Tags: Innovating on Business Operations

The UN has been able to run several exciting new experiments in our business operations. Changing the way we work is an opportunity to save money, offer better service, and even test out ideas that could be implemented on a larger scale.

Why do we need innovations in business operations?

The UN operates in 165+ countries, often under difficult conditions. Accompanying governments with new sustainable development tactics often requires the full UN system to leverage each other’s assets to avoid duplicating costs while retaining decentralized operations. It necessitates smart use of ICT to facilitate programme implementation in remote and isolated areas.

The UN also models ways to improve its carbon and human rights footprint. This means using renewable energy sources, while at the same time reducing waste and promoting recycling. The development of “green” UN premises is a key driver for this agenda, as well as more effective use

of our fleet, reducing travel frequency and reduction of our consumption patterns where possible. It means using labour and sustainability standards while procuring goods and services, both for the UN as well as for supply chain partners.

Innovations in business operations are designed to find new or non-obvious ways to reduce costs, improve humanitarian access to remote or dangerous areas, support governments to ensure equity in the implementation of their basic service policies and use data to inform how investment decisions are

made. A key assumption of the innovations tested as joint UN ventures is that the UN can test small-scale methods that can later become models for governments in their own logistics, procurement and design endeavours.

Innovations in the use of ICT can facilitate better ways of working – for example by supporting programme implementation in remote or crisis-affected areas.

What we’ve done

In Pakistan, the UN country team has established a policy which requires business operations to be as compliant with UN fundamental principles as programme work is. Despite initial hesitation by several staff, they’ve been able to develop guidelines and have started to run training sessions with staff on human rights and environment, equipping them in turn to undertake assessments with partners.

In Laos, the UN tested car-pooling between agencies. This cut down on the size of the fleet and its emissions. The pilot project showed how the UN can use carpooling to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and make a positive environmental contribution.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the UN Country Team tested new ICT tools to support joint operational processes. With all agencies now housed in one building, the ICT team crowdsourced ideas for apps that could help streamline processes and enable the different entities to work together more effectively. The team has created all-agency apps for vehicle, meeting room and workstation booking on the country’s One UN intranet, as well as for IT, building management and communications services requests.

‘A-ha’ moments

  • It is helpful to use evidence to encourage behavioural change. The success rate in getting people to adopt new behaviours is greater when change-makers can demonstrate tangible potential impacts such as cost savings.
  • Being able to show initial or early results helps get people on board. Instead of going for full implementation immediately, starting small and achieving quick wins can be a better way to persuade others about the value of a project. This can also help move the project towards a “tipping point”: as more UN agencies become involved, more agencies want to join in with the experiment.
  • It’s essential to keep the end users in mind at all times. For example, the fleet drivers in Laos weren’t accustomed to using car-pooling style mobile apps and this created some teething problems when it came to setting up the service. Having stakeholders involved in the design from the beginning helps you create something that’s easy to adopt and use.

What’s next?

As many of the processes where we are testing innovations are common to UN operations around the world, there are huge opportunities to streamline and roll these innovations out to other UN country teams and even beyond.

Where innovation focuses on streamlining operations across agencies, individual agencies need to prioritize the advantages to the UN system as a whole. It will be important to find appropriate ways to share costs and allocate funding to business innovations, as well as finding ways to learn and replicate good practices.

The UN needs to maintain awareness about innovation and emerging ideas outside of the UN. What new practices from other sectors can we adopt and adapt to improve the way that we work?

Examples of the use of innovation in the UN business operations

The ripple effect of UN transparency: The case of procurement in Ukraine

Bringing Brazil back office innovations into the spotlight 

Lao PDR: Building a fleet management system to cut down on costs and emissions

Pakistan: Integrating human rights protocols into procurement procedures

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Using ICT tools to support smoother working in the One UN office

Related Blogs and Country stories

Silo Fighters Blog

Crowdsourcing the campfire: how our data visualization contest opened doors

BY Abigail Taylor-Jones | November 14, 2018

“Visualizations act as a campfire around which we gather to tell stories.” - Al Shalloway, founder and CEO of Net Objectives. Telling our story well is key to ensuring we can influence policy and other key decision-making processes. In order to do so, it is important to get new insights from the evidence we generate from the data we collect. To give a sense of the scale, we collect data from 130 UN Country Teams, serving 165 countries. The types of data we collect ranges from operational data, socio-economic data, financial data, data on coordination and results. Sitting behind the walls of the UN can sometimes be lonely ploughing through all this data (other times it is quite daunting). So, we have to think of creative ways to gather new insights to tell a good and compelling story. The UN is known as an organization that brings people together globally to participate in various ways, for example working towards realizing the goals set for 2030 Agenda. For us, being open and inclusive about the UN’s work is always at the forefront of our minds, even when it comes to data. We started thinking about ways to include others from outside the UN in our analysis and data visualization process. As the Secretariat to the UN Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG) we have access to a wide range of data, so we thought, why not launch our first ever UNSDG data visualization contest and find out what others can see in our data? So, my colleague Kana Kudo and I did just that. In collaboration with Tableau, we launched the contest and invited data scientists and anyone interested in data visualization to use our data from the UNSDG portal, which pulls UN specific data, published by several agencies, using the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standards to report how the UN is contributing to the global development agenda. Data is powerful but we don’t always know how to tell a story with it After launching the contest, we realized there were blind spots that we failed to see. For example, some of the submissions did make use of the IATI data sets, while others did not. The guidelines we provided were clear, however the research questions were a little unclear. We ended up receiving several stunning visualizations, but they were not exactly what we were looking for. We learned that when it comes to data, it’s best to be specific. Another learning was that data scientists wanted the option to work with other data visualization tools and not be limited to Tableau; so we had to broaden the scope of tools for the contest. We brought a selection panel together to assess the submissions, and we selected two winners. The first winner crafted “Visualizing Malaria: The Killer Disease Killing Africa,” an impactful visualization that analyses malaria deaths in the world, how they have changed, and how funding has evolved over the years, particularly in Africa. The contestant explained that she had been inspired by the experience of a dear friend who had been infected with malaria. We also liked this visualization on malaria because it focused on both the positive and negative aspects of the fight against this diseases. Whilst lives are been saved through the use of mosquito nets, there’s also a downward trend in other aspects, which means more still needs to be done. [caption id="attachment_10399" align="alignnone" width="542"] Visualization by Rosebud Anwuri[/caption] The second data visualization titled “Leave no one Behind”, included the UN’s spending on each Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) per country, looking at the financial distribution among the SDGs. The underlying calculations were just as impressive as the visualization itself! We liked this visual and we were interested in how the participant highlighted the leaving no one behind aspect, which is the central promise of the 2030 Agenda; and an overarching programming principle. Looking at how we are doing from a financial expenditure perspective is key to assessing the UN’s contribution to the SDGs. Behind the scenes, our team in Headquarters was tinkering with developing UN Info, a tool that integrates the UN contributions to the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. This is an important aspect because it keeps us accountable and helps UN Country Teams with programme management. From this contest, it was clear to us that data is obviously powerful but we don’t always know how to tell a story out of it. We were very impressed with the contestants’ interpretations and the visualizations. As a bonus, we also gained unexpected and useful insights that helped us refine our UN IATI data set.   [caption id="attachment_10400" align="alignnone" width="570"] Visualization by Pedro Fontoura[/caption] One of the things that we also discovered, is that data scientists like to get involved. Chloe Tseng, founder of Viz for Social Good contacted us to find out how she could collaborate with us. Although she didn’t participate in the contest, we were keen to work with Chloe and her team of volunteers just as she was to work with us. Goal 17 of the SDGs relates to partnerships and we know how important it is work with others to realize our goals. We gave Viz for Social Good a particular set of data related to the partnerships that the Country Teams have beyond the UN. If you haven’t read Viz for Social Good’s journey working with us, and the beautiful visualizations that came out of our partnership, check it out here. Our data was too fat! The contest was a great learning opportunity for us. From our collaboration with Chloe and the Viz For Social Good network of over 2000 data visualization experts, we learned that our data is good but we need to look at ways of improving the way data is parsed through our systems and ensure that it is formatted in a manageable and easy way for data scientists to work with it. Chloe also gave us feedback on moving from larger chunks of data to smaller chunks. We took these recommendations very seriously and have made significant changes in our data systems for optimum use by data scientists. We trimmed down our data in smaller chunks that requires little time for data cleaning which allows for quicker analysis. This experience was definitely an eye opener in terms of telling a more powerful and compelling story than we will ever be able to do if we stick to large sets of data in an excel format. The campfire is still with us Collaborating with Viz For Social Good and with the contest participants inspired our team to adapt our digital strategy work.  Seeing the way these artists take data and communicate with it opened our eyes. Our taste has changed and boy have our standards gotten higher. We are designing dashboards for future projects and seeing the artistry has upped our game for the long run.   Photo: Wenni Zhou

Silo Fighters Blog

Bringing Brazil back office innovations into the spotlight

BY Maria Helena Mizuno Moreira | December 6, 2017

At the beginning of 2016, Nesta predicted that back office innovations would take center stage.   In the case of the UN in Brazil, this prediction was spot on. If you work outside the United Nations system you might assume that we consistently pool our resources. But we don't. This is largely due to the fact that the UN organisations were created one by one by the UN Member States over the last 70 years, and the different UN organisations therefore had to set up their own internal management structures - not unlike different ministries in a government. In the past, cost savings have been pursued UN agency by UN agency within their sometimes very different business models. As part of the drive for better services and reduced costs, however, the UN has been reconsidering this model, and are trying out new methods for pooling back office functions to better serve the populations we work for.    The UN in Brazil is one of the four integrated business centers across the UN system that are piloting this new way of working. We named it the Joint Operations Facility, or the JOF (yes, we love acronyms in the UN!). The other integrated business pilots are in Cape Verde, Copenhagen and Viet Nam. In Brazil, we began 18 months ago with the idea of simplifying business processes and integrating services across UN entities. Out of 22 funds, programmes, and specialized agencies working in Brazil, six agencies endorsed this project: UNDP, UNFPA, UNESCO, UN Women, UNOPS and UN Environment, with UNAIDS as a partner agency. With the support of the UNDG Business Operations Working Group and the UN High-Level Committee on Management, we conducted a strategic review of business operations in the country. We assessed our procurement, IT and human resources needs and created a business case for pulling these back office functions together. This analysis was the official start of our Joint Operations Facility in Brazil. What does integrating business operations really mean? Setting up this facility meant creating a new team to fully address the new needs of these agencies in country. We created new positions for procurement, travel, ICT and a manager that oversees the work of the team. The JOF Manager reports to the UN Resident Coordinator, who shares the governance of the facility with the six agencies participating in the initiative. For decisions, we follow the General Assembly “one vote one voice” principle, so each agency has an equal say regardless of the size or volume of goods or funds they channel through the facility. Now 18 months later, we are proud to say that the members of this facility are working together on a single service platform centralizing procedures and business operations in the areas of procurement, travel, information and communications technology. Centralizing services allows for several benefits such a sharing the costs and risks, and allowing staff to specialise and therefore increase the quality of services. The bumpy parts As with any new endeavor, the UN in Brazil faced several obstacles including entrenched practices, cultural clashes, and different ways of thinking. Some entities felt that they took an unfair financial hit and perceived a disadvantage in their business services, while smaller entities already counted on the facility to sustain their activities. Other lessons that we learned during these 18 months of journey are: Never underestimate transition periods: What we realized during the process is that setting up solid administrative support services requires an investment, and the transition period shouldn’t be underestimated. Technology to the rescue: The ICT tools that the facility used were initially connected with specific UN entities’ requirement. We soon learned that this was too complex. A second generation of ICT applications and portal will be released soon allowing automated monitoring to improve control, transparency and operational efficiency. When duplication happens, breathe, and phase it out: Some of the participating agencies preferred to keep parallel internal operational structures. This was redundant to the purpose of the Joint Operations Facility, and agencies quickly realized that it was not sustainable and these structures are being phased out gradually. The lack of a global UN-wide common procurement manual has been a challenge, and we are trying to identify and adopt already existing operational good practices across the UN system to have a common framework. As a work-around, we are now working on our own common manual for procurement to consolidate practices including the adoption of a harmonized procurement manual. This has been a difficult and time consuming process. We believe that by expanding and providing additional procurement services, as well as launching the shared human resource services, we will ensure the sustainability and relevance of the facility. We are currently negotiating the provision of services to more agencies through service legal agreements, we will keep you posted in the number of agencies joining us! The silver lining It’s safe to say that our hard work ultimately paid off. Since launching the facility in March 2016, we are developing new procedures and tools to streamline our work. By simplifying and revamping our internal business flows, we are reducing our common operation footprint while improving the collective efficiency and saving costs. What’s next? In terms of next steps, some already see the opportunity to expand this facility into a regional hub. As the only integrated service center in the Latin America and the Caribbean region, building in the current structure we would have the potential to provide business operations services to multiple countries to increase cost savings and improve quality of office services. So we feel that this is just the beginning of an exciting project. Despite the hurdles, we trust that we are on the right track and will continue to support the United Nations to think outside the box and construct innovative, efficient and effective mechanisms to achieve the 2030 Agenda.