Global Policy Forum

Watchdog Organization Struggles to Decrease UN Bureaucracy


By Shravanti Reddy

Digital Freedom Network
October 29, 2002

Over the years, the UN has gained a reputation as a large and unwieldy bureaucracy that is inefficient and wasteful, thereby hindering its effectiveness. In fact, this was one of the main reasons that the US-the largest contributor to the UN-withheld their dues to the UN during the 1990s. United States Senator Rod Grams, US Congressional delegate to the UN General Assembly, has called the UN an "excessively bureaucratic and dysfunctional organization, in desperate need of an overhaul." The fact that the US conditioned repayment of their dues on reform provided the impetus to initiate major reforms within the UN.

As a result, UN Secretary-general Kofi Annan instituted a number of reforms within the UN system. Part of the larger reform has been the creation of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) in 1994. OIOS was mandated by the General Assembly to "improve the relevance and effectiveness of the organization and to act as an agent of change that promotes responsible administration of resources, a culture of accountability and transparency and improved program performance."

"We are the watchdog organization of the UN, as well as an agent of change," explained Dr. Tay Keong Tan, the Special Assistant to the Under-Secretary-General of the OIOS in an interview with the Digital Freedom Network. Dr. Tan also acts as Chief of the Office of the Under-Secretary-General for OIOS. For the past eight years, the OIOS has worked to improve the UN by strengthening its accountability and internal controls so that the UN can provide better missions and services throughout the world. While the OIOS has achieved progress with its mandate, there remain many challenges ahead.

"We want a stronger UN, a more effective UN. That is our ultimate goal," said Tan.

The UN: A typical bureaucracy?

Although the UN exhibits some of the main characteristics of a large bureaucracy, there are also several unique characteristics that can make reform more challenging.

Like most bureaucracies, the UN has rules and regulations, a hierarchy of supervision, meritocracy, and specialization. While these characteristics are positive and essential for the smooth running of an organization, they also have negative aspects. For example, although rules and regulations provide predictability, they also create what is known as the "red tape" phenomena. Similarly, while hierarchy of supervision adds to effective management, it can also lead to an abuse of authority.

In an organization as large as the UN, "the negative aspects have the potential to overwhelm the positive," said Tan. "They must be kept in check."

It is also important to remember that there are characteristics unique to the UN, which can hamper overall reform efforts. As an organization that consists of national governments, decisions within the UN involve competing political and economic agendas of the different Member States. In addition, the multinational composition of UN staff has implications for efficiency because divergent management styles, work ethics, and lifestyles can often work against each other. Finally, given its worldwide mandate and large mission, such as ending world hunger and poverty, the UN is often severely strapped for human and financial resources.

The UN's employment of some 64,700 people worldwide is a small number when compared to the 70,000 people employed for the Austrian capital of Vienna alone. Furthermore, with approximately US$2.6 billion in the year 2002, the UN budget is only slightly higher than the budget of the US state of Vermont ($2 billion).

OIOS achievements

Since 1994, there have been major reforms within the UN. These include a reduction in operating expenses, simplifying procedures, reducing administrative redundancies, and discontinuing activities that have outlived their relevance. Reformers have also focused on increasing internal coordination, accelerating the decision-making process and improving management. Almost 1,000 staff positions have also been deemed unnecessary and removed.

OIOS has played a key role in overall reform by providing services in internal auditing, investigation, monitoring, inspection, evaluation, and management consulting. With an annual expenditure of only $17 million, the OIOS tries to set an example by maintaining a lean budget.

OIOS conducts reviews and assessments from which it produces recommendations for better effectiveness and accountability of programs. For example, a review of the UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention resulted in OIOS recommending a change in management style that would improve implementation of the program.

OIOS also receives reports from internal and external sources regarding fraud, waste, and mismanagement by means of e-mail, office walk-ins, and even a 24-hour hotline. Many of these reports concern issues of abuse of authority and suspected fraud. The confidentiality of the complainant is always carefully guarded.

Since 1995, OIOS can point to a number of achievements. They have exposed waste and fraud totaling $250 million and have issued some 5,000 recommendations since 1997.

Although OIOS recommendations are not mandatory for program managers to implement, they are often taken quite seriously because of the attention they are given in the General Assembly. OIOS has had an impressive 80 percent rate of implementation for their recommendations.

Remaining challenges

While they have been effective in tackling many problems, OIOS looks to future challenges.

They are soon to launch an organizational integrity system to promote integrity and guard against corruption. As the UN promotes good governance and accountability to the outside world, its own governance must remain on a higher plane in order to avoid allegations of hypocrisy.

An expert on strategic management, Dr. Tan also believes that the UN needs to look at the future challenges. "How can we in present time gear ourselves to meet the challenges of the future?" questioned Tan.

One of the major concerns for the future is risk. "What are the risks facing the organization and how can we help the organization mitigate those risks?" asked Tan who also acts as a risk manager for OIOS. The potential risks include those to operations, personnel, assets, finances and to the reputation of the UN.

One risk to the UN reputation was the recent controversy over the sexual exploitation of refugee women by humanitarian aid workers in West African refugee camps. Earlier this year, allegations were made against UN staff by refugee women who stated that they were given food in exchange for sexual favors. Although an OIOS investigation of the issue ultimately found that UN staff were not implicated, the OIOS expressed in a press release the need for tighter control and monitoring of situations in which UN staff interact with vulnerable populations. The official report is forthcoming.

OIOS is gearing its activities towards meeting such risks, rather than just overseeing operations and reacting to cases being reported. "We need to move beyond the tip of the iceberg and uncover what is below the surface," explained Tan, "We are beginning to develop the capacity for risk assessment so that we can become more relevant and more accurate in our targeting of activities."

However, some aspects seem to present a challenge to reform. There are "many meetings, many reports, much paperwork," agreed Tan. Still, he pointed out that as the UN sets the intellectual agenda for the world, it will always rely on reports and conferences as an effective method to educate people, raise awareness and change public opinion. While reports can be shortened and certain peripheral meetings and conferences can be eliminated, they will always remain part and parcel of UN work.

NGO interaction with the UN

External actors are also often negatively affected by UN bureaucracy. While one of the goals of the UN is to create a greater role for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) within their work, NGOs find that they are often frustrated in their interactions with the UN.

Although NGOs are interested in working with the UN, they often discover it to be difficult to find ways to engage with the UN or to maneuver within the UN system. "We sometimes feel that it is an exclusive organization that does not present enough opportunities for NGO interaction," explained one NGO staff member.

"The lack of centralized information is one problem and reflects the bureaucracy of the organization," stated another NGO employee. "The UN Web site is next to impossible to navigate, and finding a direct link to information is difficult." Others felt that the mandates or missions of the departments within agencies were often unclear, making it difficult to know whom to approach regarding an issue.

Those NGOs that have a more established relationship with the UN also face a number of obstacles. For example, one NGO worker expressed disappointment in what was described as an "endless process of paperwork" needed to obtain a grant from a UN agency. Another found that there were often delays in reimbursements from UN agencies, something that can significantly affect the work of NGOs with limited cash flow.

It seems that the UN is already aware of this problem and has plans to tackle it. According to Tan, "the UN realizes that it must learn to operate more seamlessly with agencies that are more nimble out there in the field. We realize that the UN Millennium Goals [see URL:] cannot be achieved unless we have partners from other sectors on board."

However, some of these delays are inevitable. "The rules of the UN are established for various levels of accountability, but sometimes this has a cost," explained Tan. "Sometimes, due process must be followed even though it can be frustrating for our partners."

Tan believes that much of the onus for change falls upon the UN headquarters office in New York. "They really need to keep in touch with the realities on the ground and to facilitate the work of our members and to implement partners where it matters, which is on the frontlines in peacekeeping missions, refugee camps, and conflict areas around the world," he said.

In the future, the negative aspects of UN bureaucracy will hopefully continue to shrink under the watchful gaze of the OIOS. The increased accountability, transparency, and improved management of the organization can ultimately help to shift the focus to the lack of adequate financial resources, which is to another major obstacle to the effectiveness of its programs and activities.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.