International Organizations, Transparency and Standards

22 July 2016 – Increasingly, and with good reason, we demand transparency in all walks of life such as our political, commercial, professional sectors (including our professional sports persons) but, above all, from our governments and the international governmental bodies that they support.

It is therefore disturbing to observe a less than transparent approach being adopted in a number of inter-governmental organizations that have a direct influence on the development and publication of the digital business transaction standards used today.

When this lack of transparency is also connected to the endorsement of the same proprietary software, then it is time to ask serious questions of these organizations.

Illumonus does not produce or sell software but, critical to our clients and to their industry partners, is the management and use of information standards so that they can conduct their business transactions effectively and seamlessly regionally and globally.

One of Illumonus’ key strengths is understanding the significance of business process definitions and the information models that stand behind them. Additionally, our clients and their partners expect full transparency from all official organizations involved in national, regional, or global definition of standards for business exchanges.

Transparency is crucial to ensure a healthy market place where there are no artificial barriers, and all the participants can contribute to, and use, the transaction standards to enable open digital business irrespective of whether that “business” is commercial or governmental.

We fully support the expectations that inter-governmental organizations use the highest ethical standards of professionalism, openness, and transparency as their modus operandi.

It is vital for industry for the standards to be trusted and broadly implemented.

Contrary to these principles, we unfortunately see that UN/CEFACT (the business data exchange standards body of the UNECE) publishes their standards using proprietary software adopted, for more than a decade, without any open review process. Similarly, both the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the TAXUD directorate of the European Commission (EC) endorse the same proprietary software that UN/CEFACT uses to implement the transaction messages derived from their information process models. Further, these key models are not in the public domain.

Historically, UN/CEFACT, or more correctly its predecessor, Working Party 4, played a paramount role in establishing UN/EDIFACT as the international standard for EDI exchanges by developing the syntax for message exchanges that quickly became an ISO standard (9735). The syntax was then used to structure over 200 trade, business and governmental messages covering many areas of national and international trade including the critical purchasing, shipping and customs transactions. The work was done using as its guide the Trade Data Element Directory (TDED) that is also an ISO standard (7372)

UN/CEFACT also initiated the ebXML project by inviting the OASIS XML standards group to partner with it in developing a new XML based standard for trade, business and government. It was achieved in record time and was widely acclaimed, in particular, because in achieving a new global standard it used an inclusive and transparent approach. Further, the important standards that were developed are open, public and freely available.

Since that time, and that of the earlier UN/EDIFACT work, the executive decision making body of UN/CEFACT has become less than transparent in its decision making, particularly in relation to the use of the specific proprietary software. Of equal concern is that a certain officer is not declaring its financial relationship with the company producing the proprietary software.

Similarly, the WCO was closely involved in the development of the UN/EDIFACT Customs messages, and its secretariat advanced the work by using process and information modeling to produce a WCO data model as the basis of its global recommendations on Customs transaction messages. Unfortunately, despite Illumonus’s plea at the time to openly publish the data model and make it freely available,1 the WCO secretariat decided not to do so.

Instead, the secretariat decided to try to recover the costs of producing the model by choosing to sell it at a price that excludes SME’s and similar entities. Further, to accelerate industry implementation of its data model, the secretariat also chose to endorse the use of the same proprietary software as used by UN/CEFACT for its standards publishing. It seemed not to occur to them that they were creating a monopoly position for the particular software company involved. This was, and is, a very unusual action for an inter-governmental body.

The TAXUD directorates of the EC are also members of WCO and, not surprisingly, took the WCO data model as the basis of their work on a European Commission Customs data model. They too have made the mistake of not publishing their data model. Doing so would have encouraged the software industry to develop compatible open source products. And to assist the implementation of their model, they too have endorsed the same proprietary software as used by UN/CEFACT and endorsed by WCO, so expanding further the proprietary software company’s monopoly.

Further TAXUD used EC funds to pay the particular company owning the software to act as consultants to them. This funding is said to be in excess of $250,000.

To emphasize again, Illumonus, is not a software developer, nor a seller of proprietary software products, nor do we participate in the development of proprietary, or closed, software specifications. By contrast we emphasize the use of public open source software and open license standards.

Illumonus observes that the various actions of UN/CEFACT, WCO, and EC TAXUD, are not open and transparent and have produced a monopoly that is unethical and is also against the driving principles of another EC directorate, COMP, whose mission is to provide a level playing field for open competition.

It is time for transparency and an open playing field to win, and for this unholy proprietary alliance to be thoroughly reviewed.