What is the definition of accountability? United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon may be about to find out.
Nearly a year ago Ban got a semi-public spanking from branches of the world organization that are supposed to oversee and fund his 22,000-person bureaucracy, including the 192-member General Assembly itself, for his proposals to reform the organization.
Now Ban is apparently back for more. The question is whether the result will be the same. The object of the institutional overseers' disdain a year ago was Ban's — in their view — less-than-impressive proposals to make the sclerotic and underperforming organization with a soaring budget, more efficient, effective and accountable.
They were contained in a turgid 53-page document entitled "Accountability framework, enterprise risk management and internal control framework and results-based management framework," which it turned out was not written in Ban's office but came from a management consultant firm, which was paid $1.8 million for the effort.
The General Assembly sent Ban and his consultants back to the drawing board and told him, in remarkably sharp prose, to try again. One thing that made the episode particularly painful for the South Korean secretary-general — for whom "face," or public respect, is especially important — is that some of the storm of criticism came from parts of the bureaucracy that report directly to him, as well as from the nation states that sign the checks.
And already this time, a key U.N oversight body, representing all the 192 countries in the General Assembly, has fired off a 13-page broadside, obtained by Fox News, which takes Ban to task for some new and old failings in his latest purported effort to shake up the system.
The views of the oversight institution known as the Advisory Committee on Budgetary and Administrative Questions (ACABQ) are important because they are usually adopted by the U.N.'s budgetary committee and by the General Assembly itself.
Among other things, the new ACABQ report says that:
• Ban still did not consult enough with the U.N. bodies that criticized his earlier efforts;
• Ignored some of the important recommendations made earlier to improve his reforms;
• Is still suggesting relatively toothless ways to make his top managers accountable for their actions;
• Has not established an effective system of internal controls for the U.N. bureaucracy; and
• Has not yet even provided an acceptable definition of what the word "accountability" means.
This time, however, the ACABQ stops short of a blanket rejection of all of Ban's efforts. Instead, it balks at some of them, snipes skeptically at others — especially Ban's bureaucratic proposals to reinforce "accountability" under whatever definition — and proposes further submissions by Ban to buttress his proposed changes.
"There is more work still to be done," says a Western diplomat familiar with the reform effort. "We are getting there, but slowly." Ban's efforts mean things were "getting better in some areas," he said. "And in others, not."
At issue is a 26-page document (with 39 pages of annexes) Ban submitted to the U.N. General Assembly for consideration this week entitled "Towards an accountability system in the United Nations Secretariat."
The tentative title on the document — implying that more negotiation lies ahead — is already a concession on Ban's part, and its first-person narrative is a signal that this set of proposals was actually written in his own office.
But this is the U.N., meaning that fluency, clarity and jargon-free coherence are still not the new document's strong suits — starting with an 85-word definition of accountability that includes the notion of the "obligation of the Organization and its staff members to be answerable for delivering specific results."
The same wordy definition, however, also includes the provisos that accountability depends on "a clear and transparent assignment of responsibility, subject to the availability of resources and the constraints posed by external factors" — a very sizeable trap door in an organization notorious for under-performing, over-spending and rarely if ever bringing punishment down on its top managers for their behavior.
Among other things, the ACABQ report points to that wording, which it says "may provide grounds for not holding the staff accountable under certain circumstances."
The overseers also note the "lack of reference to efficiency, effectiveness and timeliness" in Ban's definition, along with the omission of "personal responsibility for results." The ACABQ calls the "lack of clarity" in the definition to be one of the "fundamental weaknesses" in Ban's overall "accountability architecture," and suggests that a common definition of the term used by all U.N. bodies would be "desireable."
When it comes to making the U.N. focus on results, an area where all its internal critics agree it has been badly lacking, Ban admits candidly that a "chain of cause-and-effect relationships from inputs through outputs to outcomes" at the U.N. is "broken in several places."
Reverting to the U.N.'s customary opaque prose, he then says this "makes it impossible to advance the results-based management framework in a coherent and holistic manner and, at the same time, adversely affects the accountability framework of the Secretariat."
To fix that, Ban returns to an idea from his previously rejected proposals: yet another new mini-bureaucracy, nestled in the controller's office in the U.N.'s department of management. Ban calls it a Results Management Unit. (In his last attempt to outline reforms, Ban called it the Division for Accountability and Results Management.)
The Unit would have a variety of coordinating and monitoring roles, and would provide "training and guidance on the results-based management concept" across the U.N.'s sprawling area of departments and functions. It would also support a "network of results-based management/results-based budgeting practitioners across Ban's Secretariat."
All of this, Ban says, would be part of his attempt to change the entire culture of the bureaucracy — which he evidently agrees is not oriented toward a performance ethic that other organizations would consider basic and fundamental.
"I intend to promote a cultural change within the Organization," he asserts, "whereby staff understand that they will be held accountable for the quality and timely delivery of their work and supervisors understand they will be held accountable for effectively managing their staff towards that end."
"Training," he adds, "will be essential to effect this cultural change." He soon intends to announce a whole new set of management tools that will increase evaluation of managers, as well as "creative ways to reward, recognize and motivate staff and strengthen the remedies to address underperformance."
All of this comes atop a system Ban installed to sign contracts, known as "compacts," with his senior managers aimed at specifying their performance, which he also sees as a significant reform.
The ACABQ is only grudgingly impressed. While acknowledging the existence of the "compacts" the budget overseers note the "insufficient accountability awareness of all levels in the Secretariat," and says acidly that "thus far, the impact of the compacts on enhancing accountability at the United Nations has yet to be felt."
In the process of preparing its rejoinder to Ban's report, the committee also notes that it held a number of hearings with the Secretary General and complains that it "was not provided with adequate explanations ... as to the consequences stemming from mismanagement or wrongful or improper decisions." It wants more specifics from Ban as he defends his proposals before the General Assembly.
Nor is the committee impressed with Ban's proposed Results Management Unit. Rather than a bureaucratic add-on, the report would have "no objection" to a "dedicated focus" on results that would start with a "clear conceptual framework of results-based management," which the U.N. evidently lacks.
The ACABQ further complains that the bureaucracy has a bad habit, "year after year," of ignoring recommendations by its auditors and other bodies charged with overseeing its operations that would reduce the U.N.'s financial and other kinds of risk.
In other words, the U.N. does not pay timely attention to the overseers who already tell it where the bureaucracy is going wrong, or violating its own rules.
The ACABQ clearly feels it's time for Ban to begin asking why, through "a review of the underlying causes." It also offers one possible cause of its own: in Ban's report, "the Secretary-General does not make mention of the consequences in cases when [his] delegated authority is mismanaged or abused."
What Ban himself thinks of the ACABQ's criticism is not known. A detailed series of questions sent Wednesday from Fox News about the Secretary General's reactions to the main elements of the ACABQ report had not received a reply before this article was published.
George Russell is executive editor of Fox News.