How to manage complexity: four lessons for DFID’s new Secretary of State

New Secretaries of State of the Department for International Development (DFID) face a choice: Do they focus on the policy direction of the department and let civil servants handle the day-to-day management? Or should they get into the details of how the department designs and manages programmes?

Rory Stewart, the new Secretary of State for the Department for International Development, FCO/2017.

In practice, this distinction is blurry. Policy agendas around results, evidence, value for money and transparency often have political roots, but major bureaucratic implications.

DFID’s new Secretary of State, Rory Stewart, has previously shown a willingness to get into the weeds, including arguing that DFID needs to maintain a sense of simplicity in how it operates. This is similar to a challenge that DFID’s Chief Economist, Rachel Glennerster, raised earlier this year:

‘We often try to do too much in one programme. Development challenges may have multiple drivers but that does not mean programmes should have multiple elements. Complex programmes are hard to run and are the enemies of scale.’

Recognising, not ignoring, the complexity of development challenges is vital. However, the new Secretary of State and DFID’s Chief Economist rightly identify a risk in addressing complexity with more complexity. Programmes with multiple projects run by numerous implementing partners are difficult and time-consuming to manage, and may face a greater risk of failure.

But what does this means for DFID’s programmes, particularly those seeking to be adaptive? Do complex problems need complex programmes?

Our new study addresses this challenge head-on, asking how do you address complex problems without creating overly complicated, workload heavy, and difficult to manage programmes? In this LearnAdapt briefing published by the Overseas Development Institute, we suggest four strategies:

  1. Set delivery options at the heart of design

Some DFID programmes address very complex problems with structurally simple approaches, particularly when the management workload can be moved onto a single, trusted organisation, such as funding a local organisation which DFID has worked with for many years.

Therefore, matching programme aims to available delivery partners is key to mitigating workload. A ‘good-enough’ programme design, with a trusted experienced partner to manage it, may be more effective than an ideal intervention that requires a bespoke delivery mechanism but lacks the right partners to deliver it.

What counts as a ‘trusted delivery partner’ is not fixed however. DFID can help invest in building capacity to develop the partners it needs, which should be a long-term goal and can reduce workload in the longer run. There is a growing evidence base that supporting greater autonomy can be more efficient, both in terms of management workloads and efficiency.

2. Articulate how programme ambition matches resources

There are incentives within DFID to be as ambitious as possible within programmes. This is understandable, but mistaken if the management resources are not there to deliver upon this ambition. Neglected management risks bad programmes.

Part of the problem in achieving realistic ambition sits in the incentives for programme approval. Getting a programme approved can be burdensome and time consuming. Designers may incorporate multiple different projects into one business case for efficiency of approval, rather than necessarily considering how well they fit together.

Recent changes to the DFID approval process are a step in the right direction; greater emphasis on ministerial approval of concept notes provides programme designers with more time and space to formulate programmes that can be realistically delivered.

3. Reduce the burden of compliance

The burden of internal compliance requirements — such as results reporting, due diligence checks and contract amendments — are a common complaint amongst DFID programme managers. Alison Evans, ex-Chief Commissioner of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), has noted that these:

‘…are all important [factors], but the question is what else is giving … It’s really important that … reporting on compliance does not become the story of aid delivery.’

This burden falls more heavily on programmes trying to address complex problems. These inevitably require adjustments to plans and activities, which often trigger bureaucratic processes that are not set up to support adaptive ways of working.

In turn, these burdens of compliance place significant demands on implementing partners. There is limited benefit for DFID staff in passing more management responsibilities to implementers if they are just replaced by excessive oversight requirements. And implementers can’t deliver programmes effectively if their time is consumed with donor reporting. There is space for a more careful balance between assurance and autonomy.

Moving actual management responsibility to partners can free DFID staff up to work on policy influencing to leverage greater change, rather than being bogged down with micro-management.

4. Prioritise management resources across a portfolio of programmes

Different programmes require different roles of management.

If the intervention is such that you can be confident of its success, then effective management is efficient management: delivering that intervention with minimal possible overhead management costs. However, in the complex, unpredictable contexts in which DFID mostly operates, confidence in pre-determined interventions is likely to be misplaced and successful programming requires discovery, testing and adaptation as part of implementation.

Unavoidably, this does require some greater time and resources from DFID staff for strategic direction, coordination and learning. And as DFID recognises that more of its programmes fit into this latter category, this needs to be reflected in how it staffs these kinds of interventions.

DFID should therefore pay greater attention to the different roles of management required in different programmes and to prioritise resources appropriately.

As such, we encourage DFID’s new Secretary of State to support his staff to engage properly with complex problems and their managerial implications. While questions of management may seem mundane, these decisions ultimately shape whether and how DFID has the right ambition, skills and resources to deliver on its mission to reduce poverty and tackle conflict around the world.

By Samuel Sharp, Brendan Whitty and Craig Valters.