Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

UNHCR'S Career Management System Project

Executive Committee Meetings

UNHCR'S Career Management System Project

20 March 1995


1. The forty-fifth session of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme (October 1994) requested the High Commissioner to inform Executive Committee members of the progress of the Career Management System (CMS) project through a presentation to the Sub-Committee on Administrative and Financial Matters (SCAF) early in 1995 (A/AC.96/839, para. 27).

2. It is important to review progress made to date in developing each part of the CMS (see section II). However, because the CMS project is a somewhat complex and ambitious endeavour requiring a sustained long-term effort, the progression of the project also needs to be understood from the perspective of UNHCR's overall effort to improve delivery of humanitarian assistance. In this context, it is worth recalling something of the genesis of the CMS project and its underlying rationale.

3. In her opening statement to the forty-fourth session of the Executive Committee (October 1993), the High Commissioner, announced that her ultimate goal is to "create an institutional culture where effective performance, efficiency and accountability are prized objectives". This requires, she noted, both an improvement in programming and better human resources management.

4. The CMS project is a major initiative in support of the High Commissioner's goal. The Call For Proposals sent to Executive Committee members on 6 May 1994 and the Note on Human Resources Management (EC/1994/SC.2/CRP.20) submitted to SCAF in June 1994 noted that the goal of CMS is to foster the creation of an institutional culture which values and rewards good performance, particularly, managerial excellence.

The aforementioned documents noted that such a performance-driven culture has a number of basic and essential requirements. These can be broadly summarized as follows:

  • clearly defined performance expectations and behavioural criteria;
  • staff accountability;
  • the matching in the shortest possible time of the right person with the right job;
  • staff trained to become highly effective managers of financial and human resources.

These requirements suggest the need for a CMS with the following four components:

  • so as to match staff with posts efficiently, assess performance and identify training needs, a component that defines, on the one hand, the skills required to do a job (competencies), and identifies, on the other hand, the skills of individual staff members (skills profiles);
  • an improved system of performance evaluation, which is rigorous, transparent and objective;
  • a component that identifies typical career paths open to staff together with the type of training and acquired experience which staff require in order to prepare themselves for future assignments or progression to greater responsibilities;
  • a staff development programme oriented to providing both managerial training appropriate for various levels in the organization and focused training programmes to provide staff with the opportunity to acquire throughout their career the unique competencies required by UNHCR.

Each of these components is necessary to achieve the type of performance- driven culture required by the High Commissioner. Moreover, to increase the probability of successfully contributing to an improvement in organizational culture, it is necessary to interrelate them within a framework so that each component supports and enhances the impact of the others.

At its forty-fifth session, the Executive Committee reiterated the importance of a comprehensive approach to human resources management so that UNHCR develops, at all levels of the organization, the managerial competencies needed to ensure that the organization can better respond to emerging humanitarian challenges in the future.

At the same session, the Executive Committee further urged UNHCR to:

  • take steps to ensure involvement of UNHCR's senior management and support from staff and their representatives;
  • ensure that the project is integrated with other major organizational initiatives such as the Working Group on Management and Operational Capacity;
  • continue to encourage members to contribute their ideas on the project.

This report, in describing progress in implementing the CMS project, the current and future direction of the project as well as implementation concerns, indicates how UNHCR is responding to the Executive Committee's recommendations.


In accordance with Executive Committee recommendations, the approach to project implementation has involved an extensive consultative process. From the beginning of the project in October 1994, a CMS project team consisting of Price Waterhouse, a consulting firm with substantial expertise and experience of "best human resources practice" in other organizations, and UNHCR staff have engaged as wide a spectrum of UNHCR staff as possible in defining a CMS uniquely suited to UNHCR.

Staff views on which practices might fit UNHCR's unique needs allowed the project team to construct an initial vision of a UNHCR Career Management System. On 19 January 1995, UNHCR's Senior Management Committee (SMC) approved the overall vision of a CMS most likely to be suitable for UNHCR and supportive of UNHCR's human resources strategy. More particularly, the SMC approved a tentative set of design principles and characteristics applicable to each CMS component, to be used in the further development and testing of the project:

  • an appraisal system, that would assess the degree to which competencies are demonstrated as staff strive to attain work objectives defined at the beginning of the appraisal cycle. Such an appraisal process, involving both competencies and objectives, would be an annual exercise applying to all staff.
  • a personnel database component, which would serve the needs of staff as well as support organizational requirements to identify the right person for each position. A key imperative would be to improve the flow of information from Headquarters to the field, thereby improving staff morale and hence effectiveness.
  • a new staff development policy would reorient UNHCR's approach to training by ensuring that training imparts the essential competencies UNHCR needs now and in the future. Ultimately, responsibility for training budgets would be decentralized so that managers would be held responsible and accountable for supporting the developmental needs of their staff.
  • a managerial training process for senior managers that would involve SMC members in defining key UNHCR managerial competencies. SMC members will do this by attending courses for senior managers and observing practice in other organizations known for managerial excellence so as to contribute to UNHCR's efforts to develop a widely shared view of acceptable management practice.

The approval of the above design principles and system characteristics provided the framework for the next stage of the project: consultation with field staff.

Extensive consultations with field staff were held from January through March 1995. These consultations involved some 1,500 UNHCR staff in some 30 countries representative of UNHCR's field operations in all regions. The intent of this work was to test the applicability of the principles, particularly in the field, by soliciting staff views. These views would serve as the basis to design a prototype CMS which in turn would be tested on a limited scale before being applied to the entire organization.


At present, the CMS team is analysing the mass of data received from staff consultations in order to formulate detailed proposals for each CMS component. These proposals will be presented for SMC review in late April. Subsequently, preparations will be undertaken to test the CMS by running a pilot test in UNHCR's Regional Bureau for Asia and Oceania branch offices in Asia, as well as within the Division of Human Resources Management (DHRM).

This pilot project will test each of the CMS components to the fullest extent possible over a seven-month period. It will commence with extensive managerial training for all of those having supervisory responsibilities together with appraisal training for all staff involved. During the pilot project, DHRM will also build and test its own systems to support wider application of the CMS throughout UNHCR.

During the late spring and summer of 1996 the pilot project will be evaluated and revisions will be made. During the last half of 1996 the organization as a whole will begin to undertake the training necessary for CMS activities and the CMS will be applied to the entire organization in 1997.


An assessment of the project indicates several points which must be addressed if it is to be completed successfully.

For example, UNHCR has succeeded in developing workable options for the various CMS components, such as the new appraisal system. However, the extensive consultative process has revealed both high staff expectations as well as a degree of scepticism as to whether UNHCR can in fact put such systems in place.

Staff attitudes indicate the need for a continuous and intense effort to obtain from each staff member a significant level of commitment to the difficult process of change implied in the CMS. This is particularly true of those with significant managerial responsibility. A major challenge UNHCR now faces, and one that will continue, is the need to ensure an intensive and sustained effort between now and 1997 in order to communicate and demonstrate to the staff a sense of progress, momentum and evidence of continued commitment to the process.

The CMS will only work if it is instituted in conjunction with other significant human resources reforms in, for example, the recruitment and promotion process, rotation policy, and procedures that provide incentives to encourage experienced officers to work in hardship duty stations. All of this requires significant investment of time and effort at a time when resources are also required to administer larger programmes with more staff in the field than ever before.

The CMS aims to foster a fundamental change in UNHCR's organizational culture by addressing issues fundamental for managerial excellence, such as how to plan wisely; how to implement more efficiently; how to manage both our human and financial resources more effectively. As UNHCR develops and implements a revised human resources management system by addressing a wide spectrum of inter-related issues, it will need the continued support of Executive Committee members. In particular, there is a need to ensure availability of the significant resources required for extensive managerial training throughout UNHCR.

UNHCR anticipates that short-term gains will start to become apparent in the summer of 1995 as, for example, the organization begins to reorient its approach to staff development and training activities in the light of the CMS. Still, the significant organizational results the High Commissioner desires in terms of developing a performance driven culture will require consistent UNHCR effort together with Executive Committee support over the long term.