Against a backdrop of economic austerity, the ongoing debate about the new UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a potentially pivotal opportunity to re-examine how the UN system should be re-aligned and its transparency and accountability enhanced.
To assess the past and present UN system with regard to transparency and accountability, this article examines four components: funding, accounting for dollars and results, oversight, and staff management.
In the 15 years leading to 2011, combined contributions to the UN's development activities from all funding sources demonstrated significant, consistent and uninterrupted overall growth. This growth was almost entirely due to increasing non-core (extrabudgetary) contributions, while the level of core contributions from member states remained static. However, non-core contributions create problems. They are less predictable, come with significant pre-conditions, and require additional layers of reporting, audit and oversight procedures. These mechanisms result in a fragmented budgeting and accounting landscape across the whole system, and can seriously dilute “accountability”, often resulting in more opaqueness and less transparency.
Given that the UN system is the frequent target of public criticism for being bureaucratic, wasteful, and lacking in transparency and accountability, this sustained and steadily increasing overall funding trend toward “soft” resources is surprising. It is unusual to find ever-increasing levels of investment in organizations that are often criticized for their opaqueness.
Most UN entities are long-established, and many of their strategic decisions on deployment of resources have long-term implications. However, they continue to be financed by short-term cash contributions, causing a misalignment of funding timescales and resource planning. If donors believe that most UN entities will be needed in the future, it is time to adopt more strategic, longer-term funding approaches.
Also critical to accountability and transparency is a comprehensive and effective system of oversight, both internal and external, consisting of the functions of internal audit, evaluations, and investigations. There has been a long debate within the UN system about the relationships among the three oversight functions (internal audit, evaluations, and investigations). A strong, professional internal audit team, together with a responsive line-management team within the rest of the organization, will gradually build more effective internal controls. This arrangement should, in the long term, result in less fraud and malpractice, and thereby fewer investigations.
A further, more radical proposal to strengthen the independence of the three oversight functions is to consolidate the resources within each UN organization into three distinct, system-wide functions. It would require a shared funding model from all UN entities and it would be accountable to the governing bodies and management of each UN entity.
Overall, such an approach should be less costly while being more objective and effective. It would strengthen the independence for all internal oversight functions. Resistance to consolidation of oversight among UN organizations derives from the strong belief that each UN entity requires its own dedicated staff to work on its own business. The arguments will continue until a stronger management culture evolves that welcomes scrutiny.
Individual accountability is equally vital. Holding organizations accountable means, in practice, holding the individuals who work in them accountable. In the UN system, this fundamental accountability “test” remains its biggest challenge to making significant and even dramatic improvements.
Holding staff accountable against a set of previously agreed objectives is only meaningful if exceptional performance can be rewarded in a tangible way and under-performance can result in remedial action and, where necessary, sanctions. If staff see no outcome, either positive or negative, from their assessments, individual and collective performance will deteriorates. A lack of belief in effective accountability will become engrained and expected.
Many of the real and perceived shortfalls in transparency and accountability within the UN system have their roots in the short-term, fragmented mechanisms that drive the way that the various entities are funded. At least with regard to accounting aspects, there have been recent changes for the better, but the process of shifting mindsets and funding models into longer-term perspectives is long overdue and needs to be seriously pursued.
Oversight continues to improve slowly with better-established oversight committees. But the demand for investigations grows inexorably even though the management culture of accepting responsibility for and promoting internal controls remains relatively weak. Consolidation of internal oversight resources into UN system-wide entities seems logical but political will is lacking.
The fact that, almost 70 years after the establishment of the UN system, we are still discussing system-wide evaluation is illustrative of the larger problems across the various components of the world organization.
Finally, the “elephant in the room” should be confronted: can the UN system progress toward a culture in which high-performing individuals are rewarded and under-performing ones are fairly assessed, documented and sanctioned? Strong, meaningful, and effective staff appraisal and performance management are the basis of a more transparent and accountable UN system.
In the words of the UN’s second secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld: “in the end, it is transparency and accountability at the individual level that really drives what is or is not achieved by the organization.”
The threshold year 2015 represents a potentially pivotal opportunity for the UN system to establish medium-term targets to align itself behind a new set of globally agreed twenty-first century SDGs. In far less confrontational and painful circumstances than a world war, such a pivotal opportunity has not arisen since 1945.
The UN system urgently requires a revamping of its transparency and accountability.
Richard Golding is a chartered accountant and independent management consultant. Until 2012, he was a partner with the consulting practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) where he worked for 25 years. From 2005 to 2012, he was PwC’s Global Relationship Partner for the United Nations system and The Global Fund to Fight HIV/Aids, Tuberculosis & Malaria. He had overall responsibility for multiple reform and operational support projects. He is a frequent speaker and facilitator on matters of management practices, governance, risk management and ethics.