Asian Development Bank headquarters in Mandaluyong, Philippines. Results of the latest ADB staff survey reveals a brewing discontent among staff with senior management. Photo by: ADB / CC BY-NC-ND

Communication, innovation and leadership issues continue to hound the Asian Development Bank, according to the multilateral development bank’s most recent staff engagement survey.

Survey results obtained by Devex reveal notable declines in employee confidence regarding ADB top management’s ability to move the bank forward in a fast-changing development finance landscape while cultivating a more open environment for professional growth.

Only 44 percent of survey participants believe that the Manila-based institution has changed for the better in the last two years — a timeline coinciding with the term of current president Takehiko Nakao. This figure is down by 11 percentage points from the previous staff survey conducted in 2012. Meanwhile, staff confidence in the ability of managers and directors to establish priorities is also down 11 percentage points to 52 percent this year.

While 75 percent of all staff still believes that top management — including the president, vice president and managing director — has a clear vision for the future based on the ADB’s strategic plan, called Strategy 2020, and an ongoing midterm review of that plan, some staff suggest that the vision is more rhetoric than reality.

“I find the management in particular to be out of touch and out of alignment with the stated strategic vision of the board and senior leadership,” according to one of the 1,069 comments from staff highlighted in the results document. “They basically ignore the strategy and do whatever they want, even if it is completely counter to the strategy. Status quo rules.”

Another comment asserts that what the Manila-based institution needs are “leaders at all levels … [and] not mere managers. We need people who can help change our way from focusing on the process to focusing on the impact.”

The percentage of staff members who feel engaged in the bank’s sustainable engagement measures has also declined. While 80 percent of staff responded favorably on engagement issues such an enabling environment, and energy and well-being at work, that figure fell by 6 percentage points from the 2012 survey. Issues surrounding operational efficiency and communication of policies and decisions to staff appeared to drag down the sustainable engagement score.

The ADB survey results come a few months after the release of a similar survey of World Bank staff which highlighted strong discontent with senior leadership at that institution. The World Bank results, which also exposed a more negative staff sentiment compared to the previous survey conducted in 2013, were largely attributed to contentious reforms initiated by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.

Communication and innovation

Other issues that stood out in the staff survey include the top management’s inability to effectively and sustainably communicate policies and reforms that affect the careers of bank employees.

Only about 62 percent of staff think that management will communicate decisions to staff, down by 14 percentage points from the last survey three years ago, while around 56 percent believe the bank is doing a good job in keeping staff informed about matters affecting them. This metric registered one of the biggest declines in the survey dropping 19 percentage points from 2012.

Evaluating the manager and director level, only about 46 percent believe that these high-level officials are doing a good job in “communicating with people” while 53 percent think they are doing their job in “stating objectives clearly.” Both metrics are down by 13 percentage points from 2012.

These issues of communication, according to some staff, have made them feel left out of certain decisions and discussions that may directly concern or affect them within an institution that preaches inclusivity and ground-up participation.

“Communication should be two way and open for management and staff,” a comment highlighted in the document revealed. “Always the staff is the last to know and town halls are just checklist[s] of an already anticipated approved provision … Even though there is a lot of initiatives for an open-line communication, some feedback or suggestions are not really considered and is just part of a record of papers.”

Staff also expressed some dissatisfaction over the bank’s approach to innovation. Only 68 percent of ADB staff feel they are encouraged to be innovative at their work, while 70 percent believe their colleagues are encouraged to come up with innovative solutions to work-related problems. In addition, only 23 percent of staff indicate that ADB is doing a good job in transferring “best practices” internally.

As new sources of development finance are introduced and new players such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS’ New Development Bank — with possibly new ideas and way of doing things — become operational, back at ADB, only 47 percent of staff believe the bank has established a climate where they can challenge the traditional way of thinking.

“Innovation lies at the heart of a good organization. ADB has been in its comfort zone for far too long as the only development institution in Asia,” one of the comments stated. “Now as new banks come on board, ADB needs to perform better and it can only do so if it innovates.”

Making improvements

Despite these perceptions, there was a strong survey response rate of 89.2 percent and staff members expressed confidence over some improvements within the bank.

Over 70 percent of staff still believes senior management has well formulated strategies, while 64 percent think they will act on identified problems. A majority of staff also expressed clear understanding of their roles in the operations and long-term strategies of the bank. Around 85 percent of staffers feel they fit into the bank’s organizational goals, while an average of 82 percent believe that their work contribute significantly to the bank’s plans and objectives.

Nakao has instituted several major reforms in the last couple of months including the decision to give more authority to regional offices, a faster procurement process, streamlined strategic planning process, and a dedicated public-private partnership office.

“There is a sense of urgency to improve processes that I have not experienced in my many years at the bank,” according to one ADB staff member who was willing to answer follow up questions about the survey, but did not want to be named.

Speaking in a town hall meeting with staff early last month, the ADB chief said that the reforms and changes — including the proposed controversial changes in staff pension, benefits and compensation — is necessary for a better ADB moving forward.

“The needs of our clients are changing … [a] new international development agenda is taking shape … and new multilateral development financial institutions … are being established,” said Nakao in a statement obtained by Devex. “In considering a new strategy, we must be visionary and innovative.”

"Without talented and diverse staff, without your dedication, without your support, we cannot achieve this. I am committed to working with you and discussing with you, for a stronger, better and faster ADB,” he said.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.