The Next Secretary-General, Secretariat Reform, And the Vexed Question of Senior Appointments

Executive Summary

The appointment of a new United Nations Secretary-General in 2016 will provide special opportunities for the reform and renewal of the UN Secretariat. While an ambitious agenda for reform may be unrealistic, the relationship between the UN bureaucracy and Member States needs to be reevaluated. The way senior staff are recruited must change. Building a merit-based group of top level officials around the incoming Secretary-General should be a priority. Creating a special transitional team to manage their selection process could be one way to achieve this goal. 

Efforts to strengthen the Secretariat will face innumerable brick walls if there is no change in the relationship between the Secretariat and the Member States. Many governments state a commitment to the UN and turn to the UN for specific tasks, but few feel any real interest or stake in investing in the best possible UN bureaucracy. A better case needs to be made why a strengthened Secretariat is in the interest of Members States. This should address perceived national interests as well as the bureaucratic interests of the parts of Member State governments determining UN policy. 

Secretariat reform means changing its entire approach to personnel: how people are recruited, their career paths and career development, and the place of UN jobs within fast-evolving international markets for people with comparable ambitions, skills, and experience. While the temptation is to discuss structural change, it is more important to focus on having the best possible people to actually do all the work required, finding them, training them and giving them the incentives to join and remain with the UN.

In the fast-evolving global environment,  the new Secretary-General may need more than anything else a top team that can help him/her read the world, understand well the politics of key Member State capitals, analyze well the issues themselves, strategize, communicate to the general public as well as governments, and constantly test the limits of his/her office.  

The senior Secretariat appointments of the Secretary-General are a fraught political process. Having the best possible top team will be critical if Secretariat renewal is to have any chance of success. It should be regarded as an urgent issue to avoid the unwanted outcome of poor senior appointments determined by the mightier Member States.

A properly managed transition team could be created that was funded by the UN but involve people who will not seek future employment. They could be tasked to look systematically at senior appointments as well as other initial changes to the Secretariat. A managed transition from one Secretary-General to another – with its own temporary structure and clear principles on potential conflicts of interest – seems an obvious thing but it has never been attempted. It could be of immeasurable assistance to the UN’s new Secretary-General.

Read the full report The Next Secretary-General, Secretariat Reform, And the Vexed Question of Senior Appointments

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Apr 11, 2016
Thant Myint-U
United Nations