Yet, you cannot expect those rules by themselves to be an effective mechanism for accountability. If we are to be responsible to each other, to our clients, and to the Organization, we need to understand the principles behind the rules.
We can wiggle around rules and get out of being held accountable by finding loopholes. People do it in the tax system all the time. It is called avoidance – it’s not evasion because it’s legal. I would prefer to avoid accountability loopholes by taking an approach that is principles-based.
Principles are simpler than thousands of rules. Principles force us to ask ourselves: “Do I really feel good about what I am faced with and how I dealt with it?” It isn’t enough to prove that I obeyed the rule, and that, therefore, I’ve not done anything wrong, when deep down it doesn’t feel entirely right.
Q: Compared to other environments, what is special about accountability at the United Nations Secretariat?
At the United Nations, our environment is characterized by great diversity - not only in the nature of our work but also among our clients. We are part of a very diverse group of colleagues that mirrors the world we are tying to serve. That comes with its own challenges.
Coming from different environments, different countries, different cultures, different nationalities and different religious backgrounds, creates different sets of values that we bring to the job and different ways of holding each other accountable.
When you come into an environment like the UN, it is really a challenge to realize that personal experiences and values must be checked at the door, in favour of a defined set of rules that applies inside.
We also operate in an inherently political environment. Most public servants have one government stakeholder—we have 193—all with specific, sometimes conflicting interests. The directions we receive feel a bit like micromanagement, adding to the challenges of the work itself. Occasionally, I worry that the resulting inflexibility may serve to relieve rather than reinforce accountability.
Q: What steps could be taken to further strengthen accountability across the Secretariat?
The Organization has invested recently in initiatives that help to make the UN more efficient, effective and accountable. That includes everything from Enterprise Risk Management and the Ethics Office, to the Ombudsman, Internal Oversight and many functions of management itself.
With so many players involved, we need to learn to worry less about what our individual niche or role is. Rather, we should focus more on how to work together, using all of those investments to strengthen the whole accountability chain. The UN cannot rely solely on any single link.
We tend to fall into the trap of creating a rule for every situation, but it’s just not possible to cover all bases. We should default to the principles and be responsible: to the Organization and our contracts with it; to the ethics and standards of conduct defined; to the public we serve; and of course to each other.
In internal oversight, we have learned over the past twenty years that you can have a perfectly designed formal control system that will fail if those operating it are not competent, not motivated or don’t really care – if they are only in it for the salary, for their own interests. But the reverse is also true: a formal control system can succeed despite its many weaknesses if it is operated by people who are really committed to the cause. If they are willing to go the extra mile, they overcome all challenges and make the system work because they understand how important it is to get the job done.
That means we have to examine both aspects: How likely is it that the environment, commitment and attitudes affect outcomes? And will those effects be positive or negative? We need to answer these questions before we can conclude accurately if our systems really work. Are we all just ticking boxes, or do we actually understand the importance of what we do and how we do it? Our success as an organization is at risk.
Q: What good practices regarding accountability would you recommend to staff?
The biggest thing that we can do to be more accountable is to cooperate with all parts of the Organization to make sure that we are all focused on the same end-goal. We need to leverage each others’ strengths and the information that is available in all parts of the Organization. That’s what I really like about the website “Accountability A to Z”. It is a whole repository of information that already exist, so that we do not create inefficiency by reinventing the wheel every time we turn around.
It’s also important that we all demonstrate accountability through our actions every day. We need to model the behaviours that we expect of others, and not drag down the system by creating negative noise. Positive, can-do attitudes and mutual respect can go a long way to create a productive work environment that fosters rewarding results that make us proud to be part of the UN family.