There is a rising groundswell of interest in how international donors can rapidly respond to changing contexts, developing adaptive competences and incentives.
Owen Barder, Duncan Green, Matt Andrews, Tim Harford and Ben Ramalingam have all been writing about these issues in recent years and months. In practical terms, Aleem Walji at the World Bank has set out some principles for what this means for international donors in a recent blog and a previous one, concluding that development challenges require both technical and adaptive skills. There is a general consensus that the development community needs to build these adaptive competences to meet emerging challenges.
This debate is very relevant for DFID. We know that the context in which we work is rapidly changing. More and more of our work is in fragile and conflict-affected states and we need processes that allow us to rapidly and flexibly respond to changing contexts. We know that we need to put as much emphasis on implementation and delivery as on allocation and design.
Over the last 5 months, Tom Wingfield and I have led a review of DFID’s programme management incentives, capabilities and processes. The review ended in September with 4 key messages:
- DFID’s conventional approach to programme management has served us well but will need to evolve further. DFID has already reduced admin budgets considerably, but we need to continue to strip back our processes, reduce the paperwork and focus our energy on real-world delivery.
- Our programmes need to be flexible and responsive to changing political realities and conflict dynamics on the ground. To achieve this we need to improve our ability to commission and manage adaptive, flexible programmes.
- Programme excellence requires collective responsibility and clear accountabilities. This means enabling our staff to make decisions that are contextually aware, being confident in the application of professional judgement to ensure proportionality, and being rigorous in ensuring a clear audit trail and value for money.
- Streamlining our process will only get us so far. Culture and behaviour are in practice more important than the fine print of the rules. Our processes and procedures need to provide an overall framework to assure value for UK taxpayers, whilst making sure decisions are made by those closest to the point of delivery
There is widespread agreement across DFID that we need to build greater adaptive skills, building process management expertise and implementation skills that will enable us to learn faster, iterate and change course in response to changes in context. The 4 key recommendations from the review have been widely endorsed across DFID and are now being implemented:
- We are re-balancing the programme cycle and reforming the way we design and manage programme delivery in order to build stronger incentives for the effective management of flexible and adaptive programmes.
- We are undertaking a substantial streamlining and simplification of programme processes, contained within a revised set of programme rules.
- We are introducing new governance structures to ensure we take real-world practicalities into account when making any changes to our programme management cycle
- We are investing in delivery improvements across DFID through a short-term delivery taskforce. This team will work with staff across the organisation to transform our incentive framework to create a leadership culture that underpins these reforms.
Many thanks for all the comments and contributions over the past few months. We continue to value challenge and critique as we step up to these challenges.