UN Reform: Moving from Rhetoric to Reality
Christopher Bancroft Burnham, Under-Secretary-General for Management, United Nations; A. Edward Elmendorf, Opening Remarks, President, UNA-NCA; David Birenbaum, Moderator, Senior Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center; former U.S. Ambassador to the UN for UN Management and Reform.
This event was cosponsored by the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA).
Christopher Burnham observed that, from a management standpoint, the United Nations is levitating in a 1950s time warp. While peacekeeping, post-conflict reconstruction, and peace building are the growth industries of today's United Nations, the institutional knowledge-base for these activities needs to be developed. Noting the commitment of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as well as the catalyzing role of the High-level Panel Report on Threats, Challenges, and Change, Burnham said that the hour in now for modernizing the United Nations and pushing it into the twenty-first century.
Burnham suggested that the United Nations could benefit from internal controls of the type routinely required in the private sector. The absence of such controls at the United Nations allows for sloppy bookkeeping and an inability to deal with accountability, transparency, and the prevention of waste, fraud, and abuse. For instance, United Nations accounting standards are homegrown rather than internationally or nationally recognized. Ethics training programs and annual ethics certification—both of which are standard in the U.S. Government and most UN member states—do not exist within United Nations management.
Internal controls start with a culture of ethics from the top. Burnham relayed that the Secretary-General will announce the creation of an ethics office in the next few weeks, a proposition that will then be submitted to the General Assembly for funding and staffing. The United Nations Department of Management has already launched a half-day training program in ethics, and a stand-down day of global discussion on ethics has also been proposed. Burnham hopes that international discussions about ethics will focus on the highest standard of ethical conduct, so that UN officials are imbued with a culture of ethics. This will also entail signing onto a code of honor backed by consequences for those who do not adhere to ethical principles.
In order for the United Nations to be a beacon and international icon for ethics, honor, and integrity, Burnham recommended the adoption of five points to maintain internal controls and standards:
Revision of Financial Disclosure Policy:
Burnham called the United Nations' previous Financial Disclosure Form "pathetic," noting that while employees at the White House must disclose gifts over $25 from a single source in a calendar year, and similarly, those who work for the European Commission must disclose gifts of 10 Euros, United Nations employees were only required to declare gifts of $10,000 and above. In contrast, the United Nations' revised Financial Disclosure Form, which lowers the amount of reportable gifts to $250, will help employees to better avoid situations of potential conflicts of interest.
Internal Audit Standards:
Burnham suggested that in order to bolster the strength of internal audits, they should be handled by the independent budget committee of the General Assembly, known as the ACABQ. Burnham indicated that the personnel being judged should not have the ability to put restrictions on the role of the overseer or the "guard who is guarding the guards."
External Audit Standards:
In keeping with Volcker's Oil-for-Food Report and the Gingrich-Mitchell Report, Burnham agreed that some form of independent external audit committee is needed. He recommended the creation of an Audit Advisory Committee comprised of 5-7 auditor generals of great reputation, who would be responsible for ensuring that best practices are being maintained, for examining remediation plans for material weaknesses and reportable conditions, and for making recommendations for OIOS' budget and staffing.
Training in leadership, human resources, and management is critical for successful operation of the United Nations, or "the great experiment of man," in Burnham's words. Employees moving up the ranks in the United Nations should be required to spend the necessary time to become versed in the organization's standards for ethics, accountability, and transparency.
Global taxpayers such as the National Diet of Japan and the U.S. Congress should be able to assess whether the United Nations is spending appropriate funds to achieve the goals it establishes for itself. Cost cannot be linked to performance, unless the United Nations can rely on a system to aggregate the information needed to conduct performance-based budgeting or managerial-cost accounting. Burnham spoke about the necessity of integrating management discussion and analysis into an annual report, a format common to the international community. Burnham noted that just as the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation restores investor confidence in the financial statements and internal management controls of a company, which are certified by a Chief Financial Officer, the Secretary-General should attest to the financial statements and internal controls that serve as the basis for the United Nations' annual report. Additionally, the annual report should include a statement of analysis that has been produced by the governments of France, South Africa, and the Philippines, who serve as the United Nations' independent auditors.
Ultimately, Burnham reiterated that the various scandals plaguing the United Nations will be addressed only through adherence to these five components for internal controls, which are used widely throughout the corporate community. These steps are incorporated in the Secretary-General's vision, as well as in the outcome document that cites the ethics office, whistleblower protection, and increased financial disclosure as goals of the Department of Management. Burnham concluded that the current playbook should be ripped up and replaced with a new corporate governance structure, a new method of budgeting, and a new structure to govern human resources. Because the world is expressly focused on the United Nations at this point in time, Burnham projected that these next months will be critical for bringing the United Nations forward on issues of reform.