EXCLUSIVE: Less than two months after United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon ordered his top lieutenants to come up with urgent proposals for a cost-cutting “agenda for change” for his bulky organization, the U.N. chief has digested their suggestions – and seemingly decided the need for change isn’t so urgent after all.
That, at least, is the main conclusion that can be drawn from a confidential document titled “Decisions of the Secretary General,” which emerged from a meeting of Ban’s top-level management and policy committees on April 28. A copy of the document has been obtained by Fox News.
The document bears Ban’s signature, as well as that of Deputy Secretary General Asha-Rose Migiro. What it summarizes is a far cry from the dramatic process of rapid cost-cutting and functional reform that Ban called for at an “extraordinary meeting” with his top deputies on March 7, where he said the U.N. faced an “emergency situation” amid a growing financial crisis and urged managers to be “creative and innovative” improving U.N. effectiveness and cutting costs.
The latest Ban decision document also begins with the bold declaration that a “change management process” will begin “immediately” at the U.N., to “deliver a strengthened Organization that serves its Member States and beneficiaries more effectively and efficiently.”
What follows, however, is a new bureaucratic labyrinth, of which the U.N. already has plenty. Among the steps Ban outlines in his reform process:
-- a department-by-department review of existing programs, “to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of the outputs they are delivering;”
-- “practical and affordable recommendations for improvement” for Ban’s further review;
-- creation of an as-yet-unnamed “Change Management Team” to guide the process and “develop an implementation plan with associated timelines in collaboration with the relevant departments and offices
-- creation of new “reform focal points” at every level of the U.N. Secretariat to work with the still unborn Team;
-- new “process improvement channels” to collect staff proposals for improvement;
-- and, finally, announce that an “Advisory Group of senior officials” will assist Ban’s deputy “in helping guide the recommendations and implementation plan of the Change Management Team before their submission to the Secretary General.”
The earliest date of implementation for anything mentioned in the decision document is the end of 2011 -- and that is only for an “interim” policy to encourage the mobility of Secretariat staff, while a “comprehensive mobility framework and policy” will only be ready for consideration by the U.N. General Assembly by September 2012, at the earliest.
Among the few other deadlines mentioned are a move to cut the hard-copy distribution of U.N. reports by 2013, and creation of a paperless office environment by 2015. But in general, the few specifics in the document call for further study before changes are implemented, posit the existence of prior improvements before some wider-reaching changes can be delivered, and, in the end, call for still more review.
The use of greater teleconferencing to cut the huge cost of U.N. travel, for example, will take place only after the current telecommunications plan of the world body has been “reviewed and, where appropriate, adjusted to increase the quality, including accessibility for persons with disabilities, and to decrease the cost of communication.”
In the meantime, the U.N.’s management department will “review existing processes for travel and institute more flex on the use of online service providers to make sure the Organization gets the cheapest and most competitive rates.”
A similar recommendation about online booking was made by an internal U.N. watchdog as far back as June 2009 -- and rejected, with the comment that online booking represented “a significant financial risk to the organization.” Improvements in the U.N.’s multibillion-dollar procurement business will likewise await the development of alternatives “with the involvement of affected departments and offices,” a surefire turf battle that has no time frame for completion in Ban’s document.
One big question posed by Ban’s new decision document is what happened to the urgency of his previous call for subordinates across the entire, sprawling global organization to come up with urgent cost-saving measures and reform proposals. One answer may lie in the tepid response he got at the time, which was considered at a two-day closed door meeting of the CEOs of 28 U.N. agencies in Nairobi on April 1 and 2.
The lack of urgency among Ban’s top-level subordinates may also reflect the fact that Ban’s own expansive hiring practices are part of the reason behind the U.N.’s bureaucratic bloat.
A copy of the minutes of the latest policy and management committee meeting in New York, also examined by Fox News, shows that whatever Ban says publicly about the “change management” process he is initiating, he now sees it as “the beginning rather than the end of a process.”
He also sees it as separate from the issue of shrinking the U.N.’s ballooning budgets. Ban additionally told his top staff that even if their ideas for reform, which he had called for in March, were not reflected in his latest decisions, “none had been discarded and all would be considered and assessed in the change management process” -- a diplomatic pat on the back, of sorts.
The same minutes recorded official enthusiasm among attendees at the April 28 meeting for the “change management” process -- along with some complaints that didn’t make it onto Ban’s decision list. Some participants pinpointed “the proliferation of coordination mechanisms at headquarters and in the field” as a problem, a debilitating habit that could easily describe Ban’s “change management” process itself.
Others noted the “snowballing of executive offices” in the organization. Almost everyone decried the seemingly endless droning of U.N. reports. Another area, according to the minutes, where top level U.N. officials felt enthusiastic about reining in the bureaucracy was “the area of oversight and judiciary bodies” -- in other words, the organizations in the U.N. bureaucracy that actually hold officials accountable for their work and their behavior.
Ban’s decision document does not address the issue. The bureaucrats also complained about mandate overload -- the tendency of U.N. member states to order actions without building in the payments for them.
The minutes noted that a 2005 review of the total number of mandates tallied 9,700, “and the number had only grown.” Whatever else they did with “change management,” some anonymous top bureaucrats told the April 28 meeting, they needed to come up with a positive communications strategy to describe it. One reason: to counter “the negative media perceptions of the U.N. as a bloated bureaucracy.”
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News and can be found on Twitter @GeorgeRussell.