UN Administrative circulars
From science fiction to horror stories
S. Kouzmine UNECE/TRADE
When I was a boy I always wondered who invented anecdotes and how great it would be to meet/speak with this person. At that time I had read a science fiction story the author of which wrote that anecdotes were imposed on earth from outer space, that aliens were using anecdotes as a means of studying human behaviour in different settings, the same way researchers observe rats searching a way out from a labyrinth.
When I came to the UN and started reading administrative circulars which regulate the internal ordinary life of the UN staff , immediately the same thought struck me : Who wrote this ?.
The UN circulars are presented to the staff by our colleagues from Personnel and by our managers but Ive never heard or seen anyone who admitted that he prepared such circular himself.
Why would it be good to be able to communicate directly with the authors of these circulars? Simply because very often I personally have an impression that these circulars come from the ivory tower.
Just a couple of examples: the circular on sabbatical leave which is reproduced annually. Good, important paper. But One of the prerequisites according to the circular, is that a staff member should continue to work at UN for no less than two years after the completion of the sabbatical leave (ST/AI/2000/4). An attestation to this end should be provided by a supervisor.
Fair enough; so whats wrong with it? I am sure that my colleagues and I who hold fixed-term contracts revised annually or biennially would be pleased to have attestations saying that we would be able to stay with UN for the next "no less than two years".
Even without going on a sabbatical leave, do you want to try to get such a paper ? Maybe I am unlucky but a couple of years ago I was negotiating a housing loan with a bank and I needed an attestation from Personnel that my contract would be extended. I asked for such attestation three months before the expiration of my regular fixed term contract. The answer I got was the UN cannot make such commitment in advance. Try your luck, if you wish
Another example. At the beginning of the 90s the UN decided not to grant any more permanent contracts to make the employment system more flexible. Nobody argues that it was a good initiative. The only problem with it is a certain lack of consistency. Namely, P-2 staff members who are recruited through national examinations are still entitled to and are still getting permanent contracts. I am sure that there should be a justification for such exemption but it has never been publicly announced /explained to the staff. So on the surface it gives the impression that the UN needs, on a permanent basis, only young people without experience and doesnt need experts (from P-3 to D level).
The above mentioned issue brings us to the latest, the most ambitious and, forgive my possible ignorance, ambiguous scheme of mobility. Recently at UNECE all divisions had meetings with Personnel during which we were once again reminded about the principal elements of the mobility scheme: every five years all staff must move to another position; every five years all posts will be opened for competition but the incumbent of a particular post would not be allowed to apply; in case of a lateral transfer (at the same level), the new position the staff member is moving to must have totally different functions; secondment, field missions will not be taken into consideration for a 5-year mandatory transfer period
I dont think there is anyone who would argue with the idea of having more flexibility and regular rotation of staff. But lets look at the way it is proposed to implement the mobility scheme.
According to the time-table prepared by Personnel, for example, for the UNECE Trade Division on 1 June 200, out of about 30 P-staff members only one will be able to stay on the post. So in practical terms it will mean that the whole division from P-2 to director level will be replaced by new staff.
Fresh blood-very good! Yes, but
Everybody knows that when you are assigned to a new area of responsibility, even when you have all the required competencies for a new job, you will need a few months to be able to work at a full capacity. A new post could require up to 6 months or even more for totally new comers. In the normal / stable working environment it creates no problems as you have colleagues who could offer you advice and in the worst scenario could help with your tasks.
So the mobility scheme, as it proposed now, will lead to disruption of work of the whole UN system for at least a few months.
Second problem. The cost of re-allocating thousands of staff members with their families around the globe. Does the UN have a budget for it and are the Member States ready to pay for it ?
Third problem. At present the UN employment policy is built on principles of having a significant number of experts whose competence is sometimes very narrow. So in the mobility theory, the more universal the UN staff is, the easier it will be for staff and for the UN to have a regular rotation exercise.
In practice, are we sure that staff members will invest in building up their competence in training on a new place if they know that in five years they would probably do something totally different ? We remember the lessons taught us by the classics of economic theory about the dangers of unsustainable exploitation of land resources under short-term lease of land compared with its long term use. In reality it could lead to situations where the typical UN staff member will be someone who knows something about everything but without any deep knowledge of any single subject. Is it the UN vision of the future UN universal soldier - staff member ?
Does it mean that the mobility scheme cannot work ? No, it could and some ideas on how to make it feasible are in the air.
For example, to use the system which exists in some international organization to award a permanent contract only to staff members who previously worked for several years in the field. In this case a staff member has an option of more job security but with an obligation to work where the Organization sees the need for his expertise.
Another idea: to have a mandatory system of secondment/mission for up to one year when a staff member could be assigned to another organization with a possibility of returning back to his original post. Such secondment could also be a part of staff swapping exercise between organizations in the UN system. Secondment/missions should be taken into consideration in calculating mandatory rotation requirements (at present 5 years). Advantages of this proposal would be : it would allow staff members to learn about the work of other orgaizations thus enabling them to apply for posts there; on the other hand, managers would know in advance potential post applicants thus facilitating the choice of the most suitable candidates; it should not be a financial burden for the UN, as such secondment/mission should not require reallocation of SMs family, belongings, etc.
There are other ideas on how to make the mobility scheme feasible; the question is whether the UN management is willing and ready to listen to staff.
Should discussions on this scheme be organized with staff and be held in a transparent and business-like way, I am confident that UN managers would learn that UN staff is serious and competent enough to suggest solutions to turn the proposed science fiction mobility scheme, as it is seen now, into something which would work and be beneficial to the UN system without becoming a horror story for staff.
And thus we (staff) will also be able to meet at last the authors of this scheme and of other administrative circulars.