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UN's Palais renovation still marred by management issues

December 8, 2020

By Philippe Mottaz and Jamil Chade



The CHF 836 million plan to renovate the UN in Geneva (UNOG), known as the Strategic Heritage Plan (SHP) continues to suffer from management problems all while the financial situation of the organization is deteriorating, compounding the problems as readers of The Geneva Observer passim know from our previous reporting. This from a recent confidential audit which focuses on the work of the Facilities Management Section (FMS) of UNOG as the main actor of the SHP which should see the renovation of the UN Geneva completed by 2024.

© Mark Henley
© Mark Henley

It is all couched in typical auditors’ style—pardon the oxymoron—with carefully chosen wording, but the auditors’ conclusions are unequivocal: “There is need to develop a long-term maintenance strategy and strengthen space management and some aspects of project and contract management.”

Seen by The G|O, the confidential audit was conducted between January 2018 and December 2019 by the Internal Oversight Service (OIOS), the UN internal audit division. Its objective was to assess the adequacy and effectiveness of governance, risk management and control processes over the effective management of facilities at UNOG. It highlights some of the same problems already spotted in a previous OIOS report on the Strategic Heritage Plan. Taken together, the two documents paint a picture of an organization that appears to be reactive in the management of its projects; that continues to suffers from a lack of communication and coordination between the different entities in charge; and that remains fundamentally bureaucratic in its approach to human resources management as well as in demanding performance and accountability both from its own staff and its outside contractors.

While the UN’s specifications on facility management recommend long-range planning of up to 12 years for maintenance needs, the auditor established that UNOG “did not have a long-term maintenance plan or strategy to cover the maintenance needs during and subsequent to SHP.”

The audit also recommends that “a long-term maintenance strategy with a focus towards routine and preventive maintenance plans in line with applicable construction industry standards should be developed clearly defining the forthcoming maintenance tasks and related resource requirements”. Windows and pipes were two examples used by the auditors to point out to the need of a long-term strategy”, two items of importance as once renovated, the Palais des Nations built in 1934 should be in compliance with the Swiss Minergie environmental standards.

The most troubling elements revealed by this latest audit, however, concern the management of human resources and of contracts. The SHP includes the addition of a new building, currently under construction. “With the addition of the new modern building and more staff moving into the Palais des Nations from outside, facilities management has become more complex” write the auditors. Yet, they discovered that “it was not clear whether the staffing level was adequate to manage the additional workload.” “The additional space” they continue “meant that approximately 1,000 workstations would be added with no additional maintenance staff, which could further stretch the capacity of the Facility Management Services.” (Do we detect a euphemism here?) Hammering on that point, the auditors point out that “new equipment installed in the complex was of advanced technology, which could require new and/or additional skills to manage them effectively.” Yet, “while FMS was aware of some of the gaps in its staffing” it neither undertook a comprehensive assessment nor did it elaborate a plan of action.” According to the report, “It was evident that more needed to be done, such as training and reclassification of posts” among other things. “There was an opportunity to enrich the job descriptions of some of the staff to equip them with additional skills.”

The audit also reveals that contracts with outside contractors did not always include “KPIs as recommended in the UN Procurement Manual.” “The Division of Administration carried out a client survey once a year (…) but it was too broad to specifically pick up concerns on the performance of the contractor.” Case in point, the $8 million cleaning contract for 2018-2019. “OIOS noted that deep cleaning took place only when staff or offices requested it, since the contract did not provide for it to be done at periodic intervals.” In lovely, diplomatic, auditor language, the authors write “that it would be useful (our emphasis) for FMS” to define a frequency or deep-cleaning. “The need for assessing and defining the parameters for deep cleaning is particularly important in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath.”

We couldn’t have put it more clearly.

All recommendations in the audit have been accepted by the UNOG project management team. It has committed to address the deep cleaning frequency issue by the end of this year, including the formalization of a monitoring tool.Other recommendations will be scaled until the end of 2021.

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