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Is the ‘Unprecedented’ Reform of the World Meteorological Organization Seriously Stalled?

Petteri Taalas, the head of the World Meteorological Organization, a United Nations specialized agency based in Geneva, speaking at the Conference of State Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Dec. 10, 2019. The WMO embarked on an ambitious internal reform, but a recent report says that aspects of the plan are sorely lacking two years later. WMO

Back in June 2019, the World Meteorological Organization embarked on an ambitious effort to streamline its internal operations, cut expenses by two percent and realign the organization with “21st-century realities, priorities and dynamics.”

The timing was right. A United Nations specialized agency based in Geneva, the WMO, as it is known, dates its origins to 1873, when the International Meteorological Organization was founded to exchange weather data and research. A century and a half later, between the deadly forest fires now sweeping through California and Oregon in the United States and the floods inundating parts of Germany and China, “weather data” is only the beginning of what the world needs.

But not much has come of the restructuring plan for the WMO secretariat, which actually isn’t even a plan, according to a recent report by the UN Joint Inspection Unit, an independent oversight agency. Along with a master plan, the restructuring lacks key objectives and performance indicators — not to mention an assessment of the risks the process could run into, a timeline and cost estimates.

None of this would matter if the WMO weren’t so critical to understanding how the climate crisis is shaping our lives now and in the future. As it says on its website, the agency “is the UN system’s authoritative voice on the state and behaviour of the Earth’s atmosphere, its interaction with the land and oceans, the weather and climate it produces and the resulting distribution of water resources.”

The reorganization effort, described by the June 2019 resolution mandating it as “unprecedented” in scope, led to the reform of the WMO’s constituent bodies — commissions, six regional associations and the executive council. It resulted in the creation of two new technical commissions instead of the previous eight, to favor “a holistic Earth system approach,” according to the resolution. There was “general appreciation for the changes,” a survey of the agency’s 193 member states revealed.

The reorganization also led to the restructuring of the secretariat, which carries out the daily work of the WMO. Contrary to the reform of the constituent bodies, the revamping of the secretariat seems to lack direction, as suggested by the Inspector’s report.

This happens as, in many industrialized countries, private companies are solidifying their dominance as the main providers of weather information — even though their forecasts are not always reliable. A Penn State University professor’s research found that the US media company AccuWeather’s forecasts beyond one week were less accurate than the National Weather Service’s historical climatological averages.

Privately owned weather services can also be less-than science-minded. Fox Corporation — the media empire known for its on-air climate-change deniers — plans to launch its own weather channel later this year.

It was partly growing competition that led the World Meteorological Organization to undertake its ambitious restructuring. But so far, although the management claims the effort is running smoothly, “there is no verifiable evidence to measure that success, in the absence of any strategic plan for human resources and the restructuring [of the secretariat],” Keiko Kamioka, who led the Joint Inspection Unit investigation, wrote in its report.

The restructuring is being led by a former head of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, Petteri Taalas, who was appointed as secretary-general of the WMO in 2015 and re-elected to a second four-year term in 2019, when the WMO’s ruling Congress approved the resolution mandating the reform and restructuring.

The changes have created new secretariat structures that are not financially consistent or coherent with UN standard practices, Kamioka wrote. What’s more, there are no slots for a director of finance and administration, a chief information officer or a chief security officer (who would be in charge of the physical security of offices, issuance of identity cards, background checks and entry controls). Without these positions, an organization “exposes itself to the risk of mismanagement and loss of institutional credibility and integrity,” the report said.

The report made four formal recommendations. One was addressed to the Congress’s executive council, which is charged with the reform of the constituent bodies. The other three and most of the 27 informal recommendations were aimed at Secretary-General Taalas. They urged him to prepare a comprehensive accountability and internal control framework for staff members, to know their delegated authorities and responsibilities; to develop a human-resources strategy by creating documents for its management; and to form a management-staff team to conduct a review of the secretariat restructuring. The recommendations have to be implemented by the end of 2021.

Taalas accepted the three formal recommendations, saying that it was “too early to gauge the overall impacts and outcomes” of the restructure. But he rejected six of the informal recommendations, even though the Audit and Oversight Committee Chair opined that the inspection was “pertinent and comprehensive” and that it reinforced the observations of an external auditors’ report in 2020.

The Staff Association, representing the approximately 300 employees of the WMO, stated that it was “in near full agreement” with the oversight unit’s report. In fact, the staff was frustrated with the restructuring, according to a December 2019 survey, the last one conducted among employees, in which comments were made anonymously. Staff members perceived senior management as mismanaging the restructuring, resulting in a lack of trust and credibility.

Three former WMO employees who experienced the restructuring confirmed to PassBlue their lack of confidence in senior management’s leadership. The employees were not informed about the planned changes, they said, although Taalas assured that he placed “high importance on the consultation with the staff through formal and informal channels.”

“Trust and partnership between management and staff” had to be re-established, Kamioka wrote. This link, she added, will be “crucial going forward” as employees are implementing the restructuring at the ground level.

The WMO did not respond to questions from PassBlue but provided a general comment: “WMO is serious and committed to addressing all formal recommendations and an action plan for informal recommendations has been prepared. The restructuring and reform of the organization has been carried out in a legally sound and official manner.”

Yet without a master plan or clear parameters to measure the restructuring’s success, it is not clear thus far that the agency will be up to the task it aspired to when it launched its unprecedented effort in 2019: to respond to the “21st-century realities, priorities and dynamics.”

Maurizio Guerrero was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations for 10 years of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).

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