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 11 By Duncan Green

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) results.red 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 T-Wingfield@dfid.gov.uk or P-Vowles@dfid.gov.uk