22 January 2019
“New Year, New United Nations”: Structural Reforms Begin
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As of 1 January 2019, the UN system has begun implementing a set of systemic changes.

Taken as a whole, the reforms to the UN development system as well as those in the arenas of management, peace and security, represent “the most significant structural change process in the history of the United Nations,” according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

This policy brief provides a snapshot of the changes that the UN system has started to implement along the three major reform tracks: development, peace and security, and management.

As of 1 January 2019, three years after the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development took effect, the UN system has begun implementing a set of systemic changes needed for its success. Taken as a whole, the reforms to the UN development system as well as those in the arenas of management, peace and security, represent “the most significant structural change process in the history of the United Nations,” according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, briefing the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in November 2018.

Guterres explained that the reforms aim to make the UN nimbler, less bureaucratic, more transparent and accountable, and more decentralized and effective. He told Member States that the changes will affect “every department, office, regional commission, and field operations.”

Addressing the changes relating to the UN’s development work in particular, UN Deputy Secretary-General and Chair of the UN Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG) Amina Mohammed said in a December 2018 letter to the UN development system that 1 January marks the start of “a journey of transformation that will bring the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to the country level in an unprecedented manner.”

This policy brief provides a snapshot of the changes that the UN system has started to implement on 1 January 2019 along the three major reform tracks: development, peace and security, and management.


In his November briefing, the UN Secretary-General explained that the development reform is about placing sustainable development “at the heart” of the UN because development is both an objective in itself and the UN’s “best tool for preventing conflict and building a future of peace.” Starting 1 January 2019, the Resident Coordinator (RC) system is moved from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to the UN Secretariat. The Secretariat, Guterres said, together with UNDP and the Development Operations Coordination Office (DOCO), worked “hand in hand” in 2018 to ensure a “smooth shift.” The Secretary-General noted that the Secretariat has been “fundraising aggressively” for the new system, the voluntary commitments received in 2018 combined with the doubled cost-sharing from UN entities providing the minimum required to allow the transition on 1 January. On 28 November, the UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) decided to add further support to the UN Secretary‑General’s proposal for revitalizing the RC system by approving his request for an appropriation of US$13.57 million for 2019.

At the briefing, Guterres told Member States that, at the country level, they can expect a strengthened interface with the UN Country Teams (UNCTs), led by “full-time, empowered” RCs. He said governments will receive more systematic and regular updates, as well as an annual report on the collective performance of the UNCT in their country. RCs will also facilitate periodical dialogues with the governments on how to best organize the work and presence of the UN in their country, in response to specific national needs and priorities.

In her December letter to the UN development system, the Deputy-Secretary General expressed the expectation for the UNCTs to work “cohesively and in tandem” with RCs and “embrace” the transformation of the RC system. Noting that the UNCTs are “at the heart” of UN’s ability to realize the promise of the 2030 Agenda, she stressed that the success of the new coordination system means the success of each individual member of the “UN family.”

Starting January 2019, Mohammed added, UNDP is rolling out its “integrator function,” which she said will allow UNCTs to boost joint support to governments in cross-cutting areas, drawing on the assets of the entire UN system, including non-resident agencies. She said this will be critical for operationalizing a new generation of UNCTs, with RCs focused on coordination and relying on UNDP’s operational and programmatic capacities to pull together the expertise available across the system in response to country priorities.

Ensuring adequate funding for the UN development system reform will be key for its success. To that end, Member States welcomed, in the UNGA resolution on the reform of the UN development system (72/279), the Secretary-General’s proposal to launch a funding dialogue for finalizing a Funding Compact. From July through December 2018, a dialogue between the UN development system and Member States took place along two tracks – a plenary and a technical track – to translate the commitments contained in UNGA resolution 72/279 into concrete actions, time-bound targets and indicators.

A draft of the Funding Compact draft dated 4 January 2019 stresses that the Compact “represents a non-binding instrument for voluntary adherence by individual Member States and other contributing donors.” It also recognizes that the UN development system’s ability to rise to the opportunity presented by the 2030 Agenda “is a mutual responsibility of the system and the Member States alike.”

The proposed Compact’s parameters include that it must serve to ensure that the UN development system responds to country development needs and priorities, and that operational activities for development are carried out “for the benefit of programme countries, at their request and in accordance with their own policies and priorities for development.” The draft specifies that the “Funding’” in the Compact targets voluntary contributions, in the form of core or non-core, and as such “will not be impacting changes in the current structure and determination of assessed contributions.”

The funding dialogue resumed on 15 January 2019. The UN Deputy Secretary-General has indicated that this stage of the dialogue aims to further refine the draft through “clear commitments and measurable targets.” A final plenary meeting is planned for February.

Peace and Security

On 1 January 2019, the peace and security track saw the launch of two departments, the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and the Department of Peace Operations (DPO). As outlined by the Secretary-General in his November briefing, DPPA combines the strategic, political and operational responsibilities of the former Department of Political Affairs and the peacebuilding responsibilities of the Peacebuilding Support Office. DPO will provide direction, management and support for peacekeeping and field-based special political missions outside the purview of DPPA.

The new departments are expected to adopt a more integrated approach and share a single regional political-operational structure, which will provide coherent guidance for mission and non-mission settings. This common regional structure will oversee the day-to-day management of the peace and security pillar’s operational and political activities, while ensuring greater vertical integration. It will link prevention, mediation, conflict-resolution, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding, and link them to long-term development, avoiding the current segmentation.

The structural change aims to enable a greater integration within the peace and security pillar, as well as greater alignment with the UN’s development and human rights pillars. In his briefing to Member States, the Secretary-General mentioned that the overarching goal of the peace and security reform is to help the UN play a more effective role across the peace continuum. He explained that combining UN’s capacities across the peace and security continuum will result in better regional strategies, integrated analysis and improved reporting to Member States.


On the management reform track, January 2019 brings the creation of two more new departments: the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance and the Department of Operational Support. During the briefing, Guterres assured governments that the Secretariat has already matched nearly 1,900 staff to their new positions, finalized their new job descriptions and personnel actions, and mapped everything in Umoja.

In order to ensure a simpler management framework that is easier to understand and use, the Secretariat has reviewed hundreds of administrative issuances, abolished a large number of redundant ones and updated many others. It also has held approximately 30 workshops and trained more than 1,400 staff. A pilot of the new 360-degree performance evaluation system for senior managers was also launched, Guterres said. The system is being rolled out in 2019.

The Secretary-General mentioned that he achieved his gender parity goal in the Senior Management Group and is determined to achieve that goal at other levels in 2019, focusing special attention on areas where this is proving especially difficult, such as in the field. To advance geographical diversity, Guterres said his team completed and published a mapping of the Secretariat by level and regional grouping, the first-ever exercise of its kind. He said the Office of Human Resources Management has been instructed to meet with senior managers to help them develop plans for achieving greater regional diversity. They will update the Secretary-General on a quarterly basis. Guterres added that he expects senior managers to set targets and identify benchmarks for reaching greater diversity within their entities.

Integration and Measuring Benefits

The UN Secretary-General noted that the three reform tracks are interlinked and mutually reinforcing. To make the most of the synergies between them, he drew attention to his appointment of a Special Advisor to coordinate the UN’s work across the three tracks and help the organization “make a decisive break from silos and other bad working habits.” Jens Wandel, previously the Assistant Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), was appointed in July 2018 to lead a coordination structure meant to ensure a unified and cohesive approach to the change management programme across three areas of ongoing UN reforms. Guterres added that 2019 will bring a clearer delineation of functions at the UN Headquarters.

To measure the reforms’ gains, the Secretary-General said his team has prepared a benefits management framework and launched a pilot to test the methodology. This approach, which he said is the first to be done at this scale and complexity, will ensure that the UN will set baseline information at the outset and measure benefits throughout the implementation process. Member States and other stakeholders will be asked to assess the reform’s implementation.

Next Steps

In his video address to staff marking the “go live” of the reforms on 1 January, Guterres said that the “new year also ushers in a new United Nations.” While 2018 was a year of critical decisions, he said, 2019 will be a year of action. Several steps are left to be taken in order for the reform process to be complete.

In the December letter to the UN development system, Mohammed identified a number of work streams that are still in progress: the finalization of the Management and Accountability Framework; the development of a system-wide strategic document; a redesigned UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF); the review of multi-country offices; and the regional review that will ensure that UN’s regional assets can better synchronize with the needs on the ground. During the briefing to Member States, the Secretary-General said his team initiated has consultations with governments on the multi-country office review and will launch consultations for the regional review as well.

For 2019, the Deputy Secretary-General highlighted that it is “critical” for every UN entity to play its part in support of an adequately resourced RC system, including by making full and timely contributions to the cost-sharing arrangement. She urged entities that have not yet done so to sign and deposit 2019 contributions to the UNSDG cost-sharing convenience “at the earliest.” Mohammed also called on the UN development systems entities to be “alert and engaged” in the Funding Compact discussions.

A comprehensive update on all the reform-related mandates will be provided during the UN Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) Operational Activities for Development Segment in May 2019. This update is expected to include a report on the funding dialogue and other key processes. In advance of that session, the Secretary-General announced that he will hold informal briefings for Member States.

“At the current pace, the world will not meet the SDGs nor avoid the tragic consequences of climate change,” Mohammed stressed in her letter. She emphasized that there is no time for an incremental approach, and success will rest “first and foremost” on a shift in UN’s organizational culture and mindsets at all levels. In order to ensure that cultural shift, the Deputy-Secretary General called on the Principals of the UN development system to foster a culture that goes beyond single-entity mandates and embraces the integrated approach required by the 2030 Agenda.

“The next 12 to 18 months will take us out of our comfort zone,” she said, but at the end of the transition the UN development system will be able to deliver better results that strengthen the prospect of achieving the 2030 Agenda “for everyone, everywhere.”

The SDG Knowledge Hub’s complete coverage of UN reform is available here.