United Nations:

Preliminary Observations on Internal Oversight and Procurement Practices

GAO-06-226T: Published: Oct 31, 2005. Publicly Released: Oct 31, 2005.

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Thomas Melito
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This testimony discusses internal oversight and procurement in the United Nations (UN). The findings of the Independent Inquiry Committee into the UN's Oil for Food Program have rekindled long-standing concerns about internal oversight and procurement at the United Nations. In addition, the UN's 2005 World Summit called for a host of reforms, from human rights, terrorism, and peace-building to economic development and management reform. Specifically, this testimony conveys our preliminary observations on the UN's budgeting processes as it relates to the ability of the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) to perform independent and effective oversight. We will also discuss some of the UN's efforts to address problems affecting the openness and professionalism of its procurement system. We would like to emphasize that our comments reflect the preliminary results of two ongoing GAO engagements examining the UN's internal oversight and procurement services. We will issue reports covering a wide range of issues in both areas early next year.

OIOS's ability to carry out independent, effective oversight over UN organizations is hindered by the UN's budgeting processes for its regular and extrabudgetary resources. In establishing OIOS in 1994, the General Assembly passed a resolution stating that OIOS should exercise operational independence in carrying out its oversight responsibilities and that the Secretary-General should take into account the independence of the office in preparing its budget. The Secretariat's budget office--over which OIOS has oversight authority--exercises control over OIOS's regular budget, which may result in conflicts of interest and infringe on OIOS's independence. In addition, UN budgeting processes make it difficult for OIOS to reallocate its regular budget resources among OIOS locations worldwide or among its three oversight divisions--internal audit; investigations; and monitoring, evaluation, and consulting services--to meet changing priorities. OIOS officials provided us with several examples of work funded through the regular budget that they were unable to undertake due to resource constraints. In addition, OIOS does not have a mechanism in place to identify or justify OIOS-wide staffing needs, except for peacekeeping oversight services. OIOS also lacks control over its extrabudgetary resources, which comprise 62 percent of its overall budget in fiscal biennium 2004-2005. The UN funds and programs that OIOS oversees maintain control over some of these resources since OIOS negotiates its terms of work and payment for services with the managers of the programs it intends to examine. If the entity does not agree to an OIOS examination or does not provide sufficient funding for OIOS to carry out its work, OIOS cannot adequately perform its oversight responsibilities. The United Nations has made progress in improving the clarity of its procurement manual but has yet to fully address previously identified concerns affecting the lack of openness and professionalism of its procurement system. Specifically, concerns remain relating to an independent bid protest system, staff training and professional certification, and ethics regulations. In 2002, the United Nations revised its procurement manual, which now provides staff with clearer guidance on UN procurement regulations and policies, including more detailed step-by-step instructions of the procurement process than it had when we reported in 1999. However, the Secretariat has yet to enhance the openness of the procurement system by heeding a 1994 recommendation by outside experts that it establish an independent bid protest process. At present, vendors cannot file complaints with an independent official or office if they believe that the UN Procurement Service has not handled their bids appropriately. As a result, senior UN officials may not be made aware of problems in the procurement process. In addition, the United Nations has not fully addressed longstanding concerns affecting the professional qualifications of its procurement workforce. The Procurement Service is developing a new training curriculum and a professional certification program. It has trained some procurement staff as instructors but has yet to complete training curricula. In addition, the United Nations still needs to develop the individual training profiles necessary to determine the extent of its training requirements. A June 2005 report by an independent contractor indicated that most headquarters procurement officers and procurement assistants do not possess professional procurement certifications. According to the contractor, the level of certification was low in comparison to other organizations. Further, the United Nations has yet to adopt several internal proposals to clarify UN ethics regulations for procurement staff and vendors, such as a code of conduct.

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