Facilitating Agreement on Strategic Priorities for the United Nations Development Group

Through a thoughtfully facilitated process, CBI helps the United Nations Development Group determine its strategic priorities and develop a work plan to implement them.

Background and Challenges

Situated at the highest level within the UN, the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) represents more than 30 UN development agencies, funds and programmes conducting development work across the globe. Led by the heads of these agencies, funds and programs, it is the primary engine for interagency development strategy, programming and impact at the country level. The UNDG’s mandate covers a very wide range of issues, from global engagement in advancing the Millennium Development Goals, to joint strategic planning by UN Country Teams, to joint procurement by UN agencies.
From its establishment in 1997 until 2010, the UNDG operated without a specific set of priorities, meeting quarterly with agendas reflecting current and emerging issues. A number of interagency working groups evolved to address these agenda issues and over time, they became quasi-independent decision-making entities. By 2009, the UNDG and its senior leaders were spending most meetings responding to the products of the working groups.

A newly appointed UNDG Chair decided to address this organizational role-reversal. The Chair tasked a core Advisory Group of Assistant Secretary Generals (ASGs) representing 13 agencies, funds and programmes, to recommend a set of strategic priorities, and advise on how best to recalibrate the working groups to support the new priorities. The UN Development Operations Coordination Office requested CBI to facilitate the Advisory Group in the complex task of defining and implementing global priorities for the UNDG.

The CBI Approach

CBI partners with Advisory Group leaders and members, building trust, clarifying issues, developing options and creating an integrated set of strategic priorities, with a work plan to implement them.

CBI worked with the Advisory Group chairpersons to articulate ideas and issues that the participants might want to consider. Since there was no existing set of priorities to work from, CBI and the Advisory Group chairs decided to hold an initial one-day retreat for the 13 ASGs, to help them explore UNDG challenges and opportunities, and begin to identify potential priorities.  A critical goal for the process was to clarify the primary concerns of the ASG’s individual agencies, funds and programmes, as well as elicit their views on how the UNDG could best contribute to “coherence for results” of the UN development system.

In preparation for the retreat, CBI conducted ASG assessment interviews to learn how they viewed the role and work of the UNDG overall, to explore possible priorities, and to discuss how the group could best accomplish the task of setting priorities.

After analyzing the interview findings, CBI presented key themes at the retreat to frame the conversation and the tasks at hand. CBI facilitated discussion around a core set of questions identified by the group: how to sustain the UN development system’s relevance and effectiveness as the capacities of developing country governments grow, and the field of international partners becomes more crowded; how to create stronger incentives and rewards for inter-agency collaboration that delivered development results; and how to deploy the UN’s global expertise more effectively at the country level.

By the end of the first retreat, there was convergence among the Advisory Group members on three broad priorities for the UNDG: 1) Make UN Country Teams the central focus of the joint work of the UN Development Group, giving them the tools, incentives, accountability and support they need to collaborate effectively; 2) Increase the relevance and effectiveness of the UN’s country-level development work, helping Country Teams work “upstream” with senior policy makers and align their joint priorities with national priorities and UN comparative advantages; and 3) Streamline the way that the UNDG works globally, making it more responsive to the operational needs of Country Teams and less directive of those teams.

Significant differences arose among the agency representatives on how to best achieve these goals, and on how effective existing UNDG incentives, supports and global working groups had been. As in other facilitation contexts, it was very useful for CBI to assist participants with:

  • Clarifying and jointly investigating differences based on examining their understanding or interpretation of facts;
  • Negotiating for joint gains to bridge differences in agency interests; and
  • Using dialogue and a collegial spirit to overcome tension and miscommunication in inter-agency relationships.

CBI helped the Advisory Group successfully refine its priorities, and distill its discussions into a simple diagram that became the framework for a strategic priorities and work plan. CBI produced a first draft statement of strategic priorities, and then managed an intensive editing and drafting process that resulted in a cogent final statement, met UN requirements, and reflected the candid feedback provided by the ASGs. Next, CBI facilitated an equally intensive process with the Advisory Group and senior technical staff in order to generate a work plan to implement the priorities in 2010-2011, including redefinition of the UNDG working groups.


CBI’s deep experience with UN operations and collaborative partnership with the ASGs allows CBI to draft and refine an effective strategic priorities document and revamped working groups for the UNDG.

CBI’s understanding of UN operations at the country and global levels, and a frank and thorough set of assessment interviews and facilitated conversations, enabled us to ask the right questions and promote a highly collaborative approach by senior leaders to generate the strategic priorities. After seven months of work, UNDG approved the final set of priorities and work plan. Under new leadership, the UNDG working groups are implementing the priorities from the plan, which is used as a guiding reference in all strategy meetings.  In addition, the UNDG is using the report and diagram to illustrate UNDG’s work to donors and internal partners.

According to several members of the Advisory Group, the experience demonstrated the value of CBI’s highly-engaged and substantively informed approach to facilitation, which included:

  • Understanding in-depth the substantive and organizational issues driving the stakeholders;
  • Developing one-to-one dialogue, rapport and trust with individual stakeholders before facilitating group discussion;
  • Being able to move between “pure” process facilitation and substantive discussion with ASGs to explore specific options;
  • Energizing and motivating the group;
  • Summarizing and synthesizing discussion at key points to capture progress and agreement, and;
  • Offering constructive criticism and “what if” options when the group was bogged down.

CBI’s work with the UNDG to promote progress on implementing the strategic priorities continues: we have completed a major study for UNDG on efforts by UN Country Teams to engage “upstream” in policy dialogue; and we are working with the UNDG’s Advisory Group on how best to support the UN General Assembly as it sets global priorities for the UN development system.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Jdlasica