The Chief Executives Board (CEB) Secretariat has been producing financial statistics on United Nations system- wide revenue and expenditures for at least three decades. The key data source is the revenue and expenses data that individual UN entities report annually to the CEB Secretariat. Once the data has been compiled and quality assured, a selection is published in the biannual General Assembly report on the ‘Budgetary and financial situation of the organizations of the United Nations system’.61 The financial data from 2010 onwards is also available on the CEB website, which underwent a major upgrade in 2020/21. Disaggregated data on funding flows at entity and system-wide level can be accessed on the website in a user-friendly format, with visualisations and the option of downloading datasets in Excel and CSV formats.62
Data quality has been a constant area of attention when producing the UN financial statistics. Over the past five years, efforts to improve data quality have received a major boost thanks to the UN Data Cube initiative. This joint initiative of the High-Level Committee on Management (HLCM) and the UN Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG) is one of the three strategic data initiatives recognised in the ‘Data Strategy of the Secretary-General for Action by Everyone, Everywhere with Insight, Impact and Integrity’.63 The initiative’s long-term goal is to ensure the UN has readily available, timely, reliable, verifiable and comparable system-wide and entity-level financial data aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for use in data analysis and to ‘make better decisions and deliver stronger support to those we serve’.64
Results of the Data Cube initiative, 2017–2021
In 2021, the CEB Secretariat took stock of the Data Cube initiative’s 2017–2021 results in order to see how far the UN system had come in reaching its intended targets. The clear conclusion was that the initiative had been a great success, for the most part producing the results expected (see Box 5 below for further details).
The first and most visible result was the development and approval of the 2018 Data Standards for UN system-wide reporting of financial data.65 Moreover, these data standards were complemented by an implementation roadmap, which contained specific actions broken down into four phases. Each phase advanced implementation of the data standards, improved data quality and enhanced communication around the resulting datasets. The tagline ‘maximising transparency and minimising effort’ was coined to summarise the common thread running through the long list of activities included in the roadmap.
Maximising transparency referred to efforts aimed at ensuring quality UN system-wide financial data would be available for users not just on the CEB website, but on other data platforms. Collaboration with the UNSDG and especially the UN Multi-Partner Trust Fund Office (MPTFO) focused on enhancing the timeliness and quality of data on single-entity thematic funds and UN inter-agency pooled funds. Meanwhile, partnerships with the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) looked at how coverage of UN reporting on the platforms of these two organisations could be improved. The successful harmonisation of the UN code lists for the six data standards with the relevant code lists in the IATI and OECD represented another important piece of the transparency puzzle, ensuring UN system-wide datasets could be more easily compared.
Minimising efforts and reducing the reporting burden of UN entities was the other main focus during the initial years of the Data Cube initiative. UN entities received broad guidance on implementing the standards. Annual workshops were organised for all reporters, complementing the one-on-one support the CEB Secretariat had been providing to individual UN entities. Additional policies and guidance were developed based on queries and lessons learned, and UN code lists refined. Moreover, agreement was reached on a UN-CEB minimum dataset that, alongside the harmonised code lists, would enable UN entities to (re)use the same dataset in reporting their data to the CEB, IATI and OECD.
After four years of incremental improvements, however, it was clearly time to take another major leap forward and develop a holistic, forward-looking perspective on UN system-wide financial reporting. A broad, strategic approach was deemed essential for UN data producers, who might need to adjust their systems to meet the various reporting requirements. A holistic view would also allow data users to see the overall picture constituted by the various UN system-wide financial datasets at their disposal, thereby satisfying demand for more and better-quality data in a context of ongoing reforms in the wider UN system and external environment. These reflections resulted in the Data Cube strategy 2022– 2025, which was approved by the HLCM’s Finance and Budgeting Network in December 2021.
UN-CEB minimum dataset, used for UN entity reporting on six data cuts
The next level: Data Cube strategy 2022–2025
In building on the 2017–2021 period’s successes, the Data Cube strategy 2022–2025 aims to take the Data Cube initiative to the next level. The strategy’s ultimate ambition is to ensure a fully-fledged UN system-wide data cube with disaggregated financial data for each SDG in every country. When this is achieved, stakeholders will have access to a comprehensive overview of what UN system organisations are spending in support of an SDG in a particular geographical location, with data separated out into development, humanitarian, peace and global agenda-related interventions.
At the core of the strategy are six complementary UN system-wide financial data cuts that by 2025 should be available and easily accessible to data users. These data cuts will provide UN stakeholders with a transparent and comprehensive snapshot of UN system-wide revenue and expenses, with disaggregated data enabling better analytics and evidence-based decisions. Given the datasets will be comparable, data users will have the option of integrating datasets and carrying out data analysis using combinations of datasets. Moreover, the UN-CEB minimum dataset of variables to be used for activity-level reporting to the IATI and OECD will ensure that the data reported to these two partners can also be UN system-wide datasets.
Figure 36 illustrates the basic concepts underpinning the strategy. The overall idea is that each UN entity will use its own systems and tools to construct a master dataset incorporating all the variables included in the UN-CEB minimum dataset (seen on the left). From there, the UN entity can slice and dice this master dataset to produce the data necessary to report on each of the six data cuts (seen on the right).
The development, collection, compilation and maintenance of the first three of these six financial data cuts will come under the direct purview of the CEB Secretariat. The first data cut refers to full implementation of reporting under the 2018 UN Data Cube standards, including reporting against the two data standards, SDGs and geographical location that became mandatory as of 1 January 2022. In addition, this data cut is currently being refined to address commitment 13 of the 2019 Funding Compact, which calls for improved comparability of cost classifications and definitions.
The second data cut focuses on taking CEB reporting to the disaggregated level, with far more granular data on UN system-wide expenses provided. Each UN entity will be asked to report their expenses in a disaggregated manner against the dimensions of the UN data standards. The consolidated UN system-wide data would constitute a real data cube, showing how much each UN entity and the UN system as a whole spends on each function, in each geographical location and against each SDG target, as well as what form of funding is used (core/non-core/other). This will enable in-depth data analysis not possible with the highly aggregated data of the first data cut.
The third data cut refers to the full integration of data on thematic funds into the financial statistics collected by the CEB Secretariat. This data cut provides an opportunity to validate the overall revenue reported for thematic funds by cross-checking it against each contribution. The main objective here is ensuring good quality, granular data on contributions to this type of flexible funding, thereby improving contributors’ visibility.
The other three data cuts will come under the purview of, respectively, the IATI, OECD and MPTFO, with the CEB Secretariat providing active support in the development and maintenance of minimum data requirements. The fourth data cut will be based on UN activity-level reporting to the IATI, and the fifth data cut on reporting to the OECD, with the agreed UN- CEB minimum dataset used in each case. The sixth data cut will consolidate UN fund administrators’ reporting on pooled funds, including activity-level reporting on the SDGs and the Gender Marker. In providing data on contributions to this high-quality funding instrument, this cut will provide better visibility for contributors. The full Data Cube strategy – as well as the separate communications version of the document prepared for external stakeholders – provides further background information, spelling out the three major outputs that must be realised if the strategy’s objective is to be achieved. The strategy also includes a results framework, monitoring and evaluation arrangements, and a risk management section. It concludes with a budget section that spells out the additional financial resources required, over a four-year period, to implement the strategy and deliver on the expected results.
The UN Data Cube initiative is a successful example of impactful change brought about by UN system- wide collaboration around a priority data use case. The initiative has both provided the UN with data standards for system-wide financial reporting and advanced their implementation. The improved quality of UN system-wide data and continued harmonisation efforts with the IATI and OECD have led to more accessible and comparable datasets, while reducing UN entities’ reporting burden. In building on this strong foundation, the Data Cube strategy 2022–2025 aims to take the initiative to an ambitious new level. Implementation of the strategy is just beginning, and will hopefully benefit from collaboration with a variety of UN stakeholders and partners, with some of these providing additional financial support.
For the most recent edition of the report, see UN General Assembly,‘Budgetary and financial situation of the organizations of the United Nations system’, A/73/373, 1 October 2020, https://undocs. org/A/75/373.
UN Secretary-General,‘Data Strategy of the Secretary-General for Action by Everyone, Everywhere – With Insight, Impact and Integrity: 2020–22’, May 2020, www.un.org/en/content/datastrategy/index.shtml.