Building the ‘Political Acumen’ of United Nations Resident Coordinators

CBI helps the United Nations Development Group build the political acumen — the diplomatic and coordination skills — of UN Resident Coordinators by defining the political acumen skill set, and aligning the UN's human resources department to integrate these skills into their assessment and training activities.

Background and Challenges

The United Nations Development Group (UNDG), the UN’s development network of 30 agencies, funds, and programmes, operates in more than 120 countries to build and share solutions to global development challenges . The country-level Representatives of these UN organizations make up the UN Country Team. A UN Resident Coordinator (RC), who is also the Representative of the UN Development Programme, is mandated to coordinate the work of the Country Team and to represent the UN development system as a whole, on issues ranging from national development policy to disaster response.

Though the RC is the most senior UN representative in the country, RCs have no direct authority over any other agency’s Representative, budget, staff or programmatic work. Rather, RCs are responsible for facilitating discussion and agreement among all UN agencies operating within the country and for developing a comprehensive five-year strategic plan that coordinates agencies’ funding and program strategies at the country level.

In 2007, UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon directed the UN Development Group (UNDG) to strengthen RCs’ capacities to represent the UN at a diplomatic level and lead UN Country Teams. Most RCs had risen through the ranks as program officers and managers to their leadership role, and a series of assessments had suggested that RCs varied significantly in their ability to meet the diplomatic and coordination challenges of the RC role. The Secretary General defined the goal as building the “political acumen” of Resident Coordinators.

The UNDG charged the UN Development Operations Coordination Office (DOCO) to respond to the Secretary General’s request. DOCO asked CBI to assist in defining the “political acumen” skill set, assess the political acumen of RC candidates, and develop additional in-service training and support for RCs.

The CBI Approach

CBI works closely with internal UN partners to define political acumen, and align HR activities to include assessment on political acumen skills and knowledge for prospective RCs as well as training on political acumen for acting RCs.

CBI helped DOCO to convene a reference group of highly experienced senior UN officials to define political acumen, and identify how RCs would demonstrate competency. First, the group worked on clarifying the situations in which RCs need to use political acumen; they agreed that the challenges and needs are greatest in situations where the UN Country Team is seeking to address a significant development challenge, and
important stakeholders—at the national level and within the UN—have divergent mandates, interests and values regarding the development challenge;
there is a high degree of complexity, fluidity, and uncertainty;
the risk of impasse is high; and
the risk to the UN's credibility if they fail to make progress is high.

Given this type of context, CBI drew on our direct experience working with more than 25 RCs and UN Country Teams on difficult issues, researched how “political skills” have been defined in the management and leadership literature, and interviewed current and former RCs to generate stories and insights on how the RCs responded to very challenging situations. What emerged was a set of five core skills needed to demonstrate “political acumen”:

Setting sound priorities, to decide what goals are most important for the UN to advance given the assessment. The UN system has many mandates, and it is not usually possible to make progress on all of them simultaneously. In most cases, the RC must combine extensive assessment and internal consultation with personal judgment to answer the basic question: “What is it most important for the UN to achieve in this situation?”

Astutely assessing stakeholders and issues, to identify the key development actors involved in a complex issue, understand their interests and capabilities to affect the outcome on the issue, the arguments and incentives most likely to influence them, and their views on current or potential UN involvement

Choosing appropriate institutional role(s) for the UN (as convenor, facilitator, mediator, advocate, source of technical expertise, partner, funder, etc.) so that other actors will see the UN’s intervention as legitimate and potentially helpful. The role may have to shift subtly or swiftly in response to changes in the situation and/or in the set of actors involved.

Developing a coherent strategy for advancing the UN’s goal through interaction with other actors. Strategy includes the selection of tools/approaches (persuasion, advocacy, negotiation, coalition and consensus building), sequencing (whom to talk to in what order), and substantive choices (what facts, proposals, options and questions to explore with individuals and groups during the process).

Engaging effectively with key stakeholders, by communicating, negotiating, advocating, facilitating and/or mediating to advance the UN’s goal, taking account of individual personalities and life histories, professional and institutional roles, cultural norms, relationships and histories with other actors. This is a personal skill set for the RC, but it is also important for the RC to orchestrate joint engagement with other members of the UNCT, and other allies and partners, who may be well positioned to advocate, negotiate, mediate and/or facilitate with specific actors.

When the definition was finalized, CBI partnered with the company that provided the mandatory competency assessment for prospective RCs, to incorporate political acumen skills and metrics into the competency assessment scenarios and materials.

Next, CBI worked with DOCO and the UN System Staff College to integrate political acumen skills more directly into the training that the Staff College provides to RCs and country Representatives of UN agencies, funds, and programmes. CBI had already been providing training on negotiation and consensus building strategies and skills. We developed new materials, including videotaped interviews with with former RCs, and new role-play simulations based directly on real cases, in order to drive home key ideas and insights, and to stimulate peer-to-peer conversation among participants. We also increased opportunities for participants to apply priority setting, stakeholder assessment, and role choice skills to their own current challenges, both through individual coaching and peer case discussions.

Results

CBI’s collaborative approach to working with skilled internal UN partners, improves the UN’s training and assessment of Resident Coordinator political acumen skills and knowledge.

CBI’s strong, collaborative partnership with UN DOCO and other internal allies facilitated the successful definition of political acumen and the identification of the key skills and knowledge associated with it. CBI was able to translate and integrate that definition into the existing UN human resources training and assessment processes for UN Resident Coordinators, as well as into CBI’s own UN training curriculum.

Feedback on the CBI training has been very positive; and elements of the political acumen skill set have been integrated not only into the RC Assessment and the Staff College training program, but also into guidance for UN Country Teams on engaging stakeholders in UN strategic planning processes, and into training and peer exchange for UN planning and coordination staff working in crisis and post-conflict countries.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/United Nations Development Programme