UN Bureaucracy? No, Thanks

Participants at the
Participants at the opening ceremony of the 15th session of the UN permanent forum on indigenous issues, May 9, 2016. MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

After more than 30 years of service, I retired from the United Nations as an assistant secretary-general, Special Adviser on Environment and Peace Operations, at the end of 2015, but to officially conclude my tenure with the UN, there was bureaucratic paperwork to contend with, to which Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville’s reluctant clerk, might have said, “I would prefer not to.”

During my last week in the office, between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and despite the new information-technology system, Umoja, I had to fill out by hand myriad forms. Originals of my marriage certificate (from 1987) and our daughter’s birth certificate (2000) needed to be submitted, even though the UN had moved us as a family across oceans a few times.

This paperwork was not a requirement of Umoja, a $400 million system that besides the UN is used in more than 100,000 institutions internationally. Filling out these forms was necessary because the antiquated, paper-based processes in the UN Secretariat have not been adjusted to the new system yet. Buying a new IT solution does not equal reform; it is also no substitute for reform.

The “exit interview” by the UN’s human resources people was completed before I left, which meant that all clearances were in hand, or so I thought; but they were not. For one, the United States Office of Foreign Missions was not advised of my departure for weeks; months actually. As a result and because we are not American, adjusting my family’s visa status or re-registering our car (from diplomatic plates) was another Catch-22. After several inquiries, it turned out that one form still needed to be completed — by hand — and signed by my former executive office for transmission to the host country, the US. This was done after Easter.

As it happened, another glitch kept me from visiting the credit union at UN headquarters in New York, since my temporary grounds pass to the compound expired on March 31, and since I do not have a pension number from the UN yet, a new pass cannot be issued, not even a temporary one.

I would like to visit the credit union, as I am still waiting for the financial settlement from the Secretariat for unused leave, an education grant and other entitlements. Not to mention the first pension payment. What is going on here? Is my case an anomaly, the proverbial black swan? Unfortunately, not.

The hurdles grow higher. An ominous message titled “Backlog in payments of pension benefits is being eliminated” was posted, unsigned, by the UN’s Department of Management on the UN’s intranet in April 2016. Upon reading this alarming message, I learned that there were 1,700 backlogged pension fund cases, with the good news that they were to resolve by the end of May. I’ll keep you posted.

The message further said that the problem was not only in the pension fund but also in the Secretariat, namely an unidentified number of “necessary HR and Payroll processes needed [sic] for pension purposes.”

Efforts would “continue with the aim of eliminating the backlog within the UN Secretariat no later than 31 May 2016.” Not a word of regret for the hardship caused to hundreds of retirees and their families.

Sadly, these are not hiccups but chronic crisis symptoms of an overadministered and undermanaged institution. In fact, another literary reference comes to mind: Dante’s “Divine Comedy”: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.” Abandon all hope, ye who enter.

Delivery timelines, key performance indicators or seamless end-to-end workflows do not exist. Instead, the UN is a coiled-up machinery in which processes, rather than being rationalized and integrated into larger schemes, are compartmentalized and rarely reviewed for their usefulness. Corporate management is weak, fragmented, duplicated and incoherent. It is often said that micromanagement on the part of UN member states impedes sound administration. This is certainly a concern, yet it cannot explain or excuse internal incoherence.

For instance, the UN Secretariat no longer has an organigramme, or organization chart, not even a template for one. A few departments have them, yet they are all in different formats. The same goes for websites, none of which has a serviceable search function. This is immediately evident on the UN’s main site, where searches for “sexual exploitation by peacekeepers,” “climate change” and “multilingualism,” for example, lead nowhere or everywhere.

Similarly, the Official Documents System — early 1990s technology — has no search function. Unless one knows the precise code, a document cannot be located. Information is buried, unretrievable and therefore useless. Incredibly, the Secretariat no longer has a corporate archiving policy or recordkeeping system, as noted by the Joint Inspection Unit.

Without central standards and systems, some departments have established their own methods of operating. Mostly, staff members save their own messages as well as data documents however they can. This was made clear when news broke in 2015 of a bribery scandal stemming from the office of the president of the UN General Assembly, revealing, among other things, that no handover protocols existed from one term to the next. Knowledge management, based on an organization-wide data architecture, obviously needs to be developed.

Moreover, no skills inventory exists for the more than 40,000 UN staff members. The filling of vacancies is based on résumés and interviews conducted by program managers, for whom this has become an onerous additional duty, unsupported by human resources professionals. Job openings each attract, on average, an unmanageable 250 applicants, according to a recent report from the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, otherwise known in UN jargon as ACABQ.

To be precise and bureaucratic, the UN Board of Auditors notes that “workforce planning is in its infancy”; that the Office of Human Resources Management is “not involved in the creation, continuation, re-classification or abolition of posts as part of the budget process, and does not have a role in post-budget monitoring and analysis of workforce trends and profiles”; and that there are “over 70 different ICT [Information and Communications Technology] units in various departments, offices and field missions, and around 2,200 software applications in use across the United Nations Secretariat.”

The erosion of corporate functions at the UN is obviously inefficient and debilitating, as it would be at any airline, university, hospital, insurance company, bank or major police department.

Instead of sapping energies or diverting resources from substantive UN activities, management should support and facilitate such work. Sadly, this is not the case. The independent panel established by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to review peace operations stated categorically that administrative procedures are failing peacekeeping missions and their mandates. Force commanders and troop contributing countries are exasperated by bureaucratic constraints that fail to meet reasonable demands in difficult settings. Senior managers complain of deep dysfunction and are frustrated by the inability to recruit rapidly on the one hand and by the obstacles to removing poor performers on the other. Staff members are discouraged and frustrated by red tape and a lack of mobility and career development. Administrative risk-controls poorly suited to the field leave mission leaders and administrators feeling constrained from making common-sense decisions to pursue their mandate.

Too often, the choice is between what makes sense for the mission and what complies with unwieldy procedures, and usually the choice involves doing what is compliant. The result, an underperformance of mandates, poses extremely high risks to operations as well as to reputations.

A well-functioning Secretariat will not necessarily overcome crises of multilateralism, but a dysfunctional Secretariat is grist for mill for those who see the UN as an incompetent and wasteful distraction. Considering the UN’s symbolism, legitimacy, convening power and mission across its 70 years, the importance of good internal governance cannot be overemphasized. It will require considerable effort by the next secretary-general — woman or man, but preferably not a bureaucrat — to undo the symptoms of neglect and reverse the decline of the Secretariat.

Every secretary-general, the world’s highest-profile diplomat and guardian of the very concept of multilateralism, is also the chief administrative officer of an organization of more than 40,000 staff members and annual budgets of more than $10 billion. In the precedent-setting UN General Assembly public hearings in April, in which interviews of candidates for the next secretary-general were held, nitty-gritty management issues barely came up.

The nuts and bolts of the Secretariat have been short-changed. A Secretariat run competently and with integrity is crucial to the organization’s legitimacy. Even Bartleby would agree with that.


Visiting Research Professor at

Franz Baumann is a visiting research professor at New York University. He started his career at the European Parliament in Luxembourg before transferring to the European Commission in Brussels, joining Siemens in Munich and, in 1980, the United Nations, where he served in four cities on three continents in various roles. His last assignment was special adviser on Environment and Peace Operations with the rank of assistant secretary-general. Baumann has a Ph.D. in political science (African Studies) from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.


15 thoughts on “UN Bureaucracy? No, Thanks”

  1. “Overadministered and undermanaged” – very well put indeed. This is a key article, a much needed and sensible analysis by someone who both knows and cares about the UN. I completely agree: good internal management is both a sign of and essential for credible global politics and decent, effective policies in all the fields that the UN touches and is important for. Ideally, Franz Baumann’s article will get the attention it deserves. Even better: his advice on how to improve things is sought by those in charge.

  2. I recommend a military takeover. When I retired after nearly 37 years military service, my final outclearance took a half-day. But in UN PKOs, our administration was in the hands of a Chief Administrative Officer, just as tho a dozen or so general staff officers couldn’t have handled the challenges on their own. The result was just as Franz has described – but having this happening in New York is one thing; when the same thing happens in Bosnia or Central Africa, for example, it is quite another kettle of fish.

  3. To go to UNFCU you dont need to j
    have a UN ID. You just need to register with your card as a regular visitor , go through the security screening and enter the UN Permises.
    Down by 1B visitors area you can access the recently open UNFCU offices and they can take care of you with any of your personal IDs.

  4. I find it extremely hard to believe that he could not obtain entrance to visit the UNFCU. I have to say though, that I find it extremely irritating that this (second article on the same subject) appears only after the staff member has left the system and by a higher up no less. When the person involved only writes this after leaving the system his complaints lose most of there credibility. This is unfortunate as I agree with most of his complaints.

  5. Very insightful piece that reflects the experience of staff members still struggling to work at the UN. Write another piece please with suggestions of how to fix the problems.

    • Dear Franz, I remember you as the most efficient, busiest, briefly very best of those executive officers whom I knew within the DPKO and around.
      So the weight of your findings is such, that despite your retirement the Secretariat ought to hire you to head a new unit/Committee to identify all the manifold weaknesses which Keep the Organisation from living up to the challenges of our time.

  6. I agree with everything he said. The only thing he forgot to mention was about the casting system enforced by the United Nations and how the it keeps on building walls to prevent staff members under one category (General Service category / support/clerk etc) to move to another (Professional category).

    It is really a pity that an organization that fights inequality is at the same time promoting segregation among its workforce.

    • It is really a pity that an organization that fights inequality is at the same time is promoting segregation among its workforce.

      Very true statement. I worked for the UN from 2009-2016 in various offices in the GS category. It was so disheartening to never have the opportunity to be promoted to the Professional level. I finally resigned this month and it was hard decision because of the many benefits the UN offers (6 weeks vacation and 4 months of maternity leave) but I could no longer work for an organization that was so segregated.

  7. Another article by another disgruntled political appointee. What is mind-boggling for me is that no one else but the very people who make these complaints and point out these inefficiencies were until very recently part of the UN management team that chose to do absolutely nothing about the “over-administration and under-management”. They were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lead and manage the organisation – i.e. they themselves are the “under-management”. A lot needs fixing in the UN, but it is not going to be fixed by post-facto complaints, it can only be fixed by active management with a vision and desire to rock the boat a little, if needed, and care for the Organisation and, most importantly, its staff.

    • People said the same about Anthony Banbury’s piece in the Times. Disgruntled. Make any kind of accusation you like about the author. It does not take away from the truth he speaks (or writes). Yes, the author and Banbury were high-ranking officials, and they could have influenced change, but they couldn’t necessarily make it, and I have to wonder if the people who have complaints about what Baumann and Banbury have written even work at the UN or know how it works, or, do they work in UN posts where they confront that bureaucracy day in and day out? I actually have a lot of respect for high-ranking officials who even know what the UN’s problems are, since most “senior management” are oblivious to them, or rather, don’t care to notice as long as the money and perks keep rolling in. “Over-administration and under-management” is putting it succinctly. Many staff want managerial positions, but do not wish to, and in most cases, have no idea how to, manage people. Maybe if there is a change there, further change can occur.

  8. I was not paid my regular UN pension at the end of May……no answers to emails……what do I do?
    Julian Harston

  9. I also retired in May 2015 and up to now i have not been paid a cent of my pension and to make matters worse i get no answers to the numerous emails i have sent….what do i do? At least they should have the courtesy of replying to former staff members-no matter how bad the situation is.

    Dennis Tangai-(from Kenya)


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