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Making UN Boards more Strategic: The WFP Governance Review

24 September 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

Governance and management word cloud on blue background

This week, the WFP Executive Board holds an informal consultation on the findings of the WFP Governance Review. An independent consultant was tasked with assessing WFP’s governance frameworks and processes to identify practical ways to improve governance efficiency. The Joint Inspection Unit (JIU) is undertaking a similar review of UN Boards in New York. Ultimately, WFP Board members felt that they were struggling provide the strategic guidance and oversight with which they are tasked and sought more effective ways of using their time as Board members. Smaller permanent missions in particular have found it challenging to keep up with the level of effort needed to engage with the Board and all the formal and informal meetings.

In its analysis, the WFP Governance Review highlights key challenges and innovative solutions that are relevant for international governance across the UN. One of the most significant challenges for effective governance of international organizations is the dual role of member state delegates in pursuing their national interests and the interest of WFP. This is an area of increasing attention of researchers as well. Our spotlight therefore examines the recommendations of the Governance Review and other research on how to address this dilemma and their impact on the quality of decision-making by the Board and the performance of WFP. We also provide some suggestions for issues to be considered as the WFP Executive Board decides how to move forward with the Governance Review.

Buried somewhat in the middle of the Governance Review report, the consultant highlights what is essentially one of the key governance challenges for international organizations, which is fundamental to their success or failure:

The Board Members have a challenging role as they are member state representatives but also act as the members of the governing body of an international humanitarian organization. It is very difficult to balance those two roles as some decisions can be difficult to engage or agree on for a Member State due to the country’s position on the relevant issue.” - WFP Governance Review, para. 62

Researchers have increasingly found evidence that when member states can resolve this dilemma and act in the broader interest of the organization, international organizations perform better. Conversely, when member states’ decisions are guided primarily by their national interest, international organizations’ performance is poor. Academic research is starting to identify ways to mitigate this challenge. The Governance Review provides some further, very practical recommendations. Our spotlight takes a closer look at all of them.

The pros and cons of accountability mechanisms

A very useful new book, “Making International Institutions Work: The Politics of Performance” takes an in-depth look at how the interaction between member states and an international organization impacts performance. In studying high performing organizations, Prof. Ranjit Lall found that they had strong accountability mechanisms beyond just their governing bodies as well as greater participation of non-state actors in governance or accountability mechanisms. Participation of civil society, often as observers, as well as accountability mechanisms that give a voice to beneficiaries, who otherwise have no role in governing bodies, all appear to provide valuable external inputs that facilitate better decision-making by governing bodies and senior management.

Consequently, the recommendation of the WFP Governance Review to start each Executive Board session with a dialogue with the Executive Director and a guest speaker provides an innovative new window of opportunity for external voices. The Governance Review stresses the need for these dialogues to be strategic. While WFP’s operational partners obviously have useful insights from the operational level, their strategic inputs into some of these discussions are potentially very useful, as are insights from transnational civil society groups.

Beyond participation of external partners, accountability mechanisms which provide data and feedback from beneficiaries have also shown a positive impact on the quality of decision-making. Accountability mechanisms however can have negative side effects, which are highlighted by the Governance Review. The proliferation of accountability mechanisms, which is common following reform efforts can result in ‘accountability overload’ for public organizations. This phenomenon has been highlighted across national public sectors and has previously also been raised by WFP’s Independent Oversight Advisory Committee (IOAC).

Accountability overload results from uncoordinated efforts to assure accountability with disregard of the opportunity cost. In the public sector there are many incentives to add new arrangements to assure accountability, such as political symbolism. In the age of government austerity, however, the cost versus the economic value of avoidable mistakes, cannot be ignored anymore. The quest for accountability at all costs leads to organizational pathologies that reduce efficiency, effectiveness, responsiveness and innovations.” - Arie Halachmi in Oxford Handbook of Public Accountability, 2014

WFP’s IOAC has previously recommended more dynamic planning of audits and evaluations, which is a useful consideration for the entire UN system. Research, like that in Making International Institutions Work: The Politics of Performance, indicates that an important criteria for oversight planning is to ensure that oversight reports considered by the Board in any one year have a mix of voices, i.e. from government and member state representatives as well as from beneficiaries and partners. For particularly complex issues, some overlap between oversight mechanisms may be useful. Different findings and perspectives of auditors made up of government representatives versus those of an independent Inspector General may not can capture the complexity of addressing particular areas of risk, and do not necessarily represent an inefficiency. The trick in the planning is to leverage these different perspectives in how the issue is audited and presented to the Board.

Strategic reporting versus simplified reporting for governance decisions

The nature and quality of reporting is a broader theme picked up across the Governance Review. It repeatedly highlights the need for reports to the Board to be more strategic, simpler and easier to understand for Board members. This may seem like a common sense solution, along with the need to ensure Board members have the documents translated in all languages in a timely manner before the meetings. The WFP Management Plan is highlighted as a particularly complicated document that many Board members apparently struggle with.

But as we highlighted recently, the WFP Management Plan actually does reflect the phenomenally complex nature of managing a massive global humanitarian organization like WFP. Oversimplifying the nature of those management challenges may make it easier for Board members to understand, but it also increases the risk that they insert themselves more into the operational elements of management rather than staying at a strategic level. How to structure reports so that they are strategic and useful both for Board members and avoid creating further dysfunction is actually quite complex and context-specific, as new research on reporting in the US government has illustrated. Quality reporting can improve both performance and accountability, so dedicating sufficient effort to determining what a quality report is for WFP in the Governance Review’s implementation plan is an important consideration.

Innovations to reduce the burden of consensus decision-making

Another key issue highlighted by the Governance Review is both the importance of consensus as a decision-making tool, as well as the need to consider where and when consensus is most important precisely because it does require a significant level of time and effort to achieve. The Governance Review therefore proposes making decisions on operational issues like Country Strategic Plans on a ‘no objection’ basis, as is the case in UNICEF, for instance. Dialogue on the Country Strategic Plans is recognized as important but can be done efficiently through pre-sessional informal meetings, so that the formal session essentially is a symbolic approval by the Board.

Conversely, strategic guidance and policy issues should continue to be agreed by consensus. The Governance Review proposes several practical approaches to enhance consensus-building, which are also relevant for other UN entities. The Governance Review rightly recognizes the importance of informal mechanisms, bilateral meetings, and coordination across different electoral lists (regional groups) in as part of the consensus-building process, rather than considering them as an inefficient use of time. The Review therefore recommends methods meant to strengthen those and allow delegates to use informal mechanisms more effectively. On particularly innovative and practical proposal is that the Board institute a two day strategic retreat at the beginning of its first formal session of each calendar year. The idea is to allow for strategic discussion and relationship-building among Board members, especially as new Board members join the Board. The second day extends the strategic discussions and relationship-building to include the WFP senior leadership. The two day investment therefore should bear fruit throughout the rest of the year in how Board members and senior management engage with each other and are able to find mutually agreeable compromises.

Unscripted and frank discussions - which are not captured in written minutes - are an important tool for finding consensus. Beyond the retreat, the Governance Review recommends returning the informal meetings of the WFP Executive Board to their original informal nature and eliminating minutes and scripted interventions that have become the norm. The Review suggests doing this by moving the informal meetings online instead of their current hybrid form to allow all participants to know who is in the meeting and be able to use body language and other cues to facilitate understanding. Online meetings would also be cheaper, allowing the Board to use those funds for other initiatives like the strategic retreat. While this also appears logical, it may be an area to monitor carefully given the struggles that the Fifth Committee had during the pandemic in finding consensus on complex issues via online meetings.

Accountability of Board members

A final recommendation with particular relevance for other UN entities, is the proposal for the WFP Executive Board to institute ethics and integrity benchmarks in its work, and to develop a code of conduct for its members. The code of conduct should contain as a minimum the requirement for a ‘cooling off period’ before a Board member can be employed by WFP as a staff member. Integrity and accountability of governing body members should be equally as important as that of the staff, if international organizations hope to achieve legitimacy and trust of the global public.

Discussion points for WFP's Governance Review consultation

The WFP Governance Review provides an interesting analysis for those following governance issues in the UN as well as practical recommendations relevant for other UN Boards undertaking similar reviews. More specifically for those involved in Tuesday’s informal consultation, we suggest considering the following discussion points:

  1. In rationalizing oversight reporting, how many future accountability related reports will provide information and feedback from beneficiary populations and partners?

  2. What does more strategic reporting to the Board look like? How will guidance on strategic reporting be developed and will it be based on evidence from other public sector organizations with similar challenges?

  3. What format for online informal meetings is being proposed? Are there possibilities for online meetings to include breakout sessions and opportunities for smaller group or electoral list discussions?

  4. What would the code of conduct for Board members consist of? How long is the proposed cooling off period for Board members?


Key Meeting of UN Governance Mechanisms this week

  • WFP's Executive Board is briefed on the Reassurance Action Plan on 25 September 2023, and holds an informal consultation on the Governance Review on 26 September.

  • UNWomen's Executive Board receives a briefing on UNWomen's Humanitarian Strategy for 2022-2025 on 29 September 2023.


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