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Director’s Cut - Friday, 20 February 2009
By Kimo Goree, Director of IISD Reporting Services (IISD RS) - kimo@iisd.org
Kimo Goree
Director of
IISD RS
Knowledge-based organizations, like IISD’s Reporting Services, are essentially worth no more than their accumulated intellectual capital. Our value as an institution cannot be measured in equipment, patents, buildings or land. Instead, our value lies in the contribution that our team members make, based on their knowledge, to the reports and information that we produce. We succeed or fail as a conference reporting service and knowledge broker on the accuracy, reliability and timeliness of our work, and for this we rely on our writers, editors and Thematic Experts to be the best of the best.

Our demand for talented writers has grown as we have expanded during the last seventeen years. For most of the first decade, we were a conference reporting service, attending meetings and distributing the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. However, in response to both donors and our own Board of Directors, who wanted to see measurable results from their investments in our work, we began expanding beyond meeting reports and into areas where we could satisfy the informational needs of policymakers in new ways. One way that we have evaluated our work and measured its effectiveness is through a scale that measures policy influence, from passive to active, developed by Canada’s CIDA:

Spectrum of Policy Influence

While IISD Reporting Services does not attempt to influence the direction of policy, we are involved in the business of improving the quality of the policy formulation process, by infusing it with knowledge that is available to all decision makers. And, as a result, we began developing new products seeking to inform the multilateral negotiators that we were servicing through the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. In a subsequent article, I’ll discuss the creation of our “for-hire” service for non-UN meetings, the expansion of our Linkages website at www.iisd.ca and our efforts to  “push” content out in an email product (Linkages Update), the creation of MEA Bulletin, the establishment of the community “L” lists, and now our work assisting the Secretary-General’s Chief Executives Board Secretariat in tracking international activities on climate change through our knowledge management project, CLIMATE-L.ORG. However, to produce each of these new products, and as our coverage of negotiations expanded, we needed to bring in more and more “intellectual capital” to do the work. Luckily we decided at the outset that no “sub-prime” or “derivative” products would be used as we invested in our expansion.

During the early years, from 1992 through 2000, we relied mostly on our own academic and professional networks to recruit new writers. Dr. Pamela Chasek, one of the three founders, often used her connections through the International Studies Association and contacts throughout the international environmental policy community to find new writers. Some team members came to us through contacts at meetings, particularly when we began recruiting former diplomats and bureaucrats to join our teams. It is  only in the last decade that we have begun using our growing email lists to send out calls for new writers to all of our readers, bringing in hundreds of applications and strengthening the team with an influx of talent from outside our personal networks.

Every new institution has its growing pains, particularly as they move from small informal organizations and slowly realize that some processes need to be professionalized. We now have a fully professional recruiting process that includes the active participation of members throughout IISD Reporting Services. For the last seven years, we have sent out an annual recruitment announcement calling for new writers. Each applicant must meet a set of minimum criteria to be considered, which we feel is important to ensure that we get only the very best recruits and in order to keep the number of applicants to a manageable number. We require that every ENB writer speak at least two UN languages fluently, one of which should be English. All applicants must either have a Ph.D. or be enrolled in a Ph.D. program, have an LL.M. in international environmental law, or have five years experience working as a diplomat or UN staff member and have been actively engaged in multilateral negotiations. All new writers also have to know how to type well, which is an essential skill for note takers.

Each applicant must submit a cover letter, stating why he or she would like to be an ENB writer, as well as a professional resume or curriculum vita. To democratize the hiring process within our own team, current ENB writers conduct a systematic evaluation and ranking of all the applications that meet our very restrictive criteria. These ten to twenty team members go through each of the more than two hundred applications, assigning numerical scores to more than a dozen qualities that the recruitment announcement listed as important, including the ability to write well in English, the applicant’s record of published academic work, strong references from within the academic and policy communities where we work, additional language skills and real-life exposure to how the UN and multilateral system works. Depending on the number of writers we need each year, we then offer the top-ranked fifteen to thirty applicants a “virtual” try-out. Each of the chosen recruits, whether a retired Ambassador or recent graduate, has to demonstrate that they can listen to a series of interventions and recordings of real multilateral negotiations and synthesize these into ENB-style write-ups within a given time period and to a specific word count. Most new writers say that it is the most difficult test that they have ever had to take, but these are the life skills that we require and we would be remiss to leave this out of the recruiting process.

We invest considerable time and resources in training each new ENB writer before he or she is allowed to write on a team. The ENB Training Sessions, for between eight and fifteen writers at a time, always take place during UN meetings and usually last from three to four days. The new recruits work side-by-side with our ENB team at the meeting, under the guidance of several experienced ENB Team Leaders, where they take notes, write their assigned pieces and produce a “shadow” version of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. The training includes how to assemble the daily “In the Corridors” piece, the proper use of UN designations and how to effectively communicate the proceedings of a meeting without using adverbs and adjectives. However, most importantly, the training to be a writer for the Earth Negotiations Bulletin is about how to work in a small group, for long hours, in cramped conditions, with irascible delegates and pressured Secretariat staff, and still treat each other with respect and professional courtesy, and display the highest of emotional intelligence.

We now have more than fifty active ENB writers working on our teams. Some are former diplomats and UN bureaucrats (both retired and on sabbatical), many are Ph.D. students, some are professors who fit ENB meetings into their academic obligations, and more than a few are highly educated professionals who now deftly balance child-rearing with the occasional escape from domesticity to work as writers at UN meetings. However, we realize that each of the ENB writers is a member of a highly threatened species, constantly susceptible to poaching by governments and international organizations, who value them as employees because they are extremely bright, pre-vetted by IISD, understand multilateral processes well enough to explain them to others, know how the UN system works, have built-in networks of negotiators and bureaucrats, and know how to work in small groups under pressure and with aplomb. The ENB writers are the most valuable part of IISD Reporting Services and we appreciate them for the intellectual capital that they contribute to our organization and to the excellent reports that you, our readers, receive.

Please visit our IISD Reporting Services Team page to see photos and short bios of our writers: http://www.iisd.ca/about/team/.
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