United Nations:

Management Reforms Progressing Slowly with Many Awaiting General Assembly Review

GAO-07-14: Published: Oct 5, 2006. Publicly Released: Oct 5, 2006.

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Despite various reform efforts, significant inefficiencies in United Nations (UN) management operations persist. In September 2005, heads of UN member states approved a resolution that called for a series of reforms to strengthen the organization. As the largest financial contributor to the UN, the United States has a strong interest in the progress of UN reform initiatives. GAO was asked to (1) identify and track the status of UN management reforms in five key areas and (2) identify factors that may affect the implementation of these reform initiatives. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed documents proposing UN management reform and interviewed U.S. and UN officials.

Most of the UN management reforms in the five areas GAO examined--management operations of the Secretariat, oversight, ethical conduct, review of programs and activities, and human rights--are either awaiting General Assembly review or have been recently approved. In addition, many proposed or approved reforms do not have an implementation plan that establishes time frames and cost estimates. First, in July 2006, the General Assembly approved proposals to improve the management operations of the Secretariat, such as upgrading information technology systems and giving the Secretary-General some flexibility in spending authority. In addition, in fall 2006, the General Assembly will review other proposals, such as procurement and human resource reforms. Second, implementation of proposals to improve the UN's oversight capabilities, such as strengthening the capacity of the Office of Internal Oversight Services and establishing the Independent Audit Advisory Committee, are pending General Assembly review in fall 2006. Third, the UN established an ethics office with temporary staff in January 2006 that has developed an internal timetable for implementing key initiatives. However, it is too early to determine whether the office will be able to fully carry out its mandate. Fourth, UN member states agreed to complete a review of UN programs and activities in 2006, but progress has been slow and the results and time line for completion remain uncertain. Fifth, the General Assembly created a new Human Rights Council in April 2006, but significant concerns remain about the council's structure. GAO identified several factors that may affect the UN's ability to fully implement management reforms. First, although all UN member states agree that UN management reforms are needed, disagreements about the overall implications of the reforms could significantly affect their progress. Most member states are concerned that some of the reforms could increase the authority of the Secretariat at the expense of the General Assembly, thus decreasing their influence over UN operations. Member states also disagree on some of the specifics of the reforms in areas such as the review of programs and activities and the role of the Deputy Secretary-General. Second, the general absence of an implementation plan for each reform that establishes time frames and cost estimates could affect the UN's ability to implement the reform initiatives. Without establishing deadlines or determining cost estimates, it is difficult to hold managers accountable for completing reform efforts and ensure that financing will be available when needed. Third, administrative guidance, such as staff regulations and rules that implement General Assembly resolutions, could complicate the process of implementing certain human resource reform proposals. For example, according to the Secretary-General, the General Assembly established a number of conditions for outsourcing that severely restrict the circumstances under which it can be contemplated.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, the State Department stated it is committed to improving the effectiveness, accountability, and transparency of the United Nations (UN), while seeking to avoid excessive micromanagement of the UN Secretariat by member states. State agrees that the Secretariat should be held accountable for implementing management reforms and is working with other member states towards ensuring that a transparent reporting mechanism to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) is established. State indicates that in its capacity as a member state and a key member of the UNGA Fifth Committee, which deals with administrative and budgetary issues, it takes into account the costs of management reforms and reports to the UNGA on such matters. Consistent with its interest in improving management within the UN Secretariat and throughout the UN system, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, with the support of State's Bureau of International Organizations in Washington, launched a management reform initiative called the United Nations Transparency and Accountability Initiative (UNTAI) in 2007. UNTAI is designed to focus on a variety of key management and oversight issues stressing enhanced and transparent financial management including accurate and reliable cost estimates as well as timeframes for implementation and completion. State maintains that it has achieved some success on these matters within the UN Secretariat and the UNGA since the issuance of our report. State recently launched an UNTAI Phase II Initiative that will address management reform issues including cost, timeframes, and benchmarks within the UN Secretariat and in the broader UN System, including UN Funds, Programs, and Sepcialized Agencies. In its 2008 Annual Report to Congress on UN Operations, State indicated that it had been instrumental in the establishment and operation of key UN management reform initiatives, including the Independent Audit Advisory Committee and the Ethics Office. It also reported that it had been influential in the UNGA approving, among other reform agenda items, improved UN financial management practices such as the implementation of International Public Sector Accounting Standards. In July 2011, State indicated that it had been influential in the UNGA reducing operating costs in Human Resource Harmonization in both the Secretariat and UN Funds, Programs, and Specialized Agencies, which has been a major management reform issue. In an August 2011 update to GAO on actions taken to implement our recommendation, State cited its efforts to have the Independent Audit Advisory Committee report its annual operating costs. It also cited a successful effort to have the newly established Ethics Office provide information on its operating costs and timeframes. Overall, State has encouraged UN management reform officials to establish important timeframes for operational milestones and report annual costs while endeavoring to implement a variety of cost controls. Despite State's efforts to promote timeliness and cost effectiveness in the ways described above, progress on the implementation of the entire UN management reform agenda remains slow, uneven, and incomplete.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should work with other member states to encourage the General Assembly and the Secretary-General to include cost estimates and expected time frames for implementation and completion for each reform as it is approved.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since the issuance of our report, State issued annual reports to Congress on United Nations (UN) operations. In these reports, State address the status of UN management reform in some detail, providing information critical to the progress of management reform specifically in the areas of transparency, reporting, and accountability. The 2008 and 2009 State Department Annual Reports to Congress on UN Operations were particularly noteworthy for their detailed review of UN management reform status and progress.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State's annual "U.S. Participation in the United Nations" report to the Congress should include a section on the status and progress of the major UN management reforms.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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