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Why is Organizational Change in the UN so Difficult?

The ITU's 'Transformation Roadmap to Achieve Organizational Excellence' provides some lessons.

30 July 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

Late in the evening on 21 July 2023, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) concluded its annual governing Council session, at which the ‘Transformation Roadmap for Achieving Organizational Excellence’ was hotly debated. The Transformation Roadmap is similar to most organizational change proposals in the UN system and is based on several recommendations of auditors and the requests of the Council itself. At the Council

curved road sign

session, the only resources being requested, were to allow the Secretariat to create a D-1 Chief of Transformation using existing resources. So why was this Transformation Roadmap so hotly debated?

In this week’s spotlight, we use the ITU's recent experience to explore the political dynamics inherent to all intergovernmental organizations, and which make change so difficult. We then suggest some issues to consider for others embarking

on organizational change processes in the UN and international organizations.

The Transformation Roadmap for Achieving Organizational Excellence was presented to the ITU Council by its Secretary-General following several informal consultations with member states, staff consultations and a senior management retreat and visioning exercise. The Roadmap essentially ties together four other improvement strategies in the areas of:

  1. People and culture

  2. Financial management and planning (incl. strengthening of its Results-Based Management framework)

  3. IT systems, processes and tools

  4. Oversight, internal controls and governance.

The Roadmap brings coherence to these four sub-strategies and sets out an overarching reform objective of improving the quality of ITU's services and strengthening its financial position so that ITU can have a greater impact on universal connectivity and digital transformation. From a substantive and organizational performance perspective, the Roadmap is sound and in line with other UN reform efforts. The only weakness is that it lacks Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and details on resource requirements and timelines.

Too often the assumption is that weaknesses in the organizational change plan are the causes of failure. But analysis of the ITU Council discussions demonstrates that it is the political dynamics which are a much bigger hurdle for the change agents to overcome, and which may be a cause of the Roadmap's weaknesses.

A lot of private sector management literature assumes that it is the prerogative of leaders to initiate organizational improvement - striving for greater competitive advantage is often considered an important leadership trait. In international organizations, however, not all leaders have the authority to initiate change. Analyzing and understanding leadership authority is therefore important for strategizing how to present a change proposal to member states.

In the case of the ITU, for instance, its Secretary-General does not actually have the authority to develop the Strategic Plan for the organization. That lies with the Council’s Working Group on Strategic and Financial Plans (albeit in collaboration with the Secretariat). And as the Russian delegate pointed out in the inaugural plenary discussion: “The strategic plan does not have areas of activity for transformation and organizational excellence.”

Such challenges to the authority of senior leadership are not uncommon - and did not appear to be unexpected in this case. The lack of KPIs, for instance, may simply reflect the recognition that the Strategic and Financial Plans Working Group had already been tasked to come up with KPIs for the new Results-Based Management framework and the leadership did not want to undermine that authority. Similarly, the leadership adeptly framed the Roadmap as an ‘enabler’ of the Strategic Plan rather than an output, while highlighting the previous Council and Auditor requests to the Secretariat for the various sub-strategies that make up the Roadmap.

While careful to remain within their formal legislative authority, the ITU leadership does seem to have stretched their political autonomy, i.e. the de facto authority to manage the organization within the leadership’s discretion. The extent to which member states micromanage an organization generally indicates how little political autonomy its leadership has. Research shows that the more political autonomy that the leadership has, the better an organization’s performance tends to be. Greater scrutiny, and micromanagement by member states can often be a result of poor performance.

Interestingly, a comparative study of organizational reforms in international organizations found that performance concerns drove senior leaders in the UN - and not member states - to initiate organizational reforms that led to efficiency gains. The more political autonomy that the leadership had, the better they were able to tailor those reform projects to the specific needs of their organization. So asserting, and perhaps even stretching that autonomy, as in the case of ITU, can be a good thing. While member state wariness may not be warranted, it is a reality of such processes. Engaging stakeholders early and building alliances, as the ITU did with the Council’s own Independent Management Advisory Committee (IMAC) can be a useful strategy.

One reason why member states may be less likely to initiate organizational reforms is that each member states on the governing body may have different views of what needs to be reformed and how. Difficult as internal consultations may be, it is still easier in most organizations to develop a shared vision amongst staff and management than to find agreement, for instance, between ITU’s 193 member states due to their diverging perspectives.

This divergence of views, however, will continue to be a factor when presenting reforms to member states and updating them on their implementation. It therefore needs to be considered by change makers, taking into account the decision-making processes of the organization. Significant diversity of positions becomes particularly difficult to manage in organizations that make decisions based on consensus, like the ITU. In such cases, each member state can potentially be a spoiler, and it can be quite strategic to keep plans very vague to make consensus easier. The Transformation Roadmap also smartly balances the objective of organizational change on improving universal connectivity and sustainable digital transformation - a priority of the Global South - with process improvements aimed at increasing organizational efficiencies - a priority of the Global North.

Thus, what appear to be substantive weaknesses in the ITU’s Transformation Roadmap - the vagueness, lack of KPIs, resource requirements or timelines - may in fact reflect a very strategic approach to managing the complex politics of change inherent in international organizations. Even with a smart political strategy, the member states debated the Roadmap extensively and had to extend their deliberations late into the evening before agreeing on a way forward - which illustrates precisely why it is so difficult to initiate change in international organizations.

So, for others embarking on an organizational change plan, we suggest the following issues to consider before you finalize the plan and present it to member states:

  1. What legislative authority do you have to put forward the change plan? Is the legislative basis for your plan clearly spelled out in all documents going to member states?

  2. Is your change plan in line with the political autonomy traditionally afforded your organization? If you are stretching your autonomy to initiate change beyond what has been done in the past, are their supporting calls for change from partners, stakeholders or oversight mechanisms to support your case?

  3. Do the governance bodies decide by consensus or majority voting? How does this impact your stakeholder engagement strategy? How does your plan balance the concerns of major member state groupings in your governance body?

  • The UNDP/UNFPA/UNOPS Executive Board receives its monthly briefing on UNOPS management improvements on 3 August 2023. To understand the accountability gaps in the S3i investment scandal that led to the monthly briefings, see our 19 March newsletter.


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