At the United Nations, Umoja Translates as Bureaucratic Chaos

In Swahili, Umoja means "unity." But an expensive software program designed to unite the U.N.’s far-flung operations is instead hindering efforts to promote peace.

The launch of a costly new computer system designed to make the United Nations more efficient has proven so dysfunctional that it is actually hampering the world organization’s capacity to prevent conflicts and enforce a raft of international sanctions, according to a top U.N. official.

In a confidential email obtained by Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, wrote that the “fundamentally flawed” system known as Umoja — the Swahili word for “unity” — has “damaged both morale and staff productivity” at the world body since it came online late last year.

“I am persuaded that our ability to deliver on conflict prevention and mediation, which require nimble, flexible, and quick deployments, suffers from Umoja,” Feltman wrote in the email, which was sent to senior U.N. officials in late March.

Umoja was designed to help the U.N. streamline recordkeeping, workflow, and communications among its myriad departments and agencies. It manages everything from travel by U.N. envoys, the leasing of U.N. aircraft, and employee paychecks. But the so-called enterprise software program — which has been under development for several years at a cost of over $400 million — has stumbled since it launched last November, infuriating some senior U.N. managers who are struggling to master the complex system.

Umoja flaws kept one staff member from receiving a paycheck for months after transferring to U.N. headquarters from the field at the end of 2015, Feltman wrote. Additionally, administering some 200 outside consultants, including almost 90 U.N. Security Council sanctions experts who routinely fly around the world, has grown increasingly taxing under the computer system in what Feltman called an “outsize burden” on his staff. The additional time and bureaucratic effort that takes “cripples” the U.N.’s ability to fulfill some of its core tasks, he wrote.

“The Umoja system is non-intuitive, excessively labor-intensive, and full of glitches,” Feltman wrote. “The result of the enforced servitude to Umoja is endless distractions of staff members — from my level all the way to GS [General Service] staff — from their primary responsibility.”

That description of the program contrasts sharply with the U.N.’s public Umoja website. It claims the computer system helped set up the U.N. emergency health mission in a record 10 days, processed 80,000 travel requests on time, and entered 120,000 purchase orders worth $12.5 billion.

Feltman’s bristling missive was prompted by a similarly sunny account of the system’s rollout in a confidential memo written by Yukio Takasu, the U.N. undersecretary-general for management, who congratulated his colleagues for the “successful deployment” of Umoja in November 2015. “This success is supported by the overwhelmingly positive feedback received with the credit attributed to all of you and your dedicated staff who contributed to that initiative,” he wrote in a March 21 memo, which was also obtained by FP.

In the memo, Takasu acknowledged that it is taking longer than scheduled to work out bugs in the system, and said U.N. managers would need to adapt to the way they do business. For instance, he said, U.N. political analysts and peace envoys will be required to fulfill more of their administrative duties than they did in the past.

Takasu also noted a shortfall in the number of computer troubleshooters and trainers needed to help some 32,000 U.N. staffers in 400 locations who now must use Umoja to work. But he said the U.N. brass “should be proud of our joint achievement” in launching the program. And he appealed to his senior colleagues to renew the mandate of the Headquarters Deployment Group, which managed the Umoja launch and was supposed to be dissolved on March 31.

Feltman, who leads the U.N. Department of Political Affairs, or DPA, agreed to extend the mandate. But he expressed “astonishment” that any of his colleagues praised the system.

“I am sorry to report that DPA’s experience with Umoja has been an unmitigated dismal experience,” he wrote. “I wonder why DPA’s maddeningly frustrating interaction with Umoja has verged on the disastrous, when this memo suggests that others in the system are apparently giddy with excitement over the joys Umoja delivers.”

In a reply to Feltman, Takasu acknowledged the system’s growing pains, and said the U.N. was still struggling to manage the work of outside contractors. But he challenged Feltman’s contention that a U.N. employee had gone without pay for several months. The problem, he added, was that the staffer had in fact been overpaid. “I have been informed that no DPA staff member has gone unpaid since the launch of Umoja,” Takasu wrote.

“I must inform you that I cannot accept your characterization that Umoja is fundamentally flawed and … the U.N. is failing its primary commitment to the staff,” he wrote in another email obtained by FP. “The negative assessment of Umoja you present undermines confidence in a well-proven solution working in thousands of organizations, and does not give due credit what effort is going right with this new system.”

Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said the world body has never had a state-of-the art system that could track the activities of its tens of thousands of employees around the globe. The Umoja system, Dujarric said, is designed to give the U.N. financial administrators a “bird’s-eye view” of how money is being spent throughout the U.N. system.

“When you create that kind of system it creates disruption, and it takes time to stabilize the system,” Dujarric said. “But the system is basically working.”

Still, Feltman’s protests echoed complaints lodged by another senior U.N. official. Shortly after leaving the United Nations in March, senior peacekeeping official Anthony Banbury complained in a New York Times op-ed that “a team of evil geniuses” couldn’t “have designed a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex.”

Banbury cited a “sclerotic personnel system” that required an average of 213 days to recruit a staffer. “In January, to the horror of many, the Department of Management imposed a new recruitment system that is likely to increase the delay over a year,” he wrote.

The U.N. began contract negotiations over Umoja in 2008. It was scheduled to be completed in 2011, but has been subjected to repeated delays. Early in his first term, Ban characterized the computer system as a centerpiece for his reform of the U.N.’s fragmented and antiquated management practices.

Umoja’s initial design was developed with the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers. But the technology firm Accenture has been overseeing the rollout of the program, which began with a pilot program that managed the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon in July 2013. The system was subsequently introduced in all U.N. peacekeeping missions. In November, the U.N. completed the rollout throughout the entire U.N. system.

“Umoja is the tool that will help make the United Nations fit for purpose in the 21st century,” Ban said last June. “It is part of our push to transform the United Nations into a more modern, flexible, and global organization that can better respond to the mandates of our member states and the needs of the world’s people.”

Feltman said while he awaits “with increasing despair … the often-promised improvements and benefits of Umoja,” he is resigned that “no amount of objections or evidence from DPA will persuade the true believers in Umoja that there are problems that can’t be wished away (or blamed on harried Umoja users).”

But he conceded that he can “grudgingly accept” there is one anticipated benefit to using Umoja: “that occasional flicker of the special shared bonding experience in a ‘misery-loves-company’ atmosphere familiar to people who grow closer by working in unreasonably trying and difficult circumstances.”

Photo credit: STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

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