Tuesday, December 06, 2005

UN Undersecretary General for Management Christopher Burnham on UN reform

The UN Under Secretary for Management, Christopher Burnham, writes today on UN reform in the Wall Street Journal opinion page, here, Tuesday, December 6, 2005. Excerpts:

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Wall Street Journal
December 6, 2005; Page A20

It has been a difficult year for the United Nations. Although September's World Summit resulted in agreement on the priorities of the its member states, the mood within the committees of the General Assembly has since been one of uncertainty, division and looming crisis. But in the Secretariat, we are making real progress on management reforms. Yes, there is a lot of disagreement right now among the 191 U.N. members, and it is possible that the General Assembly will fail to agree on a budget later this month. But it won't be due to a lack of progress in the U.N. Secretariat, where Secretary-General Kofi Annan has already exercised his authority to push through a number of key reforms.

The secretary-general has presented to the General Assembly five key management reforms: new requirements for financial disclosure by senior staff; a new whistle-blower protection policy; the adoption of International Public Sector Accounting Standards; proposals for a United Nations Ethics Office; and an Independent Audit Advisory Committee.

These are sweeping reforms that will dramatically improve accountability at the U.N.

• The new financial disclosure requirements were signed out last month by the secretary-general, and broadly expand the amount and type of information required to be filed by all senior staff at the level of assistant secretary-general and above. The new rules also expand reporting requirements to all employees in the procurement and investment areas of the U.N. The U.N. needs the approval of the General Assembly to make the new policy applicable to certain senior management categories below the assistant secretary-general level, and Mr. Annan has made this request to the General Assembly.

• No organization can operate without a system of protection for those who step forward to report waste, fraud and corruption. In the past, the U.N. had a very weak whistle-blower protection policy in which the staff put little faith. The new policy established by the secretary-general this week is the product of many months' effort working to bring in best practice from many nations and key NGOs, and included extensive consultations with U.N. staff members, through their unions.

The new policy should give full assurance to those seeking to report misconduct that their voice will be heard, and that they will be protected. A key point of the new policy is that it specifically spells out the requirements to report misconduct to the proper U.N. authority, but it also allows for a staff member to go to local or federal authorities, or the "peoples' court of last resort," the press.

• Last week the chief executives of all the different U.N. agencies formally adopted new accounting standards for the U.N., to be applied on a world-wide basis. Implementation of International Public Sector Accounting Standards, which the European Commission also recently adopted, will require General Assembly approval and significant new resources over the next four years. The secretary-general will request approval of these new standards next month. Replacement of a 15-year-old accounting and disbursing system will be the key driver of how quickly we can come into full compliance. The plan approved by the chief executives of all the U.N. agencies calls for that to be done no later than Jan. 1, 2010. This is the essential step in significant improvement in accountability, the full implementation of managerial-cost accounting, and being fully responsible to member states and the global taxpayer.

• Another initiative of the secretary-general is the establishment of a U.N. Office of Ethics. This new office will provide annual training for all U.N. personnel on ethics and integrity, and will require individual certification of that training. The office will also receive and review the enhanced financial-disclosure forms to help prevent potential conflicts, and where suspected misconduct exists, make recommendations to the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services -- the inspector-general-like function at the U.N. No organization can exist unless firmly established on a foundation of ethical standards and conduct. The creation of this new office is essential to the integrity of the U.N. going forward. The secretary-general will ask the General Assembly to approve this new office this month, and to fund it with the resources necessary to begin full operations in Jan. 2006.

• The secretary-general also proposed this week to the General Assembly that it create a new Independent Audit Advisory Committee. This function does not currently exist at the U.N. The committee would be appointed by the General Assembly, and the proposal recommends five members from around the world who are either former auditors-general of their countries, central bankers or individuals of equal stature and probity. This committee would follow up on audits by requiring quarterly reports and presentations from the Secretariat that would detail the progress made on the remediation plans drawn up in response to auditor recommendations and identified material weaknesses. Importantly, the committee would recommend directly to the General Assembly the budget and resources the Office of Internal Oversight Services needs to fulfill its mission. Currently, the budget of OIOS must go through the Department of Management. This is clearly a conflict, and it inhibits the independence of OIOS from the Secretariat.

These are not the only reforms completed or proposed to the General Assembly for action this month. Moreover, the secretary-general will make important recommendations early next year to the General Assembly on modernizing the corporate governance structure of the U.N., the General Assembly completes its review of rules, regulations and mandates, as required by the global leaders' summit this past September.

Until then, the global taxpayer should rest assured that the U.N. is undergoing significant change in accountability, transparency and ethical conduct.

Mr. Burnham is the undersecretary-general of the United Nations for management.

URL for this article:http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113384011245714857.html

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