Tuesday , April 14, 2009
By George Russell
Something like a civil war has erupted between United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the branches of the world organization that are supposed to oversee, constrain and fund the U.N.'s sprawling central bureaucracy.
At issue is the accountability and effectiveness of the entire U.N. Secretariat — a ponderous bureaucracy that everyone agrees is in need of reform, but somehow continues to evade it. In some quarters, patience is apparently wearing thin.
As one sign of that, in a remarkable public slap at the secretary general, the U.N.'s powerful, budget-setting Fifth Committee, which represents all U.N. member states, late last week passed a resolution ordering him to throw out a plan that he claimed would transform the Secretariat into something more responsible and effective.
The committee said that Ban should try again — only much, much harder.
In effect, the Committee resolution charged that Ban's proposed plan would result in the opposite of what he claimed, making the U.N. Secretariat less accountable, less responsible, and less prone than it already is to producing effective results.
The committee also bluntly told Ban that his proposals involved a power grab that overstepped his authority, and explicitly warned him to "refrain" from efforts to meddle with the "roles and responsibilities" of U.N. bodies that are supposed to scrutinize the Secretariat's performance.
It also outlines in lengthy detail the "clear and specific measures" it expects him to provide next time, including "timely and reliable information on results achieved and resources used" by the Secretariat, "as well as its performance including on measures to improve performance."
It further demands "measures to strengthen personal accountability within the Secretariat," more transparency in the hiring of top managers, "concrete proposals on the reform of the performance appraisal system," and detailed measures on how to turn the U.N. into an organization with a "results-based management system."
In its summation, the Fifth Committee pointedly says that its own concerns about reforming U.N. management harked back to "the significant flaws in terms of internal monitoring, inspection and accountability regarding, for example, the management of the United Nations oil-for-food program."
That multi-billion-dollar scandal, in which Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein funneled mammoth kickbacks and other scams through the world's biggest U.N.-administered humanitarian program, is widely acknowledged to be one of the U.N.'s biggest administrative disasters. It spawned, among other things, a $30 million investigation headed by formed U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, which found that the head of the program, Benon Sevan, personally chosen by then-Secretary General Kofi Annan, had taken money from Saddam. But the Volcker committee cast blame across the entire U.N., as well as the U.N. Security Council, for the fiasco.
Aside from Sevan — who left for Cyprus proclaiming his innocence before he was indicted by U.S. prosecutors for accepting bribes — no U.N. official has ever been held accountable for the debacle.
Oil-for-food happened before Ban's tenure began, but the Fifth Committee noted that the U.N. General Assembly has been waiting ever since for a follow-up on U.N. management reform.
And apparently, the committee is not alone. In its rejection, the Fifth Committee made reference to a wide array of reports by a battery of U. N. oversight organizations — including some that report to Ban himself — that also found the secretary general's report badly wanting. The reports describe the lack of focus of the U.N. bureaucracy in remarkably blunt and urgent terms.
In fact, some of those oversight bodies have already heaped their own helpings of undiplomatic scorn on Ban's reform plan, which has been percolating its way up through the labyrinthine U.N. bureaucracy for more than a year.
Instead of a reform effort, some of the critics have described the project, in language that varies from blunt to bland, as an attempt to weasel out of making the U.N. bureaucracy more accountable, effective and open to scrutiny, and instead make its officials even less accountable for their actions — or inactions.
One of those bodies, the General Assembly's Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), pointedly noted that the Secretary General's report was not even a product of the U.N. Secretariat at all, but had been commissioned from outside consultants at a cost of nearly $1.8 million.
The advisory committee said it was "concerned that expertise available within the United Nations Secretariat was not solicited in the preparation of the report and that there was a striking absence of consultation with the oversight bodies or with other organizations of the United Nations system." It archly adds that it "regrets the lack of recourse to the expertise found in different parts of the United Nations system."
The document Ban is sponsoring that has drawn the attention — and the ire — goes by the numbing title of "Accountability framework, enterprise risk management and internal control framework, and results-based management framework," a 53-page opus with a 21-page addendum on its budgetary implications, first issued under Ban's aegis more than a year ago.
The document claims that if its proposals are followed, "the General Assembly could more readily hold the Secretariat accountable for its activities and results." In the same vein, it argues, the U.N. would "focus on results rather than inputs and outputs of efforts and processes, while emphasizing ethical conduct and compliance with regulations and rules."
What follows, however, is largely a bewildering tangle of managerial techno-speak, in which the "personal accountability" of U.N. staff members is defined as "the duty ... to exercise defined responsibilities appropriately ... and to explain and justify to the official who conferred the authority the results achieved and the manner in which the authority has been exercised." No mention is made of penalties for failing to do so.
The secretary general's "institutional accountability" is described as his responsibility to "explain and justify to the General Assembly ... the performance of the Organization in using resources to achieve results mandated by the Member States in the Assembly ..."
The definitions of accountability are accompanied by a long and convoluted analysis of bureaucratic "risk" at the U.N., defined as "the effect of uncertainty on objectives," and how the bureaucracy can best manage that "risk" through a complicated array of management processes and internal controls.
When it comes to concrete proposals to transform the U.N. bureaucracy into an organization that focuses exclusively on results, Ban offers another new mini-bureaucracy, the Division for Accountability and Results Management, which would replace a previous bureaucratic unit devoted to policy analysis within the U.N.'s current Department of Management.
The new unit would take over evaluation functions currently carried out by other parts of the U.N., but otherwise mainly provide increased training programs and information, as well as support in "establishing and promoting a results-oriented culture in the Secretariat."
Ban's only other major innovation to force managers to change their ways is to propose a new working group, the "Accountability for Results Working Group," a unit of "three or four members drawn from Secretariat departments/offices," which would be attached to the Secretary General's management performance board, a group of senior bureaucrats.
The new working group would "be responsible for monitoring on a regular basis progress toward results, identifying systemic, political or other challenges to success." When necessary, it would have the option of offering suggestions for action to the performance board at its usually quarterly meetings.
For the rest of the organization, Ban suggests a "pilot project to establish and communicate standards and guidelines for risk management" while a broader "consultation process" takes place across the entire U.N. on how to proceed further.
In the accompanying addendum, Ban estimates the cost of his new proposals as around $3 million.
In the impermeable language of the document, Ban claims that his proposals take "a systematic and holistic approach to proactively identify, assess, evaluate, prioritize, manage and control risk across the Organization in order to increase the likelihood of achieving objectives."
For its part, however, the General Assembly's ACABQ saw a fog of unhelpful abstractions, starting with "lack of clarity in the definition of accountability."
Among other things, the committee noted acidly that "the Secretary-General's report identifies nine areas for improving accountability in the Secretariat ... but ... no specific measures are identified that would bring about the intended improvements. Nor are any measures proposed to improve institutional accountability, such as by providing better information to Member States on results achieved and resources used."
It also suggested that Ban take up a suggestion, apparently of long standing, that "a specific set of sanctions (up to and including termination of employment) should be put in place to deal with failure to perform or poor performance on the part of senior managers." (At the same time, the committee noted the extraordinary fact that the U.N. apparently does not have a definition for the term "performance measures" in its rules and regulations about planning and evaluation.)
When it came to Ban's proposed changes in the U.N.'s organizational structure, the committee says only that they should be "further discussed." But while it is on the subject of discussion, the report further digs at Ban for what the committee clearly considers a weak effort.
"The Committee believes that closer interaction between the management and oversight bodies would have resulted in a better presentation of the issues under consideration," the document snips. "The Committee regrets the lack of recourse to the expertise found in different parts of the United Nations system."
The advisory committee's skeptical view of Ban's proposals is further amplified by another U.N. watchdog body, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which is part of Ban's own Secretariat, and which has reported that the U.N.'s current definitions of "results" in its work are little more than a chimera.
In a 23-page analysis of results-based management as currently practiced at the U.N., based on a year-long study and published at roughly the same time the General Assembly advisory committee was formulating its conclusions, OIOS headlined that "Results-based management at the United Nations has been an administrative chore of little value to accountability and decision-making."
Within the U.N. Secretariat, OIOS reports, statements of results are "vague," "expressed in a self-serving manner," and "lack credible methods for verification." Rather than specific objectives, "aspirational results" are used to justify budgets for approval, but "the actual attainment or non-attainment of results is of no discernable consequence to subsequent resource allocation or other decision-making."
Most "expected accomplishments" at the U.N. are set at the departmental level, and do not "seek to capture longer-term objectives of the United Nations as a whole." Indeed, the report asserts, "expected accomplishments are not necessarily the highest priority of the Organization." Moreover, OIOS notes, "financial and programmatic records do not compare."
Translation: what the U.N. spends, and what it claims to be spending the money on, are never reconciled.
Rather than measuring concrete results, the report says, the U.N. mainly measures its accomplishments in terms of "activities and outputs." These typically include "the number of meetings organized or website visitors, the volume of documents disseminated, the number of Member States attending meetings or participating in projects and citations of the work of a particular section."
Sometimes, the report states, "measurement boils down to the number of participants in events for which the United Nations provides travel costs and per diem. In other cases, the performance measures speak to manpower resources or volume of funding that has been raised by the division or section in question."
In other words, "what gets measured is all that gets done." (Ironically, OIOS notes, the same problem can be found in its own work. Its effectiveness is judged on the basis of the number of suggested improvements to parts of the U.N. that are subsequently adopted; this leads to a "perverse underlying incentive" to suggest improvements that are easily adopted.)
But often, OIOS reports, the U.N. does not even bother to measure anything. In a study it did of 974 specified "indicators" for achievement during the Secretariat's 2004-2005 budget cycle, OIOS discovered that for a quarter of the guideposts, "no observations were ever recorded."
That may be because they ultimately do not seem to matter, even when they are the only records of accomplishment available. The OIOS reports that "the achievement or non-achievement of program objectives ultimately has few consequences for resource allocation, work planning or assessment of managerial performance."
(The same thing was discovered, the watchdogs note, in a "recent" evaluation of management at the United Nations Development Program, the U.N.'s flagship anti-poverty agency. "Adjusting work in response to results is the cornerstone of an effective results-based management system," OIOS declared. "This study has failed to find any convincing evidence that suggests that results are influencing management.")
In fairness to Secretary General Ban, the OIOS analysis notes that he "appreciates many of the shortcomings raised" in the watchdog report. But Ban told the OIOS analysts that his own proposals would solve many of the problems, and there the watchdogs disagree.
"OIOS notes that the Secretary-General proposes measures that merit consideration," the report says, "but observes that these lack specificity, prioritization and order of sequencing." Moreover, they "are not clearly tied to the underlying incentive, sanctions and rewards that guide decision-making at different levels of the Organization."
Translation: Ban's measures don't do much to change the U.N.'s fundamental culture.
Especially since, as OIOS notes, echoing a criticism from the General Assembly's budget advisory committee, "Currently there are no individual-level sanctions available for the non-achievement of outcome-level results."
In other words, no one is penalized for failure to accomplish anything.
But one of the important barriers to changing that state of affairs, OIOS asserts, is not that Ban's proposals are ineffective — although the watchdogs clearly deem that they are — but that the U.N. General Assembly itself stands in the way.
The General Assembly, OIOS notes, has barred in its resolutions on budgeting "the use of indicators of achievement for adjustment of resources," and restricted the Secretary General's ability to move resources where they are needed. Thus, the organization concludes, "results-based management is ultimately not within the powers of the Secretary-General to implement within his restricted administrative authority."
Whether that is ultimately true or not may remain debatable, but the U.N. management culture's disinterest in results seems to be unanimously agreed upon by every part of the organization that examines the issue.
A further damaging summary mentioned by the Fifth Committee is a 45-page report published by yet another U.N. watchdog, the Joint Inspection Unit, on "results-based management in the United Nations in the context of the reform process."
The JIU is a small cadre of independent experts that reports to the General Assembly, and is charged with improving the efficiency of the U.N. across the entire sprawling federation of U.N. organizations, of which Ban's Secretariat is only part. Recently, the JIU has also been butting heads with Ban over issues of bureaucratic power, charging that the Secretary General has abruptly changed the rules regarding appointment of its executive secretary and allowing a review panel to "illegally" demand a new review of candidates for the job.
The JIU's report, published in March 2007, is no more optimistic than the rest about the challenge that Ban is supposed to overcome. Among other things, it declares that to fix the organization's problems, "the Secretariat needs to increase the level of authority delegated to management, in particular for managing human resources. But it should first address the issue of the lack of managerial skills."
"Management systems at all levels of the Secretariat remain weak," the report declares, in a section that notes that recent demands for improvement in management capabilities date back to at least 2002. But it also warns that without more effective accountability, "further empowerment of managers could result in arbitrary decision-making and possibly even the misuse of power."
The JIU laid out a series of 18 wide-ranging recommendations that it believed Ban should follow, including a review of how the U.N. recruits staff (currently, the report says, it takes 174 days to hire a replacement), a pay-for-performance scheme for staffers, tougher performance evaluations and a new system of delegating authority in the top-down organization to achieve better results.
They also throw the ball back to Ban to make things happen. "The Inspectors are of the view that the Secretary-General possesses a clear perception about the role of accountability as the backbone of an efficient and robust management system," they write. "They nonetheless invite him to move forward from theory to concrete action to achieve his proclaimed accountability objectives."
So far, the verdict seems to be that Ban has failed to do that job.
UPDATE: After this story was published, the United Nations apparently cut off access to its public Web site via the links referenced in the article. Accordingly, FOX News has replaced those links with PDF copies of the documents mentioned.
George Russell is executive editor of FOX News.