems of similar geographic regions, however they are divided politically.
No investigation appears to have been made of whether a new information system could not be made to deal with both country-based and non-country based perspectives on a basis of equality, and according to need, so that the current political needs would not jeopardize the information needs of the future and non-politically oriented research.
In reading the description of the proposed information system, one becomes less and less certain as to whom the system is being created for and from whom information is to be obtained. It is encouraging to read that:
"Under ideal circumstances, the information needed to support the (UN Development Cooperation Cycle) should be met out of an organized continuum of information that flows freely and regularly from and between organizational units engaged in development cooperation activities." (II, p. 229)
Inputs mentioned are:
Outputs mentioned are:
"...the economic and social...and the technical and scientific information sub-system(s)....should also help to satisfy the information requirements of governments, of Specialized Agencies with regard to regular program activities, and of user organizations and individuals outside the UN system." (II, 259)
But this availability applies only to published data. "And many documents are restricted and thus not available for wide distribution and use." (II, p. 237) It does not show what is being done. Information on the corrective actions planned and underway through the different Agencies -- namely the project information -- is not to be made available for consultation by non-UN bodies.
"...analysis of Agency reports has convinced the Capacity Study that such (project control) reports should serve the operational needs of the Executing Agencies, as well as the requirements of UNDP The flow of operational and administrative control in formation within the system would essentially be upward from the levels of the project and of the Resident Representative's office to higher levels in the organization." (II, p.265-6)
Clearly a, hopefully diminishing, proportion of the operations data must remain confidential. But the Study makes no mention of interaction with non-UN bodies during the life of the project. Some projects may last years. How is an organization conducting a project in a given area to determine whether this will interact disastrously with a UN project? The Study infers that the UN system will take into account all other projects (but only at the moment of formulating the project -- not after). But will the initiators of these other projects (perhaps under bilateral or even national schemes) be able to take into account UN projects? And what will happen when a project is going wrong (inside or outside the UN system) and there is pressure to make its activities even more confidential?
Many situations can be envisaged, particularly as the rapidity of change increases, where development and pollution projects interact in an uncontrollable manner because one does not know the action being taken by the other. Such interaction can be very rapid -which would render the planned reporting mechanism useless. It must not be forgotten that there is an appreciable time delay -- disastrous for control purposes -- before all the appropriate decision centers in different parts of the UN-system (and outside) are informed and can coordinate their response. "Moreover, because of delays in project implementation and report preparation, project results are not immediately available." (II, p. 237) It would appear that the responsibility is placed on the government to coordinate and control. But the very countries in which most aid is required will be those in which the coordinative apparatus is probably poorest. [ "...many developing countries...had not solved the formidable problem posed by the sheer size of the information-distribution functions, and the related need for timely consultation, which arose in connection with the multifarious points of contact between their countries and the international system..." (E/AC.51/25, pare 78) ]
The flowcharts which should clarify the question show in one case (Chart 6-3) that "Assistance plans of bilaterals, (and) other non-UNDS bodies" feeds into a function labeled "Identification of role of external aid" during the programme-formulating phase. On another (Chart 6-6), "External documents from intergovernmental organizations and nongovernmental organizations" feeds into "National documentation center or Resident Representatives Office." Also that "User Technical Information," and "User Activity Information", feed into the "National Documentation Center". The impression is very much "now it is, now it isn't" -- now its everyone, now its UN (or UNDP) only. Non-UN bodies can benefit from out of date data, which has been collected and published, but are not to be informed of decisions taken concerning that data.
The intent seems to be to consider all non-UN inputs and outputs as national thus
"...although the role of the UN system is modest, it is still important because it is different in nature and quality from the assistance offered through (all?) other channels, primarily because of its inherent characteristics....Basically, the distinction between bilateral forms of cooperation and that provided through the UN is that the latter is a universal enterprise, in which all countries participate on equal terms..." (II, p. 108)
Clearly, here the international system is seen as being composed of the UN and bilateral (donor/receiver) organizations. At least 500 international nongovernmental organizations have consultative relationship with ECOSOC. From the text it could easily be inferred that these and all other intergovernmental bodies offered assistance which was deficient in nature and quality and non-universal -- although some of the NGOs have members in more countries than the UN and even operate in areas into which the UN cannot move (See: Pearson Report).
If the terms "non-UN" and "external" aid projects are interpreted as is occasionally implied to cover all the development projects in existence, thus including the projects initiated by international nongovernmental organizations, it becomes unclear as to what procedure is to be adopted for gathering the information in question. This problem is not considered. But in Chart 6-3, it is implied that the UNDP programme planning will take into account such aid. Since no estimate was made of the amount and nature of such aid, or the sources of such information, it would seem that such analyses will not be particularly effective.
If such non-UNDS projects are included, and the information system is to be for the benefit of all, who will decide whether a given project is a "development" project and should be included? What will be the status of external development projects not covered by a UNDP programme or by the current UNDP political definition of development? If they are excluded, how will the effects of interaction be detected and avoided? What will be the status of UN and non-UN non-development projects, which might interact with development projects? How will such projects be detected?
A UN development information system should recognize the delays inherent in obtaining governmental support for a given programme, or even recognition of the existence of a problem early in its development. Nongovernmental groups may take significant steps at this stage (as the Pearson Report recognizes) and it is important to ensure that their activities meld harmoniously into those of governmental bodies. This is a real problem as is illustrated by the following with regard to research:
"Persons and groups who perceive the importance of a new subject at an early stage try to set research going wherever they may be. Initiatives may be taken in unlikely places, and in institutions which do not provide the best environment for them. Thus there may be quite a lot of research in progress, but its results are partial and not sufficiently accessible. Members find their discussions on scientific and technological questions frustrated because they cannot obtain the data they require for adequately informed debate. There is no single place where they can get the appropriate information." (Crowther, J.G. The Strategy of Science. New Scientist, 8 May 1969, p. 304)
In the development context, the UN needs to be able to latch onto such persons and groups "wherever they may be,". This view is expressed in recommendation for information services within the U.S.A. (See quote from SATCOM Report on p. 12)
The SATCOM Report also recognizes three major advantages of nongovernmental information services as integral parts of an overall information network including government agencies:
"In the management of information programmes, scientific and technical societies...can fulfill three conditions essential to effective operation. The first is continuity, erratic shifts of emphasis with the drift of fashion and major excursions in annual budget are controlled in the interest of the long-term unfolding of science." (SATCOM Report, p. 28)
It is indicated in the conclusion to the information section that in fact the users of the information have not yet been specified.
"...the important initial need is to decide on the information needed in support of UN development cooperation activities, where it shall be obtained, and to whom it shall be provided." (II, p. 276)
It is generally considered impossible to design an information system without a very clear idea of the users and suppliers, their needs and logical interface problems. If these have not been determined, except by consultation within the UN system, then quite clearly the system is being optimized in terms of the UN/UNDP needs. This is logical within the terms of reference. But suppose it were possible to produce a system that would provide all the information needs of the UN and also provide the information needs of users outside the UN -- in the form they would want it, not in the form in which the UN wishes to supply it to them?
No investigation appears to have been made of whether a new information system could not be made to deal with both UN and non-UN development projects according to the needs of each so that the current political needs would not jeopardize the information needs of the future.
By focusing closely on the UN system and vaguely implying that others will be served, one is faced with the conflict as to whether the Study sees the UN system as a world system for the benefit of all, or merely as an administrative system of value to a few bodies with their own special mandate. Clearly it can be conveniently argued either way. If in practice it proves to be a "UN-oriented" information system inconveniently structured for other users -- governmental or not --, then clearly each such group of users will have to create its own information system, and the same problem will enter another cycle, leading to the same degree of fragmentation of effort.
The Study frequently emphasizes the need for management and a system within the UN. Management needs should therefore be reflected in the design of the information system. The Study advocates (Chart 6-3) five phases in the UN Development Cooperation Cycle: country programme, project formulation, implementation, evaluation, follow-up.
From the Study the term "programme" is used for the country programme as formulated in consultation with the government. The country programme is however formulated by the UNDP in terms of its own policy guidelines, which are derived from legislative policy, current status of UNDS projects and programmes, and programme budget (Chart 6-3). Presumably, the latter covers the global indicative planning figure and country indicative planning figures (II, p. 378-9) of total funds available.
There are several stages in the determination and allocation of UNDP resources
At each stage, a management decision has to be taken in selecting between alternative ways of using the funds available. A management information system should, logically, facilitate the process by which such decisions are made by juxtaposing relevant items of information and drawing attention to exceptional trends. The first three stages of the decision-making process are, however, not mentioned in the Chart on the United Nations Development Cycle (6-3) -- or as being served by the information system.
In one case:
"So far as UNDP is concerned, the Governing Council would no longer approve batches of unrelated projects but instead would consider UNDP country programmes prepared on the lines described....The advantage would be that, instead of discussing individual projects in isolation, the Council could examine each proposed programme as a whole, and in depth, taking its decision against the overall economic and social background in each case." (II, p.167)
But how are the details to be adequately juxtaposed to permit an overall and "in depth" perspective without plunging into pages of intellectually indigestible statistics?
But the Study established that "the UN development system and the developing countries are now working on a total of about 1,200 potential projects," (II, p. 37), 495 operational Special Fund projects (end of 1968, II, p. 46), and an unknown number of Technical Assistance projects. (On this last point: survey results "have not been entirely satisfactory...particularly for the TA component where records are scant and spread over a very large number of small projects" (II, p. 32).) It was unable to determine the number of bodies involved in the UN development decision-making process (II, p. 288) Apart from the bodies themselves, there is the variety of functions they perform, which is nowhere centrally documented.
Within each country, through bilateral and non-UN organizations, whether governmental or nongovernmental, a similar situation probably exists. At each decision-making stage therefore, a small group of people must allocate resources in the face of a maze of unknowns. Even the channels through which the funds flow are not clearly established. The proposed information system would document individual projects and provide feedback and reports on projects. It would provide the necessary pile of administrative documents or microfiche equivalent -- but there seems to be no provision for resolving the complexity on which the decision-makers have to sit in judgement.
As an earlier report to the UN pointed out, reports analyzing problem and programme relationships contribute little to the maintenance of an up-to-date clear and comprehensive picture of the existing operational and research programmes and contacts which could be used to improve future programmes. (Walter N. Kotschnig. United States Member of the United Nations Enlarged Committee for Program and Coordination. Development of modern management techniques and use of computers. E/AC.51/GR/1.9. 7 October 1968) It is only at the highest decision-making levels that the programme is integrated, below them it is the concern of specialized departments with an uncertain effectiveness of interaction.
Such conditions immediately recall the warnings cited earlier concerning the power of the planners in a complex situation where the totality of information is not held in a comprehensible form. Such a situation is dangerous because the decision-makers will have to decide without adequate awareness of the options or side effects. There is no democratic checking process of adequate simplicity built into the system to provide planners with other views on their recommendations.
It is questionable therefore whether the information system is a management information system rather than an operations or administrative information system which provides operations information to management:
"The effective functioning of the five UNDCC phases (see Chart 6.3) requires the efficient management (1) of program and project operations, and (2) of the administrative activities which support program and project operations. The characteristics of these activities determine the operational and administrative information needs of the UN development system." (II, p. 260)
This is also confirmed by the name given to the sub-system in question "Operational and Administrative Information System" (II, p. 259). The actual management information system appears to be a team, which would reprocess the operational data:
"...during implementation, project inspection reports would be... sent to the government, the Regional Bureaux, and the Management and Information Systems staff (MISS), which would, in turn, consolidate the reports in a manner suitable for presentation to the Administrator and the Programme Policy staff." (II, p. 266)
In addition, by tying the information to country project operations, given the acknowledged slowness of the project approval cycle, the whole system is made inflexible in terms of speed of response to new types of problems which cut across pre-established UNDP or country programmes. A current grave weakness of the UN programme system is that a potential project, which comes under the jurisdiction of several programmes, cannot be processed or considered except by the Head of the Agency.
An appropriate new programme can only be formulated after a lengthy cycle of political deliberation at the national level, or within the Agency and its General Assembly. This is not effective in a fast moving situation. New approval and control techniques are required.
There is no facility for processing projects, which come under the jurisdiction of several Agencies. This situation will not be improved with the new information system. It will not facilitate treatment of projects, which are only "10% development" oriented. The information system is geared up to handle projects and low level programmes after the important decisions have been taken -- and it does not increase the sophistication with which such decisions are taken.
The recurring theme of all discussion on the development decades is the problem of influencing people to want development, to become involved in it, and to vote funds for it. It is impossible to influence people without making contact with them in terms of their special interests. This requires an information system. The Study makes no mention whatsoever of such an information system. Yet some such system would be required to circulate project reports, both within and outside the UN system and to act as an interface with organizations which might become intimately involved in UN projects, purchase UN publications (possibly for educational purposes), etc. Such a system could perform an important coordinative function between people involved in similar UN projects -- the mayor current problem.
It has been ignored because these functions are apparently irrelevant to the development cycle and are currently performed by a scattered series of report distribution services, sales literature distribution services, press literature distribution services, etc. The Center for Economic and Social Information (see later section) will help to remedy this, but only by setting up a new service, rather than integrating the efforts of all the old ones.
Again, in these services the bodies receiving the literature are treated conceptually as secondary to the purpose for which they receive it. This makes it totally impossible to obtain a comprehensive picture of the interaction of the UN system with one body, within or outside the UN.
The proposed system will not ensure that a body involved in a given type of project will receive the report of that project, the report of subsequent related projects, invitations to participate in new projects, or other material distributed by the UN related to the interests indicated by its initial involvement in the project. Nor will it assist non-UN bodies to inform UN bodies of reports or activities of possible interest to them. The need for maintaining contact with organizations for the benefit of future programmes and projects, as yet unformulated, is not considered.
The key question here is once more the status of the mailing address of a body. Traditional UN procedure has been to wait until a programme or project was voted and then to attempt to collect all relevant addresses, starting from scratch. In the case of International Cooperation Year, for example, this procedure was not well advanced three months before the end of the year -- and the termination of the associated programmes.
The possibility does not seem to have been considered that by integrating the files on the basis of which decisions are made, with the files on the basis of which distributions are made, that the period between the decision and possession of all the necessary addresses for a given type of contact or programme (survey, questionnaires, meeting invitations, report distribution, etc.) can be reduced to insignificance -- instead of being a major important delaying factor in project implementation.
The Study creates an impression, which is reflected in the design of the information system, of lack of desire on the part of the UN to recognize the full consequences of its activities or their significance in the eyes of people who place much hope in the UN formula. The missing attitude is well summarized in the following:
"The program of a large organization, whether intended or not... affects a wide sector of the organization's environment, one much wider than the organization may understand to be its surrounds. Groups that are essential to an organization's continued functioning most likely make themselves known....Feedback information from groups whose support is essential may come too late, to be sure, if the organization does not make special efforts to get it....only some of them will respond directly or spontaneously. Organizations that wish to deal responsibly with their social surrounds must be capable of eliciting and evaluating responses from those who realize they are affected but who are ordinarily silent, and from those who are affected but may not realize it... .
The information system is split into three sub-systems. The technical and scientific sub-system is concerned entirely with published material, namely, internal documents, project progress and technical reports, country published material, non-UN organization books and periodicals (II, pp. 233-234). The economic and social sub-system "is concerned mainly with the statistical data generated and reported by governments" (II, p. 231).
Key information handled by the operational and administrative subsystem is: available financial and human resources, economic and social data, project descriptions, and various feedback reports, (II, pp. 260-1). "With such information...planning activities would result in determination of who intends to do what, when for individual projects and country programmes." (II, p. 260-1)
The information system is conceived in terms of documents or data that has been produced at some time in the past -- the information produced rather than the producers of the information. The information produced is essential, but should not be considered the keystone of a management information system -- it is detail required when necessary. An overall clear and comprehensive picture can only be obtained by focusing on the producers of information (in its broadest sense), their resources and their coordination of their current and planned activities.
(The clearest equivalent to this is the situation in a nation's "'War Room". It is not the written reports of the commanders of ships, planes and brigades that are considered significant. These arrive days or weeks after the events on which decisions must be taken and are not necessarily read by the decision-maker. The radioed reports of the positions and strengths of these forces are however converted immediately into symbol form for display on screens, or else fed into computers for both display, analysis and subsequent display of decision options. Decisions are not taken on week-old written reports from brigade headquarters.)
The proposed information system omits one whole level of information handling which is vital for decision-making and understanding. A management information system requires information on: bodies controlling, evaluating, formulating, and implementing programmes; and on bodies coordinating resources and memberships (in their broadest sense), relationships and information networks linking them to problem areas. The proposed system does not solve the problem of the unknown number of such bodies, how they are to be sorted out, and how to see which is the key body in a given situation. The Study indicates that no one knows how many bodies there are within any given Agency or within the UN system as a whole. Knowledge of the situation in the non-UN part of the system is likely to be worse. Collecting together the piles of documents produced by some of these bodies, if they produce documents (for if they do not, the proposed system will be totally unable to detect them), does not give a picture which can be comprehended by a decision-maker -- such information cannot be adequately juxtapositioned for comprehension if it requires hours of reading.
The Study does not recognize that the period covered by the proposed system is one in which increasingly, if the decision-maker waits for all the relevant information, it will be too late for him to make a useful decision, if he gets all the relevant information in the form it currently takes, he will have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination to read it all; and if he reads and comprehends it all, he will not have the time or the ability to convey his understanding to those whose support he must obtain to carry a vote on the matter or, ultimately, to the man in the street (whose support the Study recognizes to be vital).
These are the problems which are becoming more and more acute with the increase in the amount of information, its degree of specialization, the difficulty of locating it (and justifying its expense), the increasing rapidity of change, and thc onlooker's despair in the face of complexity. These problems are not solved by delegating some of the decision-making functions because then all the problems of communication between individuals and departments with their own purposes and perspectives arise.
"Among the responses to such pressure is greater specialization. Yet...this expedient is not always satisfactory, for the degree to which one specialty impinges on another also is increasing, and with it the amount of information with relevance to any one field of endeavour." (SATCOM, p. 178-9)
Any attempt to divide up the task merely poses once more all the problems of adequate coordination and integration of programmes and the need for a clear overall perspective. This cannot be conveyed in a report. The shorter the report, the less depth and detail it can contain. The longer the report, the less likely it is that it will be read and understood.
"Consider this dilemma: while our technological abilities to generate and disseminate potentially useful data have increased manifold in the past few years, man's physical capacity to register and to process potentially informative data has probably increased very little, if indeed at all. The sheer volume of data that crosses the typical executive's desk today should serve to spotlight the inadequacies of the education and development of our acquisition strategies and practices. But no gain in ability could offset the widening gap between the exponentially-increasing quantity of data available for consumption and man's very limited capacity for acquiring and processing useful information." (Thayer, Lee. Communication and communication systems; in organization, management, and interpersonal relations. Irwin, 1968, p. 202)
This dilemma is partially acknowledged by the Study in connection with the Study report itself: "Few Ministers will have time to read this Report " (I, p. viii) The people who have to read relevant documents are not necessarily the people whose time is occupied by the meetings in which the decisions are actually taken, and the two groups do not necessarily communicate very effectively.
These are the problems of decision-making today and the acute problems of tomorrow. To solve them, they must be treated objectively today.
From the type of data collected, it seems quite impossible for the operational and administrative sub-system - to show who intends to do what, when for individual projects and country programmes" (II, pp. 260-1). There is no mention of any data to be collected which could cover the "who" or the "when". Presumably' this could form part of the project reports or the "human resources". In the first, the organizations involved in the project are treated as secondary to the project, in the second, it would seem that the organizations are treated in terms of the affiliations of the individuals detected by the system. In both cases, the bodies are dealt with in terms of their current operational significance and not in terms of their potential operational significance in their own right -- the management perspective.
The system shows the projects in which given organizations have decided to become involved and not the organizations which (a) are currently involved in projects, (b) are not, but which are potentially interested in particular projects in the future. This is the recurring blind spot in the Study.
The fundamental weakness in the bias towards a library system as the basis for a management information system is that the library system cannot collect together all the information relevant to a particular topic. Thus:
"It is estimated that by the end of 1970, about 100,000 document references will be stored in the FAO, ILO and UN documentation centres. After 1970, the volume in these libraries may grow by 15,000 to 20,000 documents each year, which will represent only that fraction of total available documents of particular interest to development cooperation." (II, p. 236)
The first point is that this quote refers to "references". It is not sufficient to have a reference. The document has to be obtained. This takes time -- often sufficient time for the document to be no longer relevant.
The second point is that the quote implies that the collections will increase at an arithmetic rate, presumably over the next decade. Current estimates of the information flood are based on a geometric rate of increase with a doubling every 10-15 years.
The third point is, whether 100,000 is an adequate collection for all topics related to development in 1970. Since in the past, the UN system libraries have not had an unlimited budget, some criteria have had to be applied in purchasing and acquiring new materials. Without an unlimited budget it is doubtful that all materials of "particular interest" have been located or purchased.
Clearly we are getting here another operational definition of development. For if one of the sub-systems proposed is a scientific and technical sub-system, one must expect a certain proportion of such material to be included:
"With all forms of scientific and technical literature showing increases over time, both institutions and individuals using such information must expect increasing difficulty in finding, obtaining, and assimilating such information. The prospect of a university library collections doubling from three million to six million volumes in the next 15 years, with a concurrent trebling of cost, is an outlook that suggests the anticipation of change and some planning for it." (SATCOM Report, p. 92)
According to this, the UN developing system collection of scientific and technical information will stand at 3% of that of a university library and will not increase at a similar rate. The 3% may be the "cream of the cream", but even with the best expertise selecting such material is nearly impossible as material in this field dates quickly. The non-UN material may on the other hand contain a "hodge-podge" of donated, national government, publishers, free copies.
Some measure of the comprehensiveness of this service is indicated by the following:
"...but all relevant documents do not enter into these documentary facilities...in FAO, for example, it has been estimated that only 10 per cent of the relevant documents are published. Moreover, because of delays in project implementation and report preparation, project results are not immediately available. And many documents are restricted and thus not available for wide distribution and use." (II, p. 237)
The fourth point arises from the phrase that these documents "will represent only that fraction of total available documents of particular interest to development cooperation." Chart 6-5 of the Study indicates that the total growth rate of the three library collections will be 15,000 to 20,000. Therefore all future information collected will be development information. There will be no non-development programmes apparently. (This reinforces an earlier argument that the UN will be led into a development cul-de-sac.)
Chart 6-5 also indicates the criteria by which documents are chosen for inclusion:
UN: "Any relevant document issued under UN authority. Material from non-UN1 sources on issues before the Organization. FAO: "...technical documents produced by FAO...reports of FAO/UNDP projects...Technical...documents in FAO fields..." ILO: "Selected documentation related to Organization major programmes -- from internal and external sources." UNESCO: For the proposed system: "All UNESCO documents...By 1973, documents of other organizations and Member States relating to specific UNESCO activities."
Briefly, if there is as yet no programme on the topic, the document will not be sought, obtained and included even if it is recognized as a problem elsewhere. The UN technical and scientific information system, as a management system aid, is therefore totally unprepared for any tonic, which is not yet covered by a UN system programme. Once a new topic programme has been approved by political processes, one must then add the delay during which the system locates all relevant references and acquires the relevant materials published elsewhere on the topic.
"Thus the potential user first has difficulty in identifying all possible sources (of technical and scientific information) and then has trouble in obtaining access to such sources." (II, p. 237)
Then, and only then, can decisions be taken using information from this particular sub-system.
It can surely only be dangerous to create the impression that this narrowly oriented information system is adequate to meet the complex interacting problems of the future. In the effort to locate and acquire documents -- which are a record of past activity -- the system loses sight of the importance of keeping track of the organizations, individuals and information systems which are active now, plan to act, or might be convinced of the necessity to act, in the near future. It is this network which is producing information now. And it is this network which is tapped for expert advice on new areas the organization is moving into. Here one sees the operational weakness of a documentation system for management purposes. Up-to-date information must be sought by processes, which do not form part of the information system -- whence the somewhat lengthy process of establishing expert commissions and missions to obtain information in a particular form. Such bodies are based solely on the organization's immediate contacts and not on an objective determination of the key person or group in the network. It is of course the information produced by points in this network, which will eventually be detected by the library system at some undetermined point in the future. It is the picture of what this network is doing now or might do that is the basis of a management information system. It is only by maintaining this picture (as up-to-date as possible) that a global strategy for anything can be adequately elaborated and quickly implemented. The fact that this network can even be displayed visually (just as PERT networks can be manipulated on television screens linked to computers (see page )) means that it is possible, for the first time, to cut through all the communication and comprehension problems (see page 39) that attend display of information in text form. The information system is maintained at a much higher degree of information furnishing potential on the current and planned situation.
this work is licenced under a creative commons licence.