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Note on Executive Committee Working Methods

Executive Committee Meetings

Note on Executive Committee Working Methods

2 January 1995


1. At a time when the governing bodies of United Nations agencies related to ECOSOC (notably UNDP and UNICEF) have been undergoing extensive reform, there has been an increasing recognition among Executive Committee (ExCom) members of the need to improve the efficiency of the way in which the Committee conducts its work. At the heart of this concern lies a desire to improve ExCom's ability to focus its debate, reach more effective decisions and conclusions, and provide effective governance.

2. This note aims to make suggestions and propose options concerning ExCom's working procedures, decision-making process and documentation. At this stage, these are of a preliminary nature and are intended to provide a basis for discussion and further refinement.


3. The present structure of Executive Committee meetings is as follows:

  • Plenary: one five-day meeting (effectively four working days)
  • SCAF: some four inter-sessional and one pre-ExCom meeting
  • SCIP: at least one inter-sessional and one pre-ExCom meeting
  • Informal: two half-day informal meetings
  • "Friends of the Rapporteur", who meet in parallel with the plenary

While these arrangements have functioned relatively well, they entail the following disadvantages:

(a) As a result of its shortened length (3.5 working days plus adoption of its report), the plenary now consists almost exclusively of a three-day general debate. While a separate plenary agenda item remains for Programme, Administrative and Financial Matters, this item has focused, since the shortening of the ExCom plenary, on the adoption of the annual programme rather than on discussion of it. In reality, there are no agenda items allowing for discussion to be focused on specific policy or programme issues.

(b) Consequently, substantive discussions of policy have been increasingly forced out into the Sub-Committees, which were originally conceived as mechanisms for dealing with more technical aspects of ExCom's work. The most extreme example of this development is illustrated in the way in which the pre-ExCom meeting of the Sub-Committee of the Whole on International Protection has, since the abolition of a specific agenda item on protection in the plenary, assumed the role of a plenary debate on major protection policy.

(c) Having become the fora for substantive discussions of broad policy, the Sub-Committees, since 1988, have been obliged to open their doors to increasing numbers of observers.

(d) As they have moved into the domain of overall policy discussion, the Sub-Committees also inevitably have come to examine complex issues that involve both programme/administrative and protection aspects. The SCIP/SCAF formula does not accommodate such discussions easily. As a result, there has been an increasing tendency to hold SCAF and SCIP meetings back to back and the experiment of a joint SCIP-SCAF meeting has been resorted to. There also has been a tendency for SCAF to consider issues with a high protection content.

(e) Despite the substantive policy issues now discussed in the Sub-Committees, only the plenary is empowered to make decisions. Consequently, inter-sessional meetings tend not to be decision-oriented and produce a large volume of documentation aimed predominantly at information sharing. Virtually all decisions and conclusions are left for elaboration at the time of the plenary.

(f) Where an urgent decision concerning a revision of the General Programmes target has been required, it has been necessary to transform one of the biannual Informal ExCom meetings into an extraordinary meeting of ExCom.

(g) As the plenary itself cannot cope with the volume of decisions it has to make, it has been obliged to resort to the drafting group mechanism known as "the Friends of the Rapporteur".

(h) As discussion in the plenary is unfocused and as decisions are not prepared in the inter-sessional meetings, despite the extensive and useful discussion that takes place there, the Friends of the Rapporteur have, in turn, had difficulty in limiting themselves to the role of a drafting group and tend inevitably to become involved in discussions of substance. The decisions and conclusions the Friends adopt often bear little relationship to the plenary debate. As a result, the plenary tends to be reduced to "rubber stamping" texts of decisions and conclusions negotiated in the Friends of the Rapporteur. The plenary itself has little control over either its drafting group or its Sub-Committees whose programme of work is largely set by decisions emanating from the Friends.

(i) The overloading of the plenary/Friends of the Rapporteur detracts from the transparency of the Executive decision-making process and endangers the principle of consensus on which the decisions and conclusions of the Executive Committee are based.

There are a number of options as to how the structure of Executive Committee could be rationalized.

Suggestion 1:

Option A: A radical option would be to abolish both Sub-Committees and informal meetings of ExCom and to establish a cycle of ExCom meeting consisting of one annual session plus approximately three regular sessions throughout the year - a formula successfully adopted in the governing boards of UNICEF and UNDP. The regular sessions would be able to adopt decisions/conclusions, thus off-loading the annual session and spreading the work of ExCom throughout the year. They would, moreover, be able to accommodate on their agenda items relating to either programme/administration or protection and thus allow more easily for discussion of matters which cut across SCAF/SCIP lines. A division of work would have to be devised between the annual and the regular sessions. The annual session could, for example, concentrate on matters of overall policy and adopt the general conclusions on international protection and the programme budget. Regular sessions could, for their part, adopt decisions/conclusions on more specific assistance and protection topics or make required adjustments to programme targets. While having the advantage of spreading the decision process throughout the year and ensuring a closer linkage between discussion and related decisions, a major disadvantage of this formula could be the difficulties that delegations, particularly from non-donor countries, might have in providing representation from capitals for the regular sessions as well as the main annual session. This difficulty has been experienced by UNICEF.

Option B: A similar, but less radical option would be to maintain inter-sessional meetings rather than regular sessions, but to have only one body rather than the current three (SCIP, SCAF and Informal Meetings). A unified Sub- (or Standing) Committee of the Whole could be established. It could meet regularly throughout the year at the same frequency as the regular sessions suggested in option A above. The combined body would have the flexibility to accommodate on its agenda any of the items currently considered in SCIP, SCAF or Informal ExComs, ranging from technical financial or administrative matters to questions of programme or protection policy. It would more easily accommodate issues that cut across the lines of SCIP and SCAF and would thus provide a more appropriate forum for the preparation of decisions and conclusions for the annual plenary. Level of representation could also be flexible depending on the subject of discussion but would normally be on a par with that of the current Sub-Committees. Although the body could not formally adopt decisions in the same way as the regular sessions proposed under option A, a certain level of decision-making authority (e.g., adjustments to programme targets within certain limits) could be delegated to the body by the plenary; other decisions and conclusions for adoption by the annual session could be prepared by the body to a far greater extent than is at present the case in SCIP and SCAF, provided that related adjustments are made to documentation (see section VI below).

Option C: An even less radical option would be to maintain the current structure of the Sub-Committees (SCIP and SCAF) and to take measures to improve their efficiency by systematizing their programmes of work and increasing their focus on the preparation of decisions and conclusions for the plenary. While being least disruptive to the familiar structure, this has the disadvantage of preserving an artificial division between protection and programme discussions. This division could, indeed, become increasingly dysfunctional if the Sub-committees' focus on preparing texts of decisions and conclusions is increased.

Option D: Various combinations of the above options are also possible. SCAF, for example, could be preserved as a mechanism to review budgetary, financial and administrative matters of a technical nature (a reversion to its original role); meanwhile, policy matters (both protection and assistance) could be dealt with either in regular sessions (as per option A) or in a Standing Committee (option B).


Whichever of the above options is adopted, there is a perceived need to reform the agenda of the annual ExCom session and of the subsidiary bodies.

If the annual session is to be the forum for major policy debate and for the adoption of related decisions and conclusions, then its agenda should be structured in such a way as to facilitate discussion of these topics. Similarly, if the subsidiary bodies are to support the plenary, then their agendas need to be better planned and dovetailed with the plenary itself.

Suggestion 2: It is suggested that the agenda of the annual session could be restructured along the following lines:

(i) General debate

(ii) International protection

(iii) One major policy issue

(iv) Programme budget

(v) Work programme of subsidiary bodies

Suggestion 3: The regular sessions or sub-committee(s) - depending on the formula adopted - would then be able to focus on more detailed administrative, financial and programme matters as well as on individual issues of international protection. Their agendas should be drawn up by the plenary, which should assign a specific programme of work to its subsidiary bodies and review their work.


The longer agenda of the annual session would allow for more detailed and focused discussions. It would, however, inevitably require more time.

Suggestion 4:

Option A: The revised agenda of the plenary and introduction of either regular sessions or a unified Sub-Committee may render unnecessary pre-plenary meetings of subsidiary bodies. If this is the case, the annual session could make use of the time currently devoted to the current pre-ExCom Sub-Committee meetings. The general debate could take place on the Thursday and Friday now allocated to SCIP and SCAF. Alternatively, the plenary could commence on Monday and run through the Tuesday of the following week. It would thus have a total of 6.5 to 7 working days available to it instead of the current 4.5 (or 4 in actual working time).

Option B: If the pre-session meetings of the Sub-Committees are maintained, then consideration could nevertheless be given to extending the plenary as in option A above.


The current working methods of the Executive Committee have led to a divorce between debate and the decision process. This has detracted from the transparency of decisions and led to an increasing level of dissatisfaction among members.

Suggestion 5:

Option A: As has been done in both UNDP and UNICEF, the Friends of the Rapporteur drafting group could be abolished. Given the additional time proposed for the plenary, discussion of decisions/conclusions could, if well prepared (see section VI below), be undertaken in the plenary itself or in regular sessions/sub-committee(s), as appropriate. Should the text of decisions prove to be problematic, this could be handled by informal negotiating groups made up of the members concerned.

Option B: If the mechanism of the Friends of the Rapporteur is maintained, it could be more closely linked with the plenary. Texts of decisions/conclusions would thus be referred by the plenary to the Friends for further elaboration and return to the plenary for approval.


The volume and lateness of documentation have become a subject of increasing concern to ExCom. Current documentation is excessively voluminous (1,600 page for a full-year cycle and as much as 200 pages for a SCAF). It is discursive and insufficiently focused and analytical and, as a result, does not lead to clear decisions.

Suggestion 6: It is suggested that a clear distinction be introduced between information papers and those requiring substantive discussion and endorsement by ExCom. In the latter case, it is suggested that each document should conclude with a proposed decision/conclusion for adoption by the Committee.

Suggestion 7: Wherever possible, it is suggested that documents should be limited to six pages (single space), including the text of the accompanying decision (the limit is three in UNDP and UNICEF). Country programmes could be excepted from this.

Suggestion 8: Where policy documents exceed the page limit they should contain a one-page executive summary to facilitate the work of delegations.


There is an increasing presence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in intergovernmental fora in general and in ExCom in particular. As NGOs do not, in general, have the opportunity to take the floor in the plenary, an informal ExCom-NGO consultation was introduced on an experimental basis last year - thus further increasing the different types of ExCom meetings.

Suggestion 9: It is suggested that advantage be taken of the longer plenary session proposed above to allow additional NGOs to take the floor. A limit (say 15) could be set and a process for self-selection introduced.


The above suggestions and options are put forward as a basis for further discussion concerning the organization of the work of the Executive Committee. While they make an effort to take account of preoccupations expressed by a number of delegations concerning the Executive Committee process, they are by no means exhaustive. Further thinking, together with Executive Committee members, will certainly be required in order to reach agreement on ways to improve governance and to enhance the Executive Committee's invaluable role as a unique forum for building international consensus on issues of major humanitarian concern.