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UN Staff Survey Shows Shortcomings in Oversight Office

Tom Devine Posted by Tom Devine.

Tom Devine is legal director of the Government Accountability Project, where he has worked to assist thousands of whistleblowers to come forward and has been involved in the all of the campaigns to pass or defend major whistleblower laws over the last two decades.

According to the Global Staff Satisfaction Survey results recently released at the United Nations, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has a leadership problem.

According to the Global Staff Satisfaction Survey results recently released at the United Nations, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) has a leadership problem. OIOS is the Office responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct, as well as retaliation complaints submitted by United Nations (UN) whistleblowers. Because UN managers enjoy legal immunity with respect to the legal systems of the Member States where the Organization operates, OIOS is the only investigative body many wrongdoers inside the United Nations will ever confront. If the leadership there is weak, lacking in independence, deficient in integrity, or uncommitted to principle, operations throughout the UN Secretariat – and by extension, throughout the world – are at risk.

At the Government Accountability Project (GAP), where we protect UN whistleblowers from retaliation, we have a particular interest in OIOS. Because of its reach and its function, OIOS can either contribute to retaliation or provide protection from it. To be an effective shield, OIOS needs strong and independent leadership. Any international civil servant who occupies the post of Under-Secretary General (USG) at OIOS can be (and often is) subjected to intense political pressures. Ultimately, she is the UN official who controls the apparatus that either validates or rejects a complaint of misconduct.

And misconduct at the UN covers a multitude of sins, from minor transgressions such as inflated travel expense claims, to major calamities like the infection of the nation of Haiti with cholera. Having strong leadership there matters. It is therefore alarming to read the comments submitted by OIOS staff members about the quality of their senior management. 

A sampling from the survey:

  • OIOS Leadership is very ineffective. USG shows no interest or vision and lacks good communication skills. ASG [Assistant Secretary General] is very bureaucratic and disempowers the Directors. Neither of them add much value or provide any strategic direction.
  • The Head of Office has been showing very weak leadership. She fails to be a role model, particularly for her own staff.
  • There are some managers who are incompetent and lacking human compassion. They have no leadership skills whatsoever. I am disappointed with the low standards of conduct and lack ofprofessionalism.
  • Divisional leader does not operate with integrity.
  • Accountability, especial[ly] at top level, continues to be purely rhetoric.

To be fair, this is a selected sample of the comments published in the survey for OIOS and the comments themselves are not produced randomly. Less than 50 percent of OIOS survey participants added comments to their multiple-choice responses, and less than 20 percent of OIOS staff responded at all.  Nonetheless, the message from those who did contribute opinions is remarkably consistent. Faulty leadership is a theme. Moreover, the numerical results of the survey corroborate the individual comments. The overall score for OIOS on the index for “Leadership” falls below the Organization’s average departmental score (survey, p. 16), and similarly, the OIOS overall score for “Ethics and organizational culture” is below the average posted for the UN as a whole (survey, p. 30).

In contrast, OIOS scores well above the average on the index for “Supervision.” Staff members are apparently satisfied with their direct supervisors. It is the senior managers – those in leadership positions responsible for setting a tone of ethical conduct – who fail to inspire respect.

It should be noted that there is relatively new leadership at OIOS; the Under-Secretary and the Director of Investigations were appointed in 2015 and 2016, respectively. They inherited an Office and an Investigations Division in turmoil. Nonetheless, both officials have been in their posts for more than a year, and have not yet been able to successfully rehabilitate OIOS, in the opinion of its staff. 

Negative staff responses about the organizational culture at OIOS and of the ethics in the Office have serious implications. This is the Office responsible for enforcing an ethical culture and providing strong leadership when the UN’s executive office managers falter. Investigators must follow facts, identify corrupt practices and actors, and detect fraud. At the UN, the facts, fraud, and abuses can lead straight into tenacious political interests. This has happened in the past. Former UN investigator Robert Appleton offended the delegations of Russia and Singapore with findings of corruption involving their nationals, and was denied a more senior UN appointment after the Secretary General unlawfully intervened in the recruitment process.

A more recent conflict involving OIOS independence occurred over a case of human rights abuse in Africa. Former Director of Investigations Michael Stefanovic refused to investigate Anders Kompass for leaking after Kompass informed the French government that its troops in the Central African Republic were allegedly exhorting sexual favors from destitute young boys in exchange for food. Stefanovic asserted that the USG had compromised an investigation by operating at the behest of the Secretary General (SG). Under pressure from the SG’s Chief of Staff, USG for OIOS Carman Lapointe overruled Stefanovic in initiating an investigation, which she then assigned to James Finniss, one of his deputies. Finniss carried out the investigation. Internal e-mails validated Stefanovic’s position, as Foreign Policy explained:

…OIOS Chief of Investigations Michael Stefanovic has recused himself from the leak inquiry of Kompass, telling governments during a May 13 meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York that the probe by the nominally-independent unit was being directed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff, Susana Malcorra. Stefanovic also told diplomats that his own boss, Canadian Undersecretary-General for OIOS Carman Lapointe, had bypassed established procedures for determining whether the case merited an investigation.

An independent panel exonerated Stefanovic’s conduct and excoriated Lapointe, finding that she had abused her authority. Subsequently, Lapointe departed the United Nations with full benefits, and Finniss continued to serve in his position (and continued the investigation of Kompass for at least a month after an independent panel formally cleared him), while GAP sought to protect Stefanovic’s rights as a staff member in the UN Dispute Tribunal.

Despite his vindication by an independent panel, however, Stefanovic is the subject of repeated derogatory remarks by the current OIOS leadership in open staff meetings. Such disparagement of an ethical former manager communicates to staff that efforts to protect the political independence of OIOS, such as Stefanovic’s, are naïve. From time to time, the new leadership blames Stefanovic, and him alone, for the ongoing problems at OIOS, also maligning the Tribunal judge who received his complaints favorably.

During the past two terms of OIOS Under-Secretaries, difficulties in providing the Office with independent leadership have been noted. Inga-Britt Ahlenius, the USG who stepped down in 2010, sent the Secretary General a highly critical memo setting out the ways in which he limited her independence, and the ways in which this interference compromised the ethical culture, not only at OIOS, but at the United Nations. Carman Lapointe, who succeeded Ahlenius, left the UN under the cloud of abuse-of-authority findings by an independent panel.

Hopes were high for Lapointe’s successor, Heidi Mendoza. Many OIOS staff members aspired to work for an oversight office that guards its independence, in order to conduct investigations that hold the Organization accountable, regardless of whose political sensitivities might be offended. But the recent Staff Satisfaction Survey shows that they have been disappointed by her performance and by her appointees.

Bea Edwards