Innovative Governance Leaders: ITU

Globalization and technological advances are altering fundamentally how we live, work and relate to one another. [1] Rapid computerization and adoption of internet in most parts of the world require thinking creatively and inclusively about how to approach large technological shifts and their related questions and issues,[2] including property and privacy rights, freedom of speech, and the digital divide among others. These vast changes form a new paradigm quoted as the knowledge economy, the information society, informationalism or the information age. ICTs are widely recognized to be one of the defining features of contemporary world affairs, that enable the relational networks linking individuals and organizations, triggering global economic, political and sociocultural changes.[3] ICTs give individuals the opportunity to refine their skills necessary to engage and interact with a complex world and encourage the disaggregation of authority, creating a tension between traditional sources of authority and the increased demand for governance within new social and political spaces.[4]

International Relations Scholars increasingly consider the importance of new technologies and their influence on global governance institutions. The global nature of problems, types of actors, and limitations to govern the planet[5] invite us to rethink the Westphalian system and its traditional inter-state governance arrangements to better capture the wide variety of interests, technological capacities, cultural diversities and values. A more inclusive global governance that involves all stakeholders from the public and private sectors, to academia and civil society, require new instruments of governance. [6]

Technological shifts are both an opportunity and a curse for the international system. On one hand, information and communication technologies (ICTs) offer low-cost participation and access to information on a scope and scale unseen in history. On the other hand, ICTs raise many concerns, in particular issues related to security and privacy, but also questions around their effectiveness and neutrality. Although an increasing number of scholars intend to assess the impact of new technologies on the effectiveness of global institutions, it remains complicated to isolate one factor from others and their context. Indeed, it is quite difficult to specifically identify what influences the final output of an institution. Usually, these outputs, whether they are new arrangement, treaty, convention, law, rule, loose agreement or standard, are the result of the work of multiple actors and are influenced by multiple sources, including a specific international context, political struggles, media, and new technologies to name only few. Also, many studies have intended to show the impact of new technologies or new online mechanisms on global or regional institutions output, but without much result.[7] Furthermore, online participation, as a new media, implies some form of physical distancing from the object of decision that could affect the final decision. It is quite well-known for instance that social media tends to favor extremist points of view and lead in some cases to superficial analysis and discussions. Therefore the use of ICTs in global institutions needs a precise assessment to understand how these new technologies affect – positively or negatively – participation in international institutions.

ITU is at the heart of these technological shifts since its inception. The organization is the United Nations specialized agency for ICTs, and has played an extensive role in global postal, radio and television coordination. Based on public-private partnership, ITU has a membership of 193 countries and about 800 entities that represent a cross-section of the global ICTs sector, from the world’s largest manufacturers and telecoms carriers to smaller and innovative emerging technology firms, and leading R&D institutions and academia.[8] Founded on the principle of cooperation among various stakeholders, this forum has evolved over the years to offer electronic means of participation to its members. Therefore, due to its focus, and long history of inclusive participation, ITU is an ideal organization to examine the impact of ICTs on member participation.

ITU has a complex governance structure. This intergovernmental membership organization comprises of several types of members. Member States are full members of ITU. They take part in all activities of the organization and in all aspects of its governance structure. In other words, state members take part in decision-making processes linked to the organization itself (internal governance) and the work of the organization (that we call here technical governance). On the other hand, sector members, associates and academia are three other types of membership that offer the possibility to take part only in technical governance structures, which implies distinct, and somehow limited voting rights compared to ITU’s member states. Sector members and associates comprise of organizations (public and private) from the industry. Sector members can participate more actively and to more activities than associate members. Academia comprise of academic organizations. [9]

ITU’s internal governance comprises of ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference and ITU’s Council. ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference is the highest organ of the organization, where Member States meet to adopt policies for the organization, organize or reorganize its structure and activities, discuss its budget, and revise the Constitution and Convention when deemed necessary. [10] The Final Acts of ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conferences include instruments amending the Constitution and Convention, General Rules of Conferences, Assemblies and Meetings, Decisions, Resolutions, Recommendations, Declarations and Additional Declarations.[11] During this Conference, Members States elect the senior management team of the organization, the members of Council, and the members of the Radio Regulations Board. [12] On the other hand, the Council represents ITU’s governing body in the interval between Plenipotentiary Conferences. [13] It prepares a report on the policy and strategic planning of the ITU and is responsible for ensuring the smooth day-to-day running of the Union, including coordinating work programs, approving budgets and controlling finances and expenditure. [14] In 2001, ITU established the Troika of the Council where past, current and future Chairmen of the Council have a mandate to provide for a smoother transition and continuity in chairing the Council” and to “liaise with the Secretariat to ensure effective preparation for Council sessions”.[15]

ITU’s Council counts also six working groups. Five of these working groups are open to Members States and Sector Members. First, the Council Working Group on Financial and Human Resources (CWG-FHR) aims to examine the provisions of the Financial Regulations and Financial Rules. [16] Second, the Council Working Group on international Internet-related public policy issues (CWG-Internet) aims to identify, study and develop matters related to international Internet-related public policy issues. It offers only consultation to Sector Members and other stakeholders. [17] Third, the Council Working Group on WISIS: Implementation of Outcomes (WG-WSIS) [18] aims at overseeing, considering and discussing ITU’s implementation of the WSIS outcomes and related ITU activities. [19]  Fourth, the Council working group on Child Online Protection (WG-CP) was established to exchange views and promote and work on the subject matter. It is also open to all relevant stakeholders. Fifth, the Expert Group on the International Telecommunication Regulations (EG‑ITRs) was created to review the 2012 International Telecommunication Regulations, taking into account new trends and emerging issues in telecommunications and ICTs.[20] Lastly, the Council Working Group on the use of the six official languages of the Union (CWG-LANG) oversees the use of the six languages of the Union and is open only to Member States. [21]

ITU divides its work into three sectors: Radiocommunication, standardization and development. Each sector has a specific mission, governance structure and members. First, the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) focuses on the global management of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits, to ensure the rational, equitable, efficient and economical use of the radio-frequency spectrum by all radio-communication services, and to carry out studies and approve Recommendations on radio-communication matters. [22] The second Sector of the organization, entitled ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T), aims at developing international standards known as Recommendations to define elements of the global ICT infrastructure. [23] The third Sector, Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU-D), fosters international cooperation and solidarity through technical assistance and improvement of telecommunication and ICT equipment and networks in developing countries.[24]  Each sector comprise of specific members and governance structure. As follows, we will discuss one aspect of ITU’s technical governance: the second sector in charge of ITU’s standardization work. We will focus our analysis on this second sector since it is the most well-known outside of the IT community for its work on developing global standards “Recommendations”. Another reason is the fact that this sector, since its inception, has driven a contribution-led, consensus-based approach to standards development, where countries and the industry share equal rights. [25]

The World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA) meets every four years and establishes the general policy for the whole Sector. It also establishes the Study Groups (SG), approves their work program, and appoints their chairmen and vice-chairmen. It comprises of Member States, Sector Members, Associates and Academia that chose to be part of this Sector.[26] In the interval between each WTSA, the Telecommunication Standardization Advisory Group (TSAG) is the governing body of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T). [27] The Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (TSB) is ITU-T’ Secretariat. [28]

Standardization work is carried out by the technical Study Groups (SGs), where Members develop new standards and amend previous ones. Standards are called “Recommendation” that define how telecommunication networks operate and interwork. [29] They are organized by series (topics) with a specific letter (A-Z). ​The main products of ITU-T are normative Recommendations. Recommendations are standards that define how telecommunication networks operate and interwork. Although non-binding, ITU-T Recommendations are generally complied with due to their high quality and because they guarantee the interconnectivity of networks and enable telecommunication services to be provided on a worldwide scale. [30] ITU-T comprises of eleven Study Groups. Each WTSA decides if to continue a Study Group or to create new ones. This explains the numbering of the current Study Groups: SG2 – Operational aspects; SG3 – Economic and policy issues; SG5 – Environment and circular economy;  SG9 – Broadband cable and TV;  SG11 – Protocols and test specifications; SG12 – Performance, QoS and QoE; SG13 – Future networks (& cloud); SG15​ – Transport, Access and Home; SG16 – Multimedia; SG17 – Security;  and SG20 – IoT, smart cities & communities. [31]​​

A “Question” is the basic project unit within ITU-T. The area of study of the project is defined by the text of the Question, and this is generally approved by the study group itself. For a new Question to be established, it is necessary that a number of Members commit to support the work. Questions address technical studies in a particular area of telecommunication standardization, and are driven by contributions. The text for each of the Questions is assigned to a study group. Each Study Group (SG) has a Chairman and a number of vice-chairmen appointed by the World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly (WTSA). To assist in the organization of the work, the SG may be organized into a number of working parties. The working party is the next organizational unit down within the study group (SG). The team of experts working on a specific Question is known as the rapporteur group. Their meetings are chaired by the relevant rapporteur. Considering the text of the Question and guidance from the SG, the participants determine what Recommendations are required and develop text for these Recommendations taking all relevant inputs into account and consulting other relevant parts of ITU-T. [32]

ITU-T Study Group 5 (SG5) is responsible for studies on methodologies for evaluating ICT effects on climate change and publishing guidelines for using ICTs in an eco-friendly way. Under its environmental mandate SG5 is also responsible for studying design methodologies to reduce ICTs and e-waste’s adverse environmental effects, for example, through recycling of ICT facilities and equipment. [33] This Study Group for the study period 2017 – 2020 is organized in several sub-groups focusing on distinctive topics. In addition, Focus groups augment the study group system in order to react quickly to ICT standardization needs. Focus groups study well-defined areas within a specified time-frame; their output can remain as stand-alone focus-group deliverables such as technical specifications or technical reports, or may be progressed to the study groups in order to be considered for adoption (Recommendations and supplements). [34]

As discussed in this post, ICTs support ITU’s complex governance processes. ITU members and external stakeholders have a wide array of possibilities to take part in the development of new standards. The following post will discuss this question in more details.

[1] World Economic Forum (WEF):

[2] Carr, Madeline (2015) Power Plays in Global Internet Governance, Millennium – Journal of International Studies 43(2):640.

[3] Drake: Introduction: the distributed architecture of network global governance, in Drake, W. J., & Wilson, E. J. I. I. I. (2008). Governing global electronic networks : international perspectives on policy and power / edited by William J. Drake and Ernest J. Wilson, III. Governing global electronic networks : international perspectives on policy and power. Cambridge, Mass. : The MIT Press, p.1

[4] Rosenau, Townes: People on the Internet as agents of change, in Brousseau, E., Marzouki, M., & Méadel, C. (2012). Governance, Regulation and Powers on the Internet. (E. Brousseau, M. Marzouki, & C. Méadel, Eds.). Cambridge University Press, p.129

[5] Weiss and Wilkinson, ‘Rethinking Global Governance?’, 209

[6] Weidtmann, Christian & Hahn, Rüdiger (2016). Transnational Governance, Deliberative Democracy, and the Legitimacy of ISO 26000: Analyzing the Case of a Global Multistakeholder Process. _Business and Society_ 55 (1):90.

[7] In the case of the European Union for instance: “The positive effect of reducing the resource dependency for participation that was expected from the introduction of online consultations is thus not confirmed, but there is no clear agreement whether the reasons for it are enshrined in the governance structure of the EU and hence institutional givens, or if it is rather a matter of stronger activation.” Eva G. Heidbreder (2015) Governance in the European Union: A Policy Analysis of the Attempts to Raise Legitimacy through Civil Society Participation, Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice, 17:4, 359-377, DOI: 10.1080/13876988.2014.921056, p.372

[8] ITU website:

[9] DeNardis, Laura and Raymond, Mark (2013). Thinking Clearly About Multistakeholder Internet Governance. GigaNet: Global Internet Governance Academic Network, Annual Symposium 2013, p.11.

[10] ITU website.

[11] ITU website.

[12] ITU website.

[13] ITU website.

[14] ITU website.

[15] ITU website.

[16] ITU website.

[17] ITU website.

[18] WISIS stands for World Summit on the Information Society. The first phase took place in Geneva from 10 to 12 December 2003 and the second phase took place in Tunis, from 16 to 18 November 2005. More information here:

[19] ITU website.

[20] ITU website.

[21] ITU website.

[22] ITU website.

[23] ITU website.

[24] ITU website.

[25] ITU website.

[26] ITU website.

[27] ITU website.

[28] ITU website.

[29] ITU website.

[30] ITU website.

[31] ITU website.

[32] ITU website:

[33] ITU website:

[34] ITU website: