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Adaptive programming

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. We are undertaking a substantial streamlining and simplification of programme processes, contained within a revised set of programme rules.
  3. We are introducing new governance structures to ensure we take real-world practicalities into account when making any changes to our programme management cycle
  4. 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.


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  1. Comment by Harrison Manyumwa posted on

    I really like the whole concept of developing adaptive competencies and incentives, especially, "stripping the paper work and focusing energy on real world delivery." I believe this should not be an imperative only for DFID but for every development organ which has the mandate to deliver value for money.
    With a special focus on Africa, Africa has for long mortgaged development policy and programming to external agencies with limited and at times unsustainable results.
    there is a strong need for development agencies at whatever level to develop a strong contextual understanding of the environments in which they work. "Two cannot walk together, unless they agree."

    Overall, I enjoyed reading the post and I look forward to more insights.

  2. Comment by Owen Barder posted on

    Well done Pete and Tom. Is the full report published somewhere?

  3. Comment by Sharon White posted on

    Dear Pete - your blog resonated with me as I read it. I must congratulate you on describing so succinctly what should really be happening on the ground. I am heartened to see that you will have a task force that will support and lead change through Dfid. You may want to consider having short "case studies' - don't like the term - from implementers - for Dfid, recipients and stakeholders giving their testimony of when a program goes right or wrong. Yes! Governance structures that are relevant and real-time are so important, as this will take care of biased, not wanting to change Bureaucrats, as well as allowing faster turnaround time on safe-fail instances ( we are navigating at times in uncharted waters - we cant do more of the same!) or turnaround times of changing the way of work when necessary.
    I look forward seeing more of your blogs and wish you well as you journey!

  4. Comment by Andrew Clarke posted on

    Thanks for this blog. It would be great to hear about how information management comes into play here. Especially how you intend to enable your staff to make decisions that are "contextually aware". I've been really impressed with DFID's approach to, and ambitions for, smarter use of its own data. So I'd have thought that part of the context is what other programmes within DFID are doing and what other donors are doing in country. What hopes do you have for use of IATI data? I know it's early days, as the quality of many donors' data is not yet high. But it's probably the right time for DFID HQ to develop a strategy for turning its field staff into better information seekers and users. Data revolution and all!

  5. Comment by Pete Vowles posted on

    Thanks for the various comments.

    Harrison, we'd completely agree on the need to develop better contextual understanding and this needs to be a vital part of all donor development planning process.

    Sharon, I really like the idea of building case studies/ case law of different types of programmes and when things go wrong (and right). We know we need to find better ways to share knowledge of the 'how' not just the 'what'. There is significant interest globally (and internally in DFID) in being much more up front about failure. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact are doing a review of learning in DFID. It will interesting to see their conclusions.

    Andrew. Spot on re data and I think some of the new work we have been doing on data is great. There are plans to develop this into a more robust aid management platform. I really liked Owen's blog on dog-fooding (

    Owen, we have not written a full report, choosing to communicate and gain approval on a series of presentations and disucssions. But we'd be very happy to continue discussions on where this is going.

    Many thanks for all the comments..