After 10 years under the stewardship of Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations has selected former Portuguese Prime Minister and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres as its next Secretary-General.
Mr Guterres is preparing to head an organization that remains of critical and unique relevance on the global stage, with more than 100,000 civilian and military staff around the world. It helps feed the hungry, shelters those driven from their homes, defends rights for all, mediates in conflicts, and assists its member countries to achieve their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – ambitious guideposts to end extreme poverty, narrow inequalities and ensure environmental sustainability by 2030.
It was pivotal for Member States to choose the right individual to take helm of the organization in order to make it more effective and efficient in delivering its mandates. The next critical variable is the capacity of the people who are to accompany Mr Guterres on this mission. As evidenced by leadership theory and practice, even a remarkable leader - as Mr Guterres has proven to be over his long political and diplomatic career – will only be able to guide a complex organization like the UN through the uncharted territories of today’s political, economic, and social realities, with the support of competent personnel. In this context, a cadre of staff equipped with cutting-edge leadership and managerial competencies will be an indispensable asset.
This is why today the incoming Secretary-General should make building the capacity of UN staff a top priority. Given the labyrinth structure of the UN as a global organization, this is a difficult task, but not an impossible one.
The diversity of the UN system
Today, 71 years after its inception in 1945, the UN system is a cacophony of more than 20 organizations and UN entities that together employ over 70,000 people, and use tens of thousands of military personnel to provide peace and security in hot spots around the world.
There is no one UN system. Although oversight bodies and mechanisms such as common HR rules for recruitment and similar pay scales try to ensure cohesion and uniformity, today’s UN is fragmented, structurally disjointed. A multitude of global institutions, many with overlapping missions, try to provide effective responses to various global needs and challenges – present, future and past.
The UN lacks a common internal organizational culture that can bring greater clarity and cohesion to the system and its many ventures or develop solid leaders and competent managers who share a common understanding of the UN’s role, values and mission. Instead, isolated management training programs – with diverse, often contradictory curricula carried out by consultants – have mushroomed throughout the UN system. As a result, each UN organization has its own organizational culture, one that often supersedes the common, one UN culture.
This lack of common leadership and management culture, in turn, has created a disjointed UN system that encourages competition rather than collaboration between the many UN organizations, and exacerbates the UN’s perceived dysfunctionality.
The field vs. Headquarters
UN staff are based both in global and regional headquarters (HQs), in places like New York, Nairobi, Geneva, and Vienna, and in over 100 field offices around the world.
Things can be complicated in the field.
Most field offices, also called Resident Organizations, employ national and international staff, with the latter often in managerial positions. In addition, some non-resident organizations without a presence in a country run projects out of that country that are managed from their regional offices or corporate HQs.
In both resident and non-resident groups, managers in UN organizations and entities make decisions that influence their agency’s relationship with other UN entities in that country. Any decision not based on the spirit and working principles of the Delivering as One UN system can spark friction between two sister entities and lead to duplicated efforts and wasted resources.
In addition, in some countries the UN also operates peacekeeping operations, often with large contingents of military and civilian personnel. When both military and civilian personnel are attached to a peacekeeping operation, there is also a UN country team responsible for supporting longer term development agenda efforts.
While some of these staff may have undertaken their organization’s management or leadership development courses, it is highly unlikely that these training programmes were based on the UN’s Delivering as One principles. Most likely, both military and civilian staff makes decisions based on their agencies’ mandates and priorities with little emphasis on inter-agency relationship building, thereby excluding collaboration, coordination and partnering at the project, operational and business levels.
The picture from HQ is somewhat less troubled, yet far from optimal to push forward the Delivering as One UN agenda.
To some extent, the presence of coordinative bodies allows some collaboration to take place between the various parts of the UN system. The Chief Executives Board (CEB) chaired by the Secretary-General (SG) meets on a regular basis and issues directives to better align the system. The CEB’s two coordinating bodies, the High-Level Committee on Programmes (HLCP), and the High-Level Committee on Management (HLCM) work to ensure some system-wide coordination. The UN Development Group (UNDG), responsible for facilitating cooperation and coordination between organizations active in development, has succeeded in harmonizing the UN’s work in the field.
The development of Delivering as One (UN) pilot country offices and the implementation of common business practices are two UNDG success stories. While they are a hopeful indication that to some degree working at HQ can contribute to promoting a more cohesive UN system, it is not clear whether they are an exception.
Even at HQ, staff working on promoting interagency cooperation are vastly outnumbered by those who only focus on areas of work exclusive to their organization. If hundreds of HQ staff are involved in interagency work, then thousands of others do work that contributes little to a harmonized UN system. Their organization’s incentive structure rewards them if they manage to perform their individual organization’s business with quality and efficiency, rather than for making a greater contribution to the system at large.
Consequently, UN organizations’ programmes to build capacity of personnel either provide refreshers in individual areas of expertise or to enhance leadership and management skills, and seldom train for the models of interagency collaboration that should be the central pillars of a much needed culture change at the UN. It is not surprising, therefore, that the UN Delivering as One message for collaboration and coordination with other agencies is often lost.
Is it about the mandate?
There are many reasons why reforming the UN system is so complicated and difficult.
Although sceptics argue with some truth that the Delivering as One UN concept will always remain a feel-good dream since individual agencies’ mandates and the competition for scarce resources prohibit the creation of a genuine unified system, overlapping mandates and duplication of activities are the most significant contributors to the UN system’s inability to operate as one.
Donor governments today face internal financial challenges, and often are strong advocates to the pooling of resources when funding UN managed projects.
Although serious steps have been taken in the last two decades to bring greater cohesion within the UN, political manoeuvring within the system and by member states have either diluted the original plan, moved it to the back burner, or totally blocked such initiatives.
Despite our politically charged, financially challenged times, it is quite possible to shift the mind-set of UN leaders and managers towards thinking and delivering as one. Designing learning tools to develop good leaders and managers can be cost effective. Capacity development programmes and their associated smart and innovative learning strategies could influence staff thinking and behaviour.
Presenting learning as a safe, non-political, and non-threating force would allow staff to prioritise collaboration over competition. Requiring staff to spend work time with a colleague from another organization may make them appreciate the work difficulties faced by others, develop an appreciation for of leadership and management challenges – and discover ways to deliver as one. Sharing experiences, lessons learned and good leadership and management practices and finding together solutions to common problem would help peers from different professional backgrounds and organizational affiliations bond, to the UN’s benefit.
Learning as One
Since 2011, the UN System Staff College (UNSSC), Turin, Italy – the sole provider of learning and training for the entire UN system – has held leadership and management development programmes for professional staff. To break the UN’s silo mentality, its programmes allow a mix of staff from UN HQ and the field to spend five days on average with peers from different professions and UN organizations. Together, they share experiences and learn the latest leadership and management development trends. Participants are exposed to public and private sector theories and practices crucial for good, effective leadership and management.
Although independent evaluations have rated the trainings as effective and high quality, UNSSC programmes face two major challenges: First, staff participation is not mandatory, severely limiting the opportunity to comprehensively intervene to build a common, UN system-wide culture and coordinate initiatives at all organizational levels; second, the UN System Staff College competes with its sister UN organizations for participants, resulting in dispersed resources, duplicated efforts and lack of an effective common approach.
Now, more than ever, to remain relevant and effective, the UN needs leaders, managers and professionals who are consistent in their training and outlook. One small but a very concrete culture change in the UN system would be to take funds currently allocated for internal training by UN organizations and pool them for use in a UN-wide leadership and management curriculum and training programme. This will yield leaders and managers trained to Deliver as One, in an efficient and coordinated manner. Rather than each UN entity spending large amounts of money to develop its own leadership and management programme, this shift would generate both savings and more consistent execution of UN mandates and projects.
The Sustainable Development Agenda requires learning and working as One
In September 2015 at UN Headquarters in New York, world leaders signed an agreement to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. As part of this 2030 Agenda, countries commit to achieving 17 goals and 169 targets in 15 years. Transformative and ambitious, the universal 2030 Agenda pledges among many other ambitious objectives to end poverty in all its forms, achieve food security, end hunger and promote sustainable agriculture.
The UN will play a crucial role in supporting governments as they implement their SDG agenda commitments. To effectively assist member state efforts to realize the transformative SDG agenda, the UN will need visionary leaders and a top-notch technical and managerial staff. The UN system must transform itself to ensure that it has a workforce with the right skills and mind-sets so it can Deliver as One to achieve the 2030 Agenda.
The 2030 Agenda is holistic. This will compel the international community to develop multi-sectoral and integrated solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Eradicating poverty, for example, will require aligning and coordinating macro-economic, education, employment, health care and housing policies and programmes to ensure that the poor have a decent quality of life. This will require from both governments and the UN innovative out-of-the-box thinking far beyond the usual sector-specific policies and strategies. The UN must transform itself, so it can effectively support its member states as they implement the SDGs.
Since no single SDG is the “mandate” of any particular agency, and no SDG can be excluded from the work of any UN system entity, inter-agency and system-wide collaboration and coordination is a must for the UN.
Building the ability of the UN workforce to think and act differently should be a top priority for the UN. Those in UN leadership positions should no longer work to defend narrow organizational interests. They should align their efforts to achieve the best interests of the entire UN system. The 2030 Agenda obliges UN leadership to have a Deliver as One vision that goes well beyond specific agency perspectives. This vision should be communicated to staff, and UN managers and experts must be trained accordingly.
To effectively support Member States to meet their SDG commitments, the UN must develop capacity building initiatives that make “system thinking” a core objective. These programmes already exist. They do not require additional funds, only political will and a reallocation of current UN agency training expenditures to a common UN-wide "Delivering as One" UN inter-agency leadership and management training programme. This will bring substantial savings, and can be made swiftly effective, away from the usual politics of the General Assembly and the Executive Boards of various organizations.
For billions of people around the world, organizational logos mean little. What they know and believe in is the UN as one world body with its blue flag. Staff at all levels should be able to proudly embrace this reality.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or the United Nations System Staff College.