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DFID is changing its approach to better address the underlying causes of poverty and conflict – can it work? Guest Post from two DFID reformers

October 9, 2014
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TomAid donors are often maligned for bureaucratic procedures, a focus on short-term results at the expense of longer-term, riskierPete institutional change, and a technical, managerial approach to aid with insufficient focus on context, power and politics. Are these institutional barriers insurmountable? Can aid agencies create an enabling environment to think and work politically? Tom Wingfield (left) and Pete Vowles (right) from DFID’s new ‘Better Delivery Taskforce’ have been trying to do just that. Here’s where they’ve got to.

For the past year DFID has been focussing on these issues and how we can both guard taxpayer’s money and have transformational impact in the countries where we work. The result has been the introduction of a comprehensive set of reforms targeting our process, capability and culture. This is about creating the conditions that allow us to better address the underlying causes of poverty and conflict, and respond effectively to the post-2015 agenda. At the heart of the reform is a revamp of DFID’s operating framework (ie the rules and principles which govern our work). Known as the ‘Smart Rules’, it can be downloaded here.

Like any institutional reform, this is a long term change process. The next 12 months provide a real opportunity to strengthen our partnerships with a wide range of partners and enhance our collective effectiveness.

What’s the problem?

The challenges facing aid agencies have been well aired – see Duncan’s two blogs on the subject in November and January and recent guest blogs by Alina Rocha Menocal and  Neil McCulloch. The list of institutional barriers include – fear of failure, risk aversion, ‘projectization’, a focus on short-term results and staff turnover. In our original review of DFID’s programme management cycle, internal and external consultations recognised these challenges and a few more (see Pete’s blog on Adaptive Programming).

Agreeing the problem is the easy part (and often where most of us stop). So the challenge is a) how do we create a reform moment and b) what can we actually do to change things when the moment arrives?

To really address the problem means creating space to understand and engage with local context and having the freedom (and capability) to design flexible and adaptive programmes.  It means freeing up time for frontline staff to work on what matters most (not empty process, box ticking) and being honest about failure and learning from what goes wrong. This is difficult for any large organisation

What are the key changes?

process_management_-dilbert-cartoonDFID has recognised that improving our processes is important but not enough on its own. Through a process of consultation, piloting, thinking and rethinking, we are introducing reforms in three areas:

Process: Our new operating framework focuses on stripping back process, reducing internal bureaucracy and removing non-value added approval layers. We’ve cut more than 200 compliance tasks (and mountains of guidance) to 37 straightforward rules, introduced 10 principles to guide programming (e.g. context specific, evidence-based, honest, proportionate and balanced) and set out a series of discretionary standards which help define ‘good development’ in practice (e.g. undertaking political economy analysis, risk management and ‘do no harm’). This is framed around a single Country Poverty Reduction Diagnostic which looks at the underlying barriers to poverty reduction, the space for UK action and the most transformational investments. Four elements underpin the Smart Rules:

  1. Moving from rules to a more principles-based approach, creating deeper ownership and engagement across DFID
  2. Directing DFID’s effort proportionately on what matters most (ie by removing generic mandatory compliance tasks)
  3. Simplifying and clarifying mandatory rules, designed to protect tax payers money
  4. Demonstrating the space for discretion where we will trust the judgement of frontline staff to innovate, take risks and adapt to realities on the ground

Capability: Managing flexible and adaptive programmes is an art form. DFID is making a major investment to improve programme management and leadership while maintaining our cadre of technical advisers. We recognise the conventional linear, apolitical approach and assumptions are not going to work in many of the contexts where we operate. We want to build our collective capability by finding more effective ways to share lessons  from real world delivery on the ground and tap into our implementing partners’ expertise (NGOs, private contractors, partner governments).

Incentives and culture: The third, and probably most important, reform focuses on empowering staff to use professional judgment, generating open dialogue on lesson learning and failure, and running towards problems, in the knowledge that poor performing programme never self-correct.

How you can help

In his recent blog on thinking and working politically, Neil McCulloch lamented that: “An approach that subordinates money to a thorough understanding of context and a desire for sustainable results will achieve more in the long-run than the current focus on ‘delivering’ (i.e. buying) tapeSadly the political economy of donor incentives means that it will probably remain a marginal pursuit.”

DFID’s reform is trying to move the marginal to the mainstream. We know that success depends on  feedback loops to encourage challenge (internally as well as externally), to admit mistakes and adapt along the way. We freely acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers  and that we need need our partners – national governments, NGOs, private suppliers, citizens – to keep us real and test whether change is being felt on the ground. We are genuinely interested in your views on:

  • How we can continue to improve
  • What changes you are seeing happening (the positive and the negative)

You can email us directly on or


  1. I worry that whilst “thinking and working politically” and “transformational impact” sound like the kinds of things aid agencies ought to be doing, they actually take aid agencies into realms where they will fail – perhaps no amount of effort sincerely trying to implement McCulloch and others advocate will get us anywhere, attractive as it all sounds. Whereas using impact evaluations etc. to figure out the most cost effective interventions for child health, for example, is more feasible. And when it comes to “long run impact” better child health might beat attempts at political engineering.

  2. As a DFID member of staff, I just wanted to add how refreshing this whole change process has been. Pete and Tom’s team have somehow suceeded in getting the organisation to talk really honestly about where we are failing on programme management and to come up with a genuinely sensible way forward. It is not often you can say that about an organisational change process.

    It will obviously take time, and continued high level support, but I feel hopeful that this could lead to some degree of real cultural change in DFID. I frequently hear people in meetings these days saying – ‘in the spirit of the smart rules, lets do this (sensible) thing rather than the alternative (silly but in line with old regulations) option’.

    Let’s just hope that this change will be sustained and that our implementers will actually start to see real improvements.

    1. thanks Kirsty, I was wondering if anyone else from DFID would have the temerity to comment! All sounds v encouraging – fingers crossed

      1. As a fellow DFID-er I’d completely endorse Kirsty’s comments. I think we are all very realistic about the challenges – this stuff isn’t easy – but there is real momentum for change and a genuine commitment to building our organisational learning capabilities. Colleagues outside DFID can help by continuing to challenge us but also by letting us know when the changes are working.

  3. Certainly a bold move in the right direction for DFID. The DFID Business Models that I have read have been a checking the box exercise. The political economy analysis also tends to be superficial if not entirely irrelevant. The whole mentality about ‘moving funds’ needs to change too (better to move funds when the obstacles are removed). So I hope this is something you are planning to work through over time. Ostrom et al. (The Samaritan’s Dilemma The Political Economy of Development Aid 2005 Clark C. Gibson, Krister Andersson and Sujai Shivakumar) defined the underlying development challenges as ‘collective action problems’. These apply to development agencies too so the incentives to change must accompany the reforms.

    What you have embarked upon is like team sport. An important preoccupation of owners/coaches is building a winning team. Winning is the reward for getting things right. So solid process is a good predictor of desired outcomes. Yes, the outcomes affirm the process but it is by no means a ‘chicken/egg’ puzzle. So what elements are critical in building a solid operational process? There is a whole range for sport as they are for development. But once we get a good handle of what these might be (I would include addressing inertia, leadership, power/authority, information, incentives etc.) the outcome might be more assured. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, social change can happen quickly too – when we can achieve that ‘aha moment’. Most projects march on (focused on outputs and moving funds) without ever achieving the ‘aha moment’ with their clients.

    Regarding evaluation, a general preoccupation with proving outcomes detracts from understanding the operational process and the construction of theories of change that are helpful. Essentially, we get ahead ourselves. In contrast, as good coaches do, they study play-by-play and hope to influence the outcome. They do not go away at the start only to return after the match has ended and then try and explain the outcome. DIFD will need to change along these lines too. Outside opinions are helpful when the feedback is gathered continuously overtime rather than at wide intervals.

  4. This introspection among DFID is good to be seen to be translated into action. It is also good to see issues from the perspective of those who will live any changes effected by ‘development’ agencies. This means taking risk, and having a longer time horizon (as discussed here). PEA discussions are more of (as I understood) how to make better changes. But it is also equally important to discuss critically about the ‘changes’ or interventions themselves – are they the kind of interventions needed by the people? Do they reflect their historical and socioeconomic realities? Doing No Harm? What are the risks for such interventions to be changed and/or manipulated by the local people to suit/reflect their needs and political and economic agendas? Would such modifications meet the intended objectives to be left to take place OR? I think such simple and important questions (and of course many others) are needed to think of ways development can make “value” to the would-be beneficiaries. If at all development assistance is intended for such goals.

  5. This is great. Hats off to Tom and Pete for opening up what seems to be a much-needed conversation within DFID about how to change the ways of working so that the organisation can be more flexible and adaptive.

    If DFID were to really pick up this agenda it could play an important role in the movement to do development differently

    Doing development differently might seem a risky path to take. But the real risk is proceeding with business as usual. Investing in learning seems like value for money to me.

    Worth thinking about how the post-2015 development framework, including targets on transparency and accountability, can support efforts to do development differently.

  6. Dear Tom, Duncan et al

    I have only just come across this post, which means that even though I am an avid Duncan Green stalker, I do miss some important stuff. Interesting post Tom and Peter!…
    Anyway, now that I am here, I need to say that I am a member of the International Forum for Rural Transport and Development ( a global, southern-led network that was supported by DFID in the past. We’ve been trying to understanding how DFID is targeting its support to the transport sector. I am disappointed to find that despite the rhetoric about transformational impacts, some of the sectoral research tends to focus, as it has always done, on the hardware of infrastructure and not on the social impacts. So even though there is much in DFID about poverty and social justice, or women and girls, hunger and malnutrition, education and training etc it is difficult for me to understand how programmes like the Africa Community Access Programme (AFCAP) take these issues into account. So am not sure how these programmes will be ‘tapping into partners’ expertise’ and worry that your laudable attempts to change DFID’s approach may not touch the engineering sectors at all!

  7. As ab external observer of DFID´s Change process it is still difficult to understand how far this Change process will go. On the one hand value for Money (e.g buying results) seems still to be DFID´s Mantra and is influencing the international development aid discussion exactly in that way. And on the other hand DFID is promoting internally an innovative Approach of smart implementation which isn´t part of DFID´s ccoperation model with partners, as fas as I see. How to understand these two different “Images” of DFID?

  8. This all sounds great, but how is it being filtered down to organisations sub-contracted to manage DFID grants? Very few Smart Rules are being applied by PwC in their management of large pots of DFID money, for instance, and it is hard to hold DFID to account when you’re only ever in contact with a third party.

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