15 January 2006

We have heard assuring rhetoric over the last year. A determination for accountability; transparency; zero tolerance with violation of staff rules; encouraging staff to speak out were announced through the media to the world. There was also something about encouraging whistleblowers. Three new senior managers gave an indication that talking the talk will certainly be followed by walking the walk. A new Chef de Cabinet, a new Under Secretary General for Management, and a new Oversight Chief signaled the possibility that some action -- if not full action -- will be taken, at least as a start.

Let's see.

Now there is an opportunity to test that rhetoric.

Would senior officials concerned take the matter seriously or would a favoured protege remain protected?

A letter was sent to the new Under Secretary General, Office of Internal Oversight Services, Ms. Inga-Britt Ahlenius by courageous and dedicated staffer Larissa Sidorova, who has a proven 17-year record of enthusiastic excellent performance noted for effective teamwork, human warmth towards her colleagues, and unflinching loyalty to the United Nations Organization. As a member of the Information Centres Services Division in the Department of Public Information, she has been witnessing recent developments which would confirm reports of "mismanagement, corruption, nepotism, and favouritism in our midst." It would appear that a new change of staff recruitment, appointment, and promotion delegating almost full authority to the head of department with little checks and balances "has empowered certain managers to act with impunity in the manipulation of facts and to exert pressure to embellish the credentials of preferred candidates." This has been done at the detriment of well-qualified hard-working staff that had been harmed by the incompetence of the few. Not to stray away, Ms. Sidorova cited three recent instances from experience in her specific area of work:

CASE ONE: The selection of Director for the Regional U.N. Information Centre in Brussels to replace the incumbent who was retiring.

The vacancy was first advertised in October 2004 and already at that time there were rumors that a specific external candidate was going to be selected. It should be noted that the Vacancy Announcement (VA) strictly followed the working of the VA classified and circulated just a year earlier, prior to the opening of the Brussels office. Suddenly, on the sixtieth day of the circulation of the VA, it was withdrawn (although nobody in ICS was informed of that), allegedly because the VA did not accurately represent the desired qualifications for the position. The revised VA, when issued, clearly established lower standards for the desired profile of a candidate, basically making it more suitable to manipulation, even removing the desirability of a linguistic diversity beyond official languages -- all that in an office that works in 13 European languages (one can say that half of the requirements were removed, almost all remaining became optional and no U.N. experience was required). It therefore came as little surprise that the person ultimately selected for the position (incidentally, the same one originally rumored as the preferred candidate, and also rumored to be a personal friend of some top DPI managers) had fairly limited professional experience of direct relevance to RUNIC's work:

  • The person in question has no managerial experience, while RUNIC sorely needed leadership, vision, managerial skills and experience. By way of illustration, the candidate's assertion that she opened the U.N. office of a prominent newspaper (basically a room with a telephone line provided by DPI and no staff) was accepted as "managerial experience." Once brought on board, this untested individual was put in charge of 23 staff and a budget exceeding half million dollars per year.
  • The new UNIC Brussels Director's request for the delegation of authority (information sheet, required to be filled out for any new certifying officer, in that case the one that will be handling half a million budget) claims that new UNRIC Brussels Director had a thorough financial background, was familiar with U.N. rules and regulations and had performed the function in her previous capacity. There is not a shred of evidence supporting these statements in the incumbent's P-11. (Personal History Form.)
  • No proof of the education required for the D-1 position. To this day, a month plus after coming on board, the now Director of UNRIC has still not provided OHRM with a copy of her "Bachelor's degree in English". Correct me if I am wrong, but for a D-1 position like this one a Master's in a number of specific fields must be required. Incidentally, some of my colleagues recently attended a Galaxy training organized by OHRM and were told that the consideration of candidates with undergraduate education for positions requiring Master's degree applies only to the internal candidates with many years of U.N. experience, and not to EXTERNAL recruits. As far as I understand, the provision of educational credentials needs to PRECEDE the actual recruitment, which in this instance has obviously been waived. I saw recently the vacancy announcement for the temporary position of Assistant Executive Secretary for the Board of Auditors at P-3 level. It required Master's (advanced) degree and, as far as I know, with a BA in English, one cannot sit for a G-to-P exam in Public Information.
  • The applicant's P-11 form had no mention of the fact that she was in the process of changing her current citizenship. When asked to give up her U.S. green card (in accordance with the rule for recruits to posts subject to geographical distribution), only then the candidate indicated that she was in the process of giving up her French nationality. It remains unclear whether the required and really adequate documentation has been provided to OHRM attesting to her actual citizenship status.

CASE TWO: The currently ongoing selection of the DPI Representative in UNO Baku.

This post had been vacant for a number of years until ICS was instructed some months ago to circulate the post in order to accommodate a specific government representative to the Committee on Information, who had been considered but never selected for a number of other DPI positions. On the basis of OBJECTIVE criteria, based on his qualifications and experience as they relate to this post, ICS would not have interviewed this applicant but did so under the pressure and specific instructions by the management of the Department. The interview demonstrated his limited grasp of the required general competencies, the knowledge of the country concerned and the scope of the office. Accordingly, he would not have been placed on the short list that contained three very competent candidates had it not been for the instructions from DPI management to do so. In fact, this applicant was GRANTED ANOTHER INTERVIEW. By that time, it also became clear that HE HAD A BROTHER (D-1) (AND A SPOUSE, FOR THAT MATTER) EMPLOYED BY THE SECRETARIAT, WHICH RENDERED HIM INELIGIBLE FOR THE POSITION ACCORDING TO U.N. RULES. Yet, we understand that another exception is being sought to proceed with the selection and recruitment of this specific individual for the position for which he was not considered qualified, despite the fact that another candidate, a woman, working in the region, had clearly superior qualifications (she was also interviewed for the second time too -- for reasons of decorum, I presume).

CASE THREE: The selection of Director (D-1) for UNIC Mexico City in 2004 (repeat 2004).

In the spring of 2004, before the beginning of the selection process, ICS was advised in the course of several meetings with the then-Director of SCD that the position would be given to a specific UNIC Director as a promotion. Despite serious reservations voiced by ICS colleagues familiar with his performance over many years, the staff member was ultimately selected for the position and no other candidates were even considered -- since he was the only applicant on the 30-day list. At the time of his appointment, this staff member had one year until retirement. Everything having been perfect, would it have been a wise business decision to spend a considerable amount of money on this staff member's relocation? In terms of his contribution to the work of this UNIC (and the broader network of UNICs in the region which were to be revitalized and better coordinated through this most senior appointment in the region), the impact has been dismal. In fact, ICS has been receiving numerous complaints from the UNIC's staff who are being asked to take care of the new Director's personal matters instead of working for the Organization. Sadly, and again against the judgment of ICS staff that has daily contacts with UNICs, this Director has so far been extended twice beyond retirement age -- for a total of four months. It could be added that, historically, this office had been one of the best in the UNIC network. A new Director is now being appointed. Again it is a person one year away from his retirement, again a considerable sum of the Organizations funds will be spent to relocate him for this short period, again one can foresee an extension beyond retirement to somehow justify this short appointment and again the staff of the Centre will be the loser, because yearly changes of management do not ensure either the continuity or strategic guidance. (I feel obliged to mention here that the selected candidate is a very good, hard-working man, although, once again, I have serious, founded doubts about the fairness of the selection process in this specific case, where the main criteria were personal likes and dislikes, typical for our Department.)


May I remind you here that DPI has been recently criticized by the OHRM management for the largest number of extensions beyond retirement among all departments. However, in defiance of this criticism, DPI management continues to seek indiscriminate extensions that have little to do with the priorities of this Organization and/or the Department and in many cases defeat common sense, like the ones above. While demonstrating total disregard and disrespect for the opinion of colleagues in ICS, including UNICs' staff, these decisions further undermine our morale and demoralize UNICs, and hardly present an example of efficient and sound management of our very limited resources.


As you are aware, UNICs in Europe were closed under the premise of (a) enhancing and perfecting the outreach to local constituencies, (b) economies of scale -- $2 million savings declared, (c) re-allocation of resources to the developing countries and the U.N. web site.

One would find it quite inconceivable that an undertaking of such magnitude and consequences would be initiated without a serious in-depth analysis or planning with regard to the costs involved and the effect on the U.N. visibility and image in the key region for the United Nations and on partnerships nourished over many years in terms of constituencies and supporters. In fact, only six months elapsed between the time the decision was taken and the actual implementation. And our enemies say that we at the U.N. are not efficient!

The hasty closure of UNICs did not provide for any transitional measures that would have ensured that pending legal, financial and other issues would be resolved with minimum losses to the Organization. Normal managerial practices in any organization, that are routinely applied e.g. in cases of closure of peacekeeping missions, also provide appropriate financial allocations to cover the closing costs. In our case the closing costs have been covered from the regular budget of UNICs.

In the case of the Western European UNICs, every effort was made by the Department's management to rush the process to a conclusion within its unrealistic deadline and with an inexplicable eagerness to sign on the dotted line regardless of the implications.

At the end, the Organization finally settled, just weeks before the looming deadline of the end of 2003, on a very unfavourable legal agreement (heralded, however, as "great") with the host Government that involved the obligation for DPI to cover hefty yearly maintenance costs for the rent-free space -- estimated at the time at about euros 180,000 per year (based on the estimate, contained in the agreement, of euros 100 per year per square meter -- for a 1,800 square meters of space.) It should be noted that this charge is very close to the yearly rent of the UNIC premises in London, the only location where a rent was previously paid in Europe (in total contradiction to the notion of the "economies of scale" since elsewhere in European centres the premises were rent-free of the government cash contributions de facto offset the cost of the rent). We hear that now, two years later, the agreement could be renegotiated. Still, large sums have already been wasted.

A similar approach was taken in making calculations of the costs involved in the closing of the nine centres and the opening of the regional office, including the cost of separation packages for the staff and the cost of the office furniture and equipment. There was a deliberate effort to discount the costs at all levels and boast of huge savings -- an effort that during the subsequent consideration of the UNIC budget for the next biennium (2004 - 2005) resulted in the reduction of the operational resources by $2 million -- purported savings from the closure which never realized, to say the least (please see further below).

As late as October 2003, closing costs, including staff packages, were calculated at $433,000 -- an estimate that defied logic. It was known that the new office would not have more than 23 posts at different levels while there were close to 50 local staff in the closing offices that had to be accommodated, many of them holding permanent contracts. Even if everyone wanted to move to Brussels, most could not have been offered a post. Closer to the end of 2003, the cost of closing was calculated at about one million dollars, still very much off the mark but certainly in the spirit of a liberal interpretation of facts at hand. Small example: costs of computers and other office equipment for the new office were being calculated as a one-time expenditure, when it is generally known that the computers and other office automation equipment, among other items, need to be replaced every three years or so.

It is very important to mention that, during numerous meetings with the then SCD Director, a number of ICS staff members repeatedly pointed out these and many other elements of the process that run against the truth and logic, U.N. rules and regulations, common sense and sound management of the Organization's resources, only to be threatened, called disloyal (including publicly, in a "town hall" meeting) and simply excluded from future meetings, casting a thick veil of secrecy over a process that should have been transparent and all-inclusive. The financial aspects of closure have never been audited, and a number of UNICs never submitted the required documents pertaining to closure.

In one case where the government openly opposed the closing of the centre in their country, UNIC was practically retained, only reduced in size, contrary to the concept of "closure." It is worth noting that the former National Information Officer, now a P-3 Desk Officer, continues to spend three weeks of every month away from Brussels (his duty station) and is paid DSA while working back in his country -- all at the disproportionate cost on the UNRIC's overall travel allocation.

In the final analysis, the predictions and fears of ICS staff proved to be justified. So far, the cash cost of the closing of nine UNICs in Western Europe has exceeded $3.8 million, (including the cost of donated/discarded/disappeared equipment and other resources, calculated in the recent review of the UNRIC's first year of operations by an independent consultant at over $750,000). As of this writing, there is still a potential for these costs to go even higher, considering that the ex-UNIC London landlord initiated a legal proceeding regarding the breach of the lease and is asking for significant compensation. Furthermore, UNDP in Brussels recovered over $100,000 in rent for the vacated premises of former UNIC Brussels for 2004 and we still have to pay UNDP an additional amount for 2005 (the current lease on these premises expires at the end of 2006). Needless to say, these costs (except for the common staff cost element) are largely being covered from the operational resources allocated to the rest of the UNIC network for the current biennium -- which have been reduced in the current budget allocation for the biennium by $2 million. The above runs contrary to the promise to transfer resources to the developing countries.

Additionally, it should be noted that the current budget of UNRIC Brussels is insufficient to cover its operational needs as a result of the downplay of its realistic, predictable expenditures.

The independent consultant just recently made an analysis of the operational activities of UNRIC Brussels during the first year of its operations. I will not discuss it beyond noting the fact that his analysis confirmed what ICS has known all along -- that financially the closure was not "kosher" and that the level of activities, U.N. visibility and our impact in this region has suffered greatly and probably irrevocably -- a tragic outcome at the time when our Organization is undergoing a crisis of credibility and being attacked by many critics.

At one point approximately two and a half years ago, our office was discussing with OIOS representative the possibility of an audit of UNICs. We were advised at the time that OIOS was only interested in cases where large sums were being "mismanaged". It was a pity, because all problems start small. I believe this attitude is changing lately, and I am confident that we will see the justice afforded to the worthy candidates for UNICs' posts and justice served on the managers who push their friends or other "useful" people to cozy positions, "miscalculate" the U.N. money, wasting millions, and mislead the member states to accommodate their personal ambitions.

Ms. Sidorova sent copies of her letter to the Chef de Cabinet, Mark Malloch Brown, Under Secretary General for Management Christopher Burnham and Ombudsman Ms. Patricia Durrant. She also copied the Staff Committee President and some key colleagues in her Department. It was dated 16 December 2005 (at 01:17pm).

Any response?