EXCLUSIVE: As the United Nations this week launches its General Assembly session, it is struggling behind the scenes to cope with a colossal high-tech fiasco that has threatened to undermine its multibillion-dollar record-keeping for peacekeeping activities, and perhaps much more.
The fiasco is known as Umoja (“unity” in Swahili), but it might better be called Janga (disaster). The computerized management system that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon bragged would be an “organizational transformation,” is five years overdue, and more than $100 million over its original budget. It is barely in its early rollout stages, and as far back as 2011 has been tagged as a “failure of management.” It has been in a seemingly endless state of flawed turnaround ever since.
Now things are apparently much worse. Last week -- the day after Fox News asked questions about how the wobbly project was faring -- the U.N. announced on a Umoja information website that yet another major course correction was taking place. “Several critical elements,” the notice said, “must be addressed by the organization before further deploying Umoja.”
The delays affect some 44,000 U.N. employees, and amount to anywhere between five and eight months for the next stages of Umoja’s rollout, which had been most recently planned for November of this year and June of 2015. There will be more delays for other phases originally slated to take place in June 2016, though the overall completion date -- now 2018 -- is apparently not affected so far.
The latest frantic efforts came in response to a scathing report by the U.N.’s independent Board of Auditors on Umoja’ progress -- the third since 2011-- which is due to be discussed by the U.N. General Assembly during its just-opened session. The 40-page report declared that despite all of Ban’s team efforts, Umoja was still wallowing in management problems, tens of millions of additional dollars over budget and likely to run up a tab that the auditors said “is unknown.”
The report also bluntly stated that as a result of the administrative mess, “the Board can provide no assurance that expenditure to date is matched by the appropriate level of actual delivery,” and declared that an early rejigging of Umoja’s deployment schedule, which took place only last February, was “unlikely to be met.”
The auditors themselves urged that Ban’s team “reassess the feasibility of the budget and revised project timetable” that they had put together in February -- something that the U.N. is apparently doing now.
In fact, the auditors’ warnings went further. The rollout of Umoja as a financial management system for the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations and 17 of its 18 special political missions, they said in tightly restrained bureaucratic prose, had led to what seemed to be new levels of calamity.
The main cause, as in many previous areas of Umoja’s unhappy development, was inadequate preparation for the scale of the project and the challenges it faces in bringing order to a rickety patchwork of technologies, accounting systems, business practices and levels of expertise in the famously inefficient U.N. system.
Some 4,000 U.N. employees on the system at the time of the auditors’ report -- the U.N. says 6,000 are on it now -- were apparently given neither the training in how to handle the new software, nor the direction on how it would change their working lives.
Rather than following proper procedure, many of the staffers have apparently been using “workarounds, in particular in critical financial processes,” the auditors reported -- in other words, bypassing the system, even as they were supposedly moving onto it.
The result: financial chaos in the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations, which were the first major beachhead for Umoja, and which were budgeted to cost some $8 billion in the 12 months starting in July 2013.
“At the time of preparation of the present report [June 2014],” the auditors declared, the U.N. administration “was unable to complete bank reconciliations, reconcile payroll or clear accounts payable documents” in peacekeeping operations.
So big was the mess, the auditors noted, that it “could affect the integrity of peacekeeping accounting and financial records and may indicate that key internal controls have been inoperable during the financial year.”
Translation: the entire bookkeeping system of U.N. peacekeeping operations may be so thoroughly messed up that no one could be really sure how the money was spent -- or misspent.
Moreover, the report added, “It was also not clear when the system and the new operating model would be stabilized” -- hence the recommendation for a new timetable delay.
The new delays, the auditors also noted, were going to cost money -- but how much wasn’t known, in part because the U.N. was refusing to come clean on the cost implications of the latest upheaval.
Adding to the vicious spiral, the cost of throwing current manpower at the many problems as they have emerged has also, in the auditors’ estimation, affected the further rollout of the system, meaning more delays are possible.
So far, the auditors note, Ban’s administration is forecasting that it will need $378 million -- $24 million more than the last approved budget for the project -- to get through about two-thirds of the early-stage rollout that they now delaying even more -- and at the current “burn rate” of funds will run through the approved $348 million by next June. The money was supposed to cover the whole of next year.
Moreover, there is another looming black hole in the project’s finance, known as “associated costs” attached to the project, for cleaning up data from old systems and making it compatible, additional staff training, and other cleanup exercises.
At the moment, Ban’s administrators are insisting that most of the associated costs will be met out of existing U.N. operating funds -- a position that a U.N. spokesman reiterated in response to questions from Fox News.
But as the auditors pointed out, that position amounts to merely kicking the can down the road: “there is no evidence that such budgets have been allocated or ring-fenced,” meaning officially set aside for the purpose.
Thus, “the full costs of the project, and the extent of extra work and dedicated resources required for implementation,” the auditors concluded, “remain unknown.”
The same goes for some $140 million to $223 million in efficiency savings that Ban’s managers continue to insist that the new system will produce -- even while additional costs are continuing to climb to still-unknown levels. The auditors remain deeply skeptical about that calculation.
In perhaps the worst indictment of all, the auditors underlined that U.N.’s mushy management hadn’t really changed, despite all the crises, re-schedulings and new rollout plans that had wobbled into view since Umoja began.
A fundamental problem is that Ban’s administration “is being hampered by the lack of a clear target operating model for the U.N.,” the auditors declared.
Translation: they have no vision of how they want the organization to operate in the 21st century reorganization they claim to be leading.
The absence of that strategic vision, the auditors warn, is likely to lead to more rejigging of the info-tech system further down the line -- and further blows to management’s ability to make the U.N. accountable for what it spends, and how.
According to the U.N.’s management, however, the situation is nothing like that grave.
On the U.N.’s Umoja website, for example, the new system as rolled out so far is extolled as “proving to be fully viable, operational, and is already providing significant improvements to the organization.”
To be sure, there were a few clouds on the horizon. In response to questions from Fox News about Umoja’s progress, a U.N. spokesperson said that “as expected during the initial period of a large enterprise system such as this, some teething problems were experienced.”
And despite what the Board of Auditors said in its report, when it came to problems with peacekeeping financial issues, the spokesman said, only “a few missions experienced payment reconciliation issues which have since been largely resolved.”
As for the board’s other dire concerns, the spokesman declared that the auditors “have confirmed that the Umoja solution is technically viable” -- although the auditors were worried about how the system was being misused, rather than its technical capabilities. The spokesman added that “the U.N. has in place the internal controls, and has since the time of the audit collected the necessary financial information” that the board’s examination had declared missing.
When it comes to the spiraling cost of the project, the spokesman declared that Secretary General Ban will offer “further details on project expenditures and any future resource requirements” in a report to the General Assembly.
And overall, “the Umoja project remains on track to bring the benefits to the organization originally envisaged at the outset of the project.”
Whether the U.N.’’s increasingly exasperated member states will believe that is another question, and one that especially affects the U.S., which is likely to pay the largest amount, around 28 percent, of the Umoja bill as it relates to peacekeeping operations.
Last December, member states were already unhappy about what they were hearing about the project’s delays and rising costs.
Nothing they are about to hear this year is likely to make them feel better.
Meantime, Secretary General Ban told a press conference as the General Assembly session kicked off that “At this time of turmoil, the next two weeks will highlight again the indispensable role of the United Nations in tackling global threats and seizing opportunities for common progress.”