The United Nations is looking for a well-connected Washington figure to head its information office there, as part of a wide-ranging image makeover to improve relations with Congress.
The move, revealed to the Financial Times on Thursday, is touted as part of a public information revolution within the UN, which began with the recent appointment of Mark Malloch Brown, a former strategic communications professional, as chief of staff to Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general. According to one UN insider, the idea is to appoint an influential advocate with Capitol Hill experience who “understands how Washington works, can make calls, and get those calls answered”.
The UN had previously resisted following the “revolving door” model of Washington lobbying, in which departing lawmakers and policymakers use their contacts to push particular interests. But a change in business conduct is now seen as crucial amid strong congressional criticism of the UN's handling of Iraq's oil-for-food programme and other scandals.
The sense of crisis peaked late last year when Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, called for Mr Annan's resignation a move that sent shockwaves around the UN. A significant shake-up of management and accountability procedures is expected over the coming weeks to help meet those concerns.
Officials say the appointee ideally a senior, experienced and political figure will also need the authority to call senior UN officials in New York and sometimes to relay unpalatable truths. Some have suggested that a Republican might be the first choice, but officials insist that the person should also understand the UN and be sympathetic to its causes. One commentator predicts that it will be a tough job to fill, while another points out that its attraction lies in its strong international flavour, in a town where 90 per cent of the jobs are domestic.
One well-connected UN commentator believes the appointment would elevate the Washington post into “much more of a policy office”. “That's very important; the administration has been asking that that happen,” the commentator said. “Recruiting is going ahead very aggressively right now.”
John Ruggie, a former adviser to Mr Annan and professor of international affairs at Harvard, said it was crucial for the UN to become more proactive in its communications strategy, and to understand that “modern accountability demands better forms of communication”.
Mr Malloch Brown agrees. During his tenure at the World Bank, he helped push through significant transparency reforms, despite sensitivities. “Access to information about international organisations by outsiders is one of the critical levers of accountability,” he said.
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