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Report UN Reform

Mr. Peter Smith from the Department of Management at the UN Secretariat called himself a “UN newcomer”; having spent only the last 18 months at the UN after his work as a consultant at the US Congress in Washington DC. The Department of Management is responsible for program and human resource planning, budget and financial management, and information technology services. The department is the driving force behind UN management reform.

Mr. Smith started his presentation about UN management reform with an example. He asked the audience to look at the meeting room and stated that nearly nothing has changed since 1951. Now the UN Secretariat building was an unsafe old building which had to be renovated. But in the last five years, little progress had been made beyond mere discussions. While the goal was clear, the process was controversial. He pointed out that this kind of discussion was typical for many UN processes where interference with unrelated policy issues hindered consensus finding. His experience had shown that the over-abundance of political will often neglected the careful analysis of arguments in trade-off situations. Then he switched to a more general perspective by drawing an analogy between the General Assembly and the UN Secretariat with the US Congress and the White House. From his perspective, the whole problem was the lack of checks and balances with an over-dominant General Assembly. The outcome of the World Summit in September 2005 had only been reached because the various UN committees were bypassed by their Heads of State. He called the Outcome Document a “homework assignment” for the UN.

Our speaker mentioned the main points of management reform, starting with the agreement that all mandates older than 5 years have to be reviewed. Even though this would probably create a lot of agitation because many mandates would not be renewed, the mandate review would set free human and financial resources for more important UN projects. He further mentioned the controversial suggestion for a one-time buyout package to replace unmotivated staff with new people with better skills. One of the few measures of the management reform which had been welcomed and supported by most UN staff members was the establishment of a new Ethics Office which should elaborate and train new behavioral guidelines into an annual ethics conduct for UN staff. Afterwards, Mr. Smith explained the changes which had been achieved in the rules for human resource procurement. For example, a UN job offer formerly had to be posted for at least 60 days. Now, it had been reduced to 21 days to shorten the application process, which on average still took half a year.

He continued to point out that, in spite of the media’s focus on the institutional level of UN reform, there had been real progress on the operational level. As such, the general business operating system, something virtually unchanged since 1950, like so many features of the UN system, now had been made more transparent and efficient. Part of that reform had been to create a new “whistle blower” policy that more effectively protects UN employees wishing to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing inside the organization. Quite obviously, this serves to prevent further scandals like the abuse of the Oil for Food Program for private pockets from ensuing in the future. Similarly, internal oversight had been improved, introducing normal business practices in investigation and financial monitoring to the bureaucracy of the United Nations. Peter Smith emphatically stated that all of these internal reforms were vital to the overarching goal of making the UN more accountable and transparent in the future. Of course, all of this was happening against the background of an uncertain budget for the United Nations, which at that time would have led the UN to be bankrupt by June 2006.

Given the rather transformative and unpopular nature of some of these reforms, which Mr. Smith was actively promoting at the United Nations, the question was raised whether he considered himself an in-house consultant and encountered a lot of resistance from UN staff. His answer was mixed (or diplomatic), stating that the general attitude was positive, as most people had been aware of the damage done to the United Nations through its lack of accountability and transparency. “On the other hand”, Mr. Smith continued, “there is the bureaucratic politics”, which led to a clash of opinions with the political interests of UN bureaucracy regarding efficiency. As an illustration, he pointed out that the outsourcing of the UN’s printing department would lead to higher savings but would of course imply the loss of some 80 jobs. Relating his work to the bigger picture of UN reform, Mr. Smith concluded, that in the end – be it on the budget, the new Secretary-General, or UN reform – the UN was dependent on the political will of its Member States and could only move as fast as they could strike political bargains. Here the connection between unassociated goals such as development and UN reform hindered effective progress towards the fundamental pillars of a reformed UN: Effectiveness, integrity, transparency, and responsiveness.

Nils Barnickel, Gundbert Scherf