Setting the stage for change

The UN’s chief Secretary-General António Guterres has brought a new sense of vigour to the organization at large. In his remarks to the General Assembly after taking the oath of office, the Secretary-General stated his intention to undertake a management reform across the organization that is built on “consensus around simplification, decentralization and flexibility”. He stated that: “the United Nations needs to be nimble, efficient and effective. It must focus more on delivery and less on process; more on people and less on bureaucracy. He also vowed to boost the UN’s culture of accountability that is anchored on: “strong performance management and effective protection for whistle-blowers”. Mr. Guterres’ vision has resonated with UN staff, who take pride in their work and are looking for a leader who goes beyond rhetoric and actually walks the talk. For many of us, Secretary-General Guterres embodies those qualities but he cannot do it alone. We need to rally around his vision of transforming the UN’s culture to make the organization more modern, agile and result-oriented.

A call for change: the 2030 Agenda

The objective of this shift in culture is to allow us to successfully support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) enshrined in the 2030 Agenda. Transformative and ambitious, the SDGs have mobilised the international community to revise its strategy towards development. The UN is gearing up to provide increasing support for Member States in the implementation of targets. Traditional UN culture will need to see an overhaul if we are to begin affecting change. The added measure of changing from within is a response to a global commitment made by the UN to deliver on expectations. We need to change to remain relevant and impactful.

The role of senior management

The senior management team assembled by the Secretary-General is determined to shift the prevailing UN culture so it aligns to the vision of what a contemporary UN should be. The individual who is assigned the responsibility of managing the Secretariat’s Department of Management will play a key role in this shift. Entrusted with the challenge of reinvigorating the UN bureaucracy, she/he will need to champion organizational change and support innovation and creativity.

A people driven initiative

Empowering a cadre of qualified senior managers committed to change will determine the success of transformation in the UN. However, this is not sufficient. To unleash its full potential, a system wide effort needs to be undertaken. Across the world, our staff are generating new ideas and ways of working that result in a real impact. Regardless of their position and hurdles posed, these individuals share a common denominator - they deliver quality work and think outside the box. These change agents should be identified, supported and encouraged to catalyze major organizational shifts. Transforming the UN system depends as much on these change agents as it does on leaders at the helm of the system who are championing change. One without the other will not bring results.  Senior leadership should ensure the right policies are in place and well-developed implementation strategies are rolled out. A great deal of importance must be placed on communication within organizations for clarity on desired changes and change processes. Staff members should be included and involved in the design and delivery of change. Senior leadership should simultaneously engage with Member States to advocate for evidence-based change, supported by analyses of data and case studies. The UN will see its transformational efforts realised if it builds upon the contributions of change agents. Our biggest strength is our people.

The role of hierarchy

Traditionally, the UN treats organizational change as a process that starts at the top and filters down. This is done through policy directives in the form of circulars, revised guidelines, and other such top down communication. While this approach seems necessary to ensure proper adherence to new ways of working, it brings with it some challenges. Problems begin to arise when the upper echelons of the UN make decisions that affect the entire system, and do not communicate directly. Neither do they encourage direct participation from staff in decision-making. Leaders must be inclusive in their communication to enable buy-in and organizational ownership, to create a common goal and demonstrate genuine commitment.

The standard approach is for supervisors to identify change agents from within their teams. However, this is highly problematic and not always adequate for recognizing areas and agendas for change.

How to identify and support change agents

The reality of complex and large public institutions is that no change can take place if it does not have the support of the senior management. The importance of reaching out to those who are eager and willing to embrace change cannot be emphasized enough. The potential of change agents is unlimited. They have ideas on how to enable change across avenues and personal experience in managing responsibilities innovatively and exceptionally. They are risk takers in an environment that is not always conducive to change, and trusted by colleagues who may otherwise feel threatened by change. When staff see peers and trailblazers promoting supporting organizational shifts, they are more likely to invest in the movement. This theory is especially relevant for those considered - on the fence - who are ambivalent about organizational change. More effort needs to be allocated into convincing these individuals of the desirability and benefits of change. Supporters play a crucial role in convincing others to join the process.

The road to building a community for change

Change embracers are assets who should be nurtured and supported. Nurturing implies recognizing their value and acknowledging them. The United Nations System Staff College (UNSSC) is working towards the development of a virtual platform to build a community of change agents across organizational silos. The community will serve a multitude of purposes including identifying embracers beyond organizational affiliations, connecting them, facilitating exchange of good practices, and building an infrastructure for peer-to-peer support. This will be at a system-wide level.  As members of a well-managed community, these change agents are more likely to assist each other with problem solving, sharing of ideas and resources.  The community could also be used as a vehicle to promote the idea of change. In the contemporary environment, we need to unify our staff in the pursuit of sustained peace, security and prosperity.

The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.