New UN Chief Will Need to Rebuild the Secretariat’s Integrity

Analysis by Franz Baumann *

NEW YORK – Three months before his tragic death, Dag Hammarskjöld gave a powerful lecture in Oxford, entitled The International Civil Servant in Law and in Fact. He positioned the Secretary-General’s role and that of the Secretariat in the architecture of the United Nations.

Hammarskjöld implicitly built on the conclusions formulated by the great U.S. political scientist Inis L. Claude in his classic 1956 study Swords Into Plowshares: The Problems and Progress of International Organization, namely that there are two United Nations: firstly the arena of member states, secondly the Secretariat.

Since it cannot be assumed that the results arrived at in the arena of sovereign states are perforce optimal from a world-wide perspective, the Secretary-General, supported by an independent, effective and loyal Secretariat, has special responsibilities as the guardian of the global interest. And since today’s challenges do not stop at national borders, an effective global institution is ever more crucial.


The Secretary-General has a political space to use

In the Charter, the entire chapter XV is devoted to the Secretariat, one of the six principal organs of the United Nations. Article 97 stipulates that the Secretary-General “shall be the chief administrative officer of the Organization”. Two additional responsibilities are assigned to him (the drafters did not imagine “her” as yet; in the following, the male form is used for the past and the female for the future): to report annually to the General Assembly on the work of the Organization (article 98) and to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security” (article 99).

Hammarskjöld posited the logical complementarity of the three-tiered responsibility: running an independent Secretariat, reporting annually and alerting on conflicts. Articles 97 (chief administrative officer), 100 (independence) and 101 (appointment of officials), the constituent elements of a professional, strong and loyal Secretariat, underpin the Secretary-General’s autonomous political role and afford the incumbent political space that can be used, or not. They are mutually reinforcing, or mutually weakening.

Power by moral authority

Being Chief Administrative Officer, thus, is not a trivial task. The Secretariat is the Secretary-General’s power base, it being understood that “power” refers to the incumbent’s intellectual capacity and moral authority. The Secretary-General cannot take binding decisions, levy taxes, enforce resolutions or impose sanctions. S/he has no troops to dispatch, neither financial resources. However, as the incarnation of the global conscience, s/he has “soft power,” much like the Pope or perhaps the Dalai Lama.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Secretary-General is in charge of an enormous machinery deployed in numerous crisis areas. Diplomacy and conference services, the classical tasks of the Organization, have been complemented by an ever more sizeable operational component, diplomacy with management.

The UN have expanded more than they have changed

The world has become substantially more complex in the past seventy years, also the challenges facing the United Nations. Nevertheless, the Organization’s structures have expanded more than they have changed. New elements were added, but, much to the long-standing regret of knowledgeable observers, a fundamental repositioning has not materialized.

In the past seventy years, the number of staff members grew from under 2,000 to over 40,000 and the number of member states from 51 to 193 (at the same time, the world population tripled). Momentous subjects – human rights, economic and social development, peace operations (increasingly after intrastate conflicts), law of the sea, climate change, organized crime, human trafficking, terrorism – came only gradually into the focus of the Organization, which was founded, after two horrific world wars, to prevent a third one.

Almost 100 Under-Secretaries-General

This thematic broadening led to a horizontal organizational enlargement, yet not to thematic structural groupings or to vertical integration. The encyclopaedic thematic bandwidth, combined with the quadrupled number of member states and the conflict-laden membership structure, imposes quite different challenges on the Secretary-General than the bi-polarity of the Cold War.

The importance of an independent, effective and loyal Secretariat, however, has not been diminished. Quite the opposite: If nothing else, the imperative to husband time makes it necessary that the Secretary-General is supported by a competent and properly structured Secretariat, a Secretariat, too, that requires minimal energy for its inner workings.

Almost 100 Under-Secretaries-General (USGs), i.e. Heads of Departments, Regional Commissions, Peacekeeping or Special Political Missions, Executive Directors of Funds and Programmes as well as Special Advisers, report directly to the Secretary-General; in addition, several Assistant Secretaries-General.

Owing to the risk of blurred accountabilities and fragmented responsibilities, the important Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) registered its concern that the number of USGs and ASGs was increased by 20 per cent (to 166) between 2011 and 2015. Senior positions as a substitute for action?

Fragmentation trap

The annual budget of the Secretariat exceeds $10 billion; the number of staff members 40,000 (or 100,000, if peacekeepers and police officers are included). Surprisingly, Departments and Funds and Programmes are neither thematically grouped nor vertically integrated.

Each Department is an island onto itself (or silo) with its own mandate, budget, infrastructure and support coalition among Member States. Peace Operations, supported by only two Departments (DPKO, Department of Peacekeeping Operations, and DFS, Department of Field Support), account for 75 per cent of the Secretariat’s expenditures, for over half of its personnel and 90 per cent of its procurement.

To shift funds or staff from one Department (or peacekeeping mission) to another, the Secretary-General needs the concurrence of the General Assembly. This fragmentation trap, set by the General Assembly, accords equal weight to all issues and makes it trying for the Secretary-General to establish priorities, even to strategically use the most precious commodity, namely time.

Today’s great challenge is to enhance the Secretariat’s capacity

The pronounced fragmentation of the Secretariat is a phenomenon that Dag Hammarskjöld did not have to contend with. His main concern was to fend off the encroachment of important Member States, i.e. to safeguard the independence of the Secretariat. Today’s great challenge is to enhance the Secretariat’s capacity, to make it not cheaper but better.

Fortunately, there are some tools available to the Secretary-General. It is within her purview to reverse the erosion of the International Civil Service and to reorganize the Secretariat in such a manner as to minimize friction and optimize synergies. Obviously, this will not be possible without the support of important Member States, but the initiative must be the Secretary-General’s.

The International Civil Service has been weakened

The Charter requires International Civil Servants to meet the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity. This very tall order must be defended, not compromised. In the past years, sadly, the International Civil Service has been weakened considerably.

The Board of Auditors notes that “workforce planning is in its infancy”, that the Office of Human Resources Management is “not involved in the creation, continuation, re-classification or abolition of posts as part of the budget process, and does not have a role in post-budget monitoring and analysis of workforce trends and profiles”.

Also, not even the template of a skills inventory exists to record the academic background, professional experience and occupational preferences of the 40,000 plus staff members.

As is the norm in public administrations, it was the policy also in the Secretariat to give preference to internal applicants in the filling of jobs over external ones. The normal career path was to enter at the bottom and to work one’s way up the career ladder. No guarantees, of course, but fair chances.

The Office of Human Resources Management has lost influence

The Office of Personnel Services (OPS) was programmatically renamed Office of Human Resources Management (OHRM) by Kofi Annan when he became its Assistant Secretary-General in the late 1980s.

OHRM had a strategic role in the recruitment, placement and promotion of staff, not only in New York, of course, but throughout the global Secretariat. It determined applicants’ eligibility according to published criteria and forwarded a short-list to programme managers, who, in a second step, identified the most suitable candidate. This division of labour entailed checks and balances and permitted to steer the composition of the Secretariat according to geographical or gender considerations. Not any longer.

OHRM has taken – or been given – a back-seat in staffing decisions. Today, programme managers are the ones to take recruitment and promotion decisions, with all this entails in terms of workload and temptations. Incredibly, there is now only one single process to recruit, place and promote staff members. This would be inconceivable in any national ministry, bank, airline or corporation.

Ever more transiting experts with no particular UN affinity

Opening staff positions to external applicants and the decentralization of recruitment as well as promotion decisions have changed the Secretariat, and not for the better. Tenured officials, for whom serving the United Nations was a vocation rather than merely a job, are a vanishing species. Transiting experts with no particular affinity for the Organization are increasing in numbers.

Into the 1990s, Directors had worked on average twenty-one years at the United Nations, staff members in the professional category sixteen. The comparable experience today is less than half, namely ten and seven years, respectively. USGs and ASGs average a mere four years. Expectations to the contrary notwithstanding, the Secretariat was not rejuvenated. The average age of staff in the professional category even increased during the last years.

Delegates are recruited seamlessly into the Secretariat

In the 1990s, five per cent of staff in the professional category were at the entry level P-2, a share considered far too low for “effective and efficient staff replacements” (here, par. 85). Today, P-2 posts have shrunk to three per cent (here, table 6).

In the past five years, 30 to 40 per cent of vacancies were filled with external applicants. It is not uncommon for national governments’ delegates to be recruited seamlessly into the Secretariat, which does not enhance its independence. While delegates’ expertise and experience might well be an asset, a moratorium before joining the Secretariat would be proper, if only to minimize conflicts of interest, or their appearance.

It would not be fair to ascribe to the changed personnel structure either the many scandals that have racked the United Nations in recent times nor the generally sclerotic management.

Nevertheless, it cannot be dismissed that the formidable intellectual capacity of the United Nations staff is not optimally utilized, that there is more frustration and spinning of wheels, yet less esprit de corps than there used to be.

Rationalize the structure of the Secretariat

Dag Hammarskjöld had a clear vision for the Secretariat, and he articulated it forcefully. It would be desirable if the ninth Secretary-General were to emulate the second. It is hoped that, on taking office, she compellingly communicates her vision for the Organization and promptly establishes organizational and personnel facts, the scope and conceptual stringency of which will set the tone for her entire tenure. What could she do by her own authority – strategically, tactically and practically – during the first weeks and months of 2017?

In this quickly closing window of opportunity before key positions are filled again, she could revisit Kofi Annan’s proposal to rationalize the structure of the Secretariat, i.e. to group thematically Departments and to designate one USG per cluster as primus inter pares. The Deputy Secretary-General should primarily be the Secretariat’s Chief Operations Officer and the authority over personnel matters reclaimed. This means repositioning OHRM as a competent, empowered, properly equipped and resourced office, with a strategic and analytical mandate, tied up as little as possible in processes and ex post mopping up operations.

A key role for the Department of Management

The Department of Management will have to play a key role to redress fragmentation and, instead, foster integration, professionalization and modernization; to institutionalize continuous improvements and knowledge management as well as business intelligence based on a comprehensive data architecture. This will not be done overnight and require stamina for the long haul. As Kofi Annan used to say: Reform is a process, not an event.

The horizontal division of labour between Departments and the Funds and Programmes needs to be precisely defined and thematic clusters formed. To manage complexity, the current flat organization needs to be vertically structured and the tendency redressed for all issues to be allowed to rise to the top. General administrative tasks need to be automated and clustered in a Service Centre. Lastly, the technical infrastructure of the Secretariat must be modernised and consolidated.

Re-build the integrity of the Secretariat

Hammarskjöld struggled for autonomy and space. The next Secretary-General needs to re-build the competence, efficiency and integrity of the Secretariat. As qualitative change is hard, the temptation is strong to settle for small corrections of unsatisfactory circumstances.

It is hoped that an energetic, visionary Secretary-General will be elected, whose sights are higher, whose expectations are ambitious and who is conscious of the iconic nature of the office. Thousands of staff members, all those who joined the Organization for idealistic reasons, will be grateful and support her enthusiastically.

* Franz Baumann served at the United Nations from 1980 to 2015, in the last years as an Assistant Secretary General and Special Adviser on Environment and Peace Operations. This article was first published on the blog “Der (europäische) Föderalist” as part of a series on UN reform with the headline The Secretariat of the United Nations: Independent, efficient, competent? The writer’s previous article: A Tale of UN Bureaucracy [IDN-INPS – 22 June 2016]

Photo: Will Dag Hammarskjöld serve as a model for the new UN Secretary-General? Credit: UN/DPI derivative work – 1959. Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is the flagship of International Press Syndicate.

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