Implementing the UN Management Reform: Progress, and Implications for Peace Operations

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In 2017, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres proposed a new management paradigm to better enable the UN to address global challenges by giving decision-makers at the country level greater authority over their resources and thus greater speed and flexibility in setting and responding to priorities; reducing duplicative structures and increasing support for the field, including through the creation of new Departments of Operational Support (DOS) and Management Strategy, Policy, and Compliance(DMSPC); increasing accountability, and transparency; and reforming planning and budgeting processes.

While the reform is still a work in progress, it has continued to gain momentum, and implementation has become more systematic. More work is needed to fully realize the potential of the management reform, and ensure that it aligns with parallel reforms underway in the UN peace and security architecture and development system.

IPI, in partnership with the French Ministry for Armed Forces, held a virtual conversation among high ranking UN management officials and experts on September 17th to examine the implementation of the reform and its impact on peace operations, both from the perspectives of UN headquarters and the field.

Setting the backdrop for the discussion, Rear Admiral Hervé Hamelin, Deputy Director for International Security Affairs, Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy, French Ministry for Armed Forces, said that while the reform aims to respond to changes in peace operations mandates on operating environments, “stakeholders, more particularly from the field, continue to consider that it is not implemented to its fullest potential. Additional challenges continue as well to divide the international community, more particularly the capacity of member states to overcome divisions during the current 75th session of the UN General Assembly that will be key for the implementation of the reform on human resources.”

Wolfgang Weiszegger, former Director of Mission Support for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and author of the IPI paper Implementing the UN Management Reform: Progress and Implications for Peace Operations, gave a stark overview of how field operation management needs have piled up and why serious reform was needed. “If a UN field operation needs as little as a paper clip or as much as finance personnel, an aircraft, or a maritime fleet, management or support staff, DOS at UN headquarters, and mission support staff in the field better be included and involved in all discussions, and at each and every step of the way you need analysis, planning, execution, and evaluation processes. Otherwise, the resources required to implement a mission’s mandate just won’t be available at the right time and at the right quantity, quality, and cost. There’ll be no sufficient personnel, financial assets, infrastructure, materiel assets in place when and where they’re needed. That’s why it would be important to determine and leverage the converging streams of the management reform also with the streams of the peace and security reform, and the development reform since nothing works in isolation, and synchronicities and interdependencies need to be leveraged.”

Reviewing what had occurred so far in response to the reforms, Mr. Weiszegger said, “Managers have been empowered, accountability strengthened, processes streamlined, delegations of authority decentralized, and trust with member states improved, just to name a few.” A critical part that remained to be done, he stressed, was determining whether it has had a positive impact on people on the ground and people in areas of distress and conflict. But in general, he concluded, “The management reforms have taken off, are on the right track, and emphasis must now be placed on keeping the momentum going.”

Eugene Chen, Programme Management Officer in the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General, flagged the high priority of the Secretary-General’s reform agenda by saying that its “ultimate objective” was “to maintain the relevance of the United Nations. The reforms seek to achieve this by enhancing the effectiveness and accountability of the organization in program delivery through all three tracks of reform, including management, peace and security, and development. The management reform focuses on decentralizing the management of the Secretariat and empowering senior managers, including heads of missions, such that the responsibility for implementing mandates is now aligned with authority to manage resources. The structural changes to the management architecture at headquarters are a catalyst for the decentralization.”

Mr. Chen detailed some of the changes and counseled against thinking that the reform was simply a rearrangement of functions rather than the sweeping fundamental shift that it is in the relationship between headquarters and the field. “Authority for the management of human and financial resources is delegated directly to senior managers, including heads of mission. Missions are therefore no longer mere extensions of the will of headquarters departments, but are now firmly in the driver’s seat. The newly established headquarters departments have no day-to-day decision-making authority over mission budgets and staffing but instead are responsible for supporting missions and other Secretariat entities through policy and guidance, advisory services, and administrative and logistical support.” He said that there are also new formalized mechanisms with representative field participation to ensure that policies and procedures are in line with recommendations from the field.

Mr. Chen argued that the new system was put to an early unexpected test with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, and had proved its value. “COVID-19 has therefore served as an important test to validate both the underlying concept and the new structures put in place via management reform.”

Picking up on that point, Rick Martin, Director, Division for Special Activities, UN Department of Operational Support (DOS) said, “I shudder to think where we would be with our previous structures and authorities in responding to the pandemic that has impacted across the Secretariat and particularly in our field missions.” The UN was particularly vulnerable, he noted, with peace operations in nine of the 11 countries most affected by COVID-19, and more than 1200 confirmed cases and 18 colleagues lost, many of them police and military officers living and working in congregate high-density situations.

Among the gains he listed from the reforms were:

  • Having supply chain management integrated across procurement and logistics management. “They were in separate departments in the past, and that shouldn’t matter, but unfortunately in our world it does.”
  • Aligning what has traditionally been the medical treatment capacities with occupational safety and health. “I can tell you that quite often when we talk about the pandemic now, we talk less about the medical response and more about occupational safety and health, given the threat to the health of our personnel.”
  • Creating a single entry point on uniform capability support for peace operations.
  • Having a more consolidated approach in standing capacities now for training.
  • Streamlining recruitment and onboarding processes.
  • Closing gaps in what resources peace operations are able to access on an immediate basis.
  • Providing support to the resident coordinators, who are now being brought into the Secretariat.
  • Establishing a standing search capacity of existing staff across the whole Secretariat that can de deployed to an incident or transitional requirement needing additional capacity.
  • “A genuine convergence between the Secretary-General’s reform pillars—management reform, peace and security architecture, and the development system reforms—which has been made possible by having a single Department of Operational Support.”

Olga de la Piedra, Director, Office of the Under-Secretary-General, UN Department of Management, Strategy, Policy and Compliance (DMSPC) said that the enhanced delegation of authority to the heads of missions had allowed her department to bring decision- making closer to the point of delivery so rapidly that some people in the field were slow to act on it. “One of the paradigms that are still shifting is for our colleagues to realize that they do have the authority to take certain decisions that they didn’t have in the past. We saw at first that it was very gradual, but over the last six months, we’ve seen colleagues embrace this delegation of authority more actively, and decision-making is moving much faster.”

Heralding an example of a peacekeeping practice becoming a model for the whole organization, she said that DMCPC now has a clear mandate for oversight over conduct and discipline functions across the global Secretariat. “So the rigorous approach it had been implementing for peacekeeping in the past is now standardized across the Secretariat at large. This is learning from peacekeeping adapted to the whole organization.”

Amadu Kamara, Director of Mission Support, UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) and Director of the UN Support Office for Somalia (UNSOS) said the UN’s operations in Somalia provided a good testing ground for the reform. “We support, for example, about 30,000 military personnel engaged in active combat. It’s doesn’t get more dynamic than that. So it was obvious that the regulatory framework was not compatible with the dynamics and rigors of the operating environment. The management efforts with the enhanced delegation of authority to heads of UN entities have afforded scope for UNSOS and UNSOM to address many arising issues, which previously would have had to be referred to multiple operational units and liaisons at headquarters for consideration and consultation without the attendant urgency required to meet demands on the ground.”

Mr. Kamara said that the new flexibility helped mission heads with specific chores like staff recruitment but also in more philosophical ways. “One of the benefits of the management reform, often unrecognized, is that this has led to a subtle shift in the mindset of administrators from a rules- and regulations-based mentality to using the regulatory framework as an enabling mechanism for operational decision-making.”

Suggesting further reforms, he said the delegation of authority might have to be “customized” to suit particularly volatile environments like Somalia and that consideration should be given to applying a probationary period for newly hired personnel. “To put it succinctly, our recruitment is out front, we take a very long time, we are very laborious to be careful to do recruitment, but once that person comes on to the ground and it doesn’t work out, we can never get rid of them. Not everybody can work in the field, and you will never know who will fit in until they actually do the job.”

Jake Sherman, IPI Senior Director of Programs, moderated the discussion.