4. The United Kingdom’s structure and systems

Since 2015, the United Kingdom (UK) has delegated responsibility and accountability for delivery of its Aid Strategy to 15 government departments (DFID and Treasury, 2015[1]), listed in Figure 4.1. As with other parts of the UK government, each department is responsible for its ODA budget, targets, results and staff, with each Permanent Secretary directly accountable to parliament. Two cross-government funds introduced in the Aid Strategy (Box 4.1) are managed by a Joint Funds Unit housed in the Cabinet Office and directly accountable to the National Security Council and parliament. DFID remains an independent government department with its own seat in cabinet, which gives it the access, mandate and stature to bring its extensive knowledge, expertise and learning on development considerations into cabinet-level discussions (Chapter 1).

Accountability by individual departments for their ODA budgets is a solid approach where development constitutes a significant share of their work. However, where the ODA budget represents a small proportion of a department’s overall budget (e.g. less than 0.2% of the Department of Health and Social Care and the Cabinet Office budgets in 2018), the development portfolio does not necessarily attract a high level of political oversight and engagement.

Independent bodies such as the Independent Committee for Aid Impact (ICAI) and the National Audit Office undertake robust reviews and performance audits which are complementary and whose findings are acted upon and considered by ministers and senior management. The International Development Committee is active in overseeing performance and draws on ICAI reports and its own enquiries to hold the government accountable for ODA expenditure and development results.

In summary, as noted by the National Audit Office, the current system of devolved accountability is effective for oversight of each departmental budget and plan but falls short of providing a clear point of accountability for the overall delivery of the UK Aid Strategy objectives. As set out in Chapter 2, the next update of the United Kingdom’s development co-operation strategy is an opportunity to address this.

A coherent and co-ordinated approach to delivering the 2015 Aid Strategy is ensured through two complementary structures (see also Annex D), both of which are effective and clearly understood:

  1. 1. Two sub-committees of the National Security Council (NSC) oversee implementation of the Aid Strategy and the two cross-government funds, with the DFID Secretary of State as a permanent member. DFID is represented on all of the National Security Implementation Groups through which senior officials co-ordinate their approaches to issues that cross departmental boundaries.

  2. 2. An ODA ministerial group co-chaired by Treasury and DFID oversees allocation and execution of the ODA budget, supported by a Senior Officials Group which meets regularly. The Senior Officials Group expects to shift its attention from spending ODA to monitoring results, transparency and value for money. A cross-government results framework introduced in 2019 could develop over time into a tool for strategic decision making on ODA allocations across government (Chapter 6).

Structures and strategies are regularly reviewed and refined1, based on robust analysis.

Having more departments managing ODA has required more regular and robust co-ordination and communication, and a clear distribution of responsibility. After a relatively short period, co-ordination mechanisms are working well with responsibilities clearly assigned. Treasury is mandated to allocate ODA across government and to monitor forecasts and expenditure to ensure that the United Kingdom delivers on its legislative requirement to spend 0.7% GNI as ODA. DFID manages 70-75% of the UK ODA budget (HM Government, 2019[2]) and is the spender of last resort, required to absorb any shortfalls in ODA spent by other departments. Being obliged to report 100% of its budget as ODA gives DFID singularity and clarity of purpose, which minimises internal tensions and trade-offs. It can, however, limit DFID’s activities and instruments, inter alia for engaging the private sector and working in middle-income countries.

DFID is also responsible for ensuring that all departments have sufficient capacity to manage – from planning through implementation to evaluation and audit – their ODA allocations. DFID has dedicated significant resources to this over the past four years, through staff secondments and loans; joint units; and helpdesk functions, and capacity has improved. A clear mandate to assess the results and eligibility of all ODA would further strengthen DFID’s ability to assure the quality of UK development co-operation.

The 2014 peer review (OECD, 2014[4]) recommended that the United Kingdom bring its expertise across government to bear on its development co-operation objectives (OECD, 2014[4]). The Fusion Doctrine holds great potential to achieve this and there are already some very good examples of how the United Kingdom’s approach is benefitting from a whole of government approach (Chapter 1, Annex C). The Anti-corruption Group in Kenya, the Public Health Rapid Support Team and training by the National Statistics Office and HM Revenue & Customs, are just a sample of the enormous potential available for unlocking new skills, expertise and capacity across the United Kingdom to address development challenges.

There is nonetheless a risk that if the cross-government approach remains focused on spending ODA, the United Kingdom will create a series of “mini DFIDs” without crowding in new ways of working and expertise.

Due to political uncertainty, the most recent Periodic Spending Round, which set out the government’s spending plans, was for only one year (2020-21). The next multi-year spending review will allow strategy updates, budgets and plans to be clearly negotiated within and between Departments, and with Treasury. Building on the experience of other Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members2, consideration could be given to reducing the number of departments directly managing ODA budgets while introducing systems for these departments to draw down skills and expertise from across government, with each department playing to its strengths. This would have the added value of saving administrative costs and streamlining co-ordination.

In partner countries, whole-of-government approaches under the Fusion Doctrine sit clearly under the leadership of the Ambassador or High Commissioner, helping to ensure that all the United Kingdom’s resources are directed towards shared objectives. UK government departments are typically housed together and share support functions.

DFID’s treasured and commended country-led model is reinforced by a single, delegated budget and well-staffed country offices. DFID has a matrix structure of strategy, support and spending units (Annex D) which allows for bottom-up planning, keeping development or humanitarian needs as the starting point for country allocations. While business planning can be protracted, this structure empowers staff working in partner countries and brings decision making closer to those who know the context.

There has been a steady fall in the levels of staff, budget and authority delegated to country offices in recent years. This is partly intentional: guidance for the current business planning cycle urges country offices to focus their budgets and country presence on engagements and programmes that cannot be served through multilateral channels or centrally managed programmes. Focusing limited country resources is to be commended but will require more flexibility on overhead costs, taking into account the complexity of some programmes and engagements.

Unlike many DAC members, humanitarian assistance is embedded within DFID country teams and systems, with the Conflict, Humanitarian and Security Department intervening only when the United Kingdom has no country presence or where country offices request additional support (Chapter 7). This is excellent practice. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has longstanding presence through the UK diplomatic network, with teams reinforced where there are significant development budgets, such as to manage the CSSF portfolio in Jordan. Other departments have varied levels of delegation and staffing in partner countries but they are increasingly present in countries where they have significant activity.

Further opportunities exist to strengthen the Fusion Doctrine approach at country level. With the exception of countries of high national security interest, such as Jordan, the United Kingdom does not systematically develop whole-of-government country strategies, limiting opportunities to identify synergies and learning across countries and departments. In addition, despite much willingness, the transaction costs of co-ordination at the country level are high for all departments and collaboration at an operational level continues to be hampered by incompatible systems and procedures, even within the same Embassy or High Commission. Staff working in FCO for instance cannot access information on DFID’s Aid Management Platform or join DFID video conferences. Finally, the United Kingdom has a highly decentralised civil service with most human resource decisions – including pay agreements – devolved to individual departments. As a result, integration of teams across government is challenging and staff in embassies and high commissions hired by different departments have different terms, conditions and career opportunities.

The United Kingdom’s established and professional civil service has a long tradition of being rules-based, and officials follow guidance closely. Staff and systems in ODA-spending departments place a strong focus on results and performance. Table 4.1 assesses DFID’s systems, some of which are used by other departments.

Across the board, partners commented on the high transaction costs of working with the United Kingdom, echoing the 2014 peer review findings. This is despite the introduction of the Smart Rules in 2015, through which the number of rules reduced from over 200 to 37 and Senior Responsible Owners were empowered to make decisions within a framework of guiding principles, performance expectations and accountability.

The 10 Smart Rules Principles encourage staff to do things differently to deliver better outcomes and learn lessons; to be ready to propose difficult, transformational programmes in high-risk environments; and to use judgement to present reasoned, evidence- and risk-based proposals. Value for Money guidance issued by Treasury and DFID recognises strategic partnerships, encourages flexibility for programmes to adapt and emphasises the importance of considering longer term change in addition to immediate outputs. However, partners find that these good intentions are diluted through the system and many describe DFID as highly engaged but with a culture that is focused on compliance and control.

Although programmes adapt in response to new evidence or annual review findings, heavy due diligence, forecasting and reporting requirements discourage partners from being agile and responsive. In higher risk environments, such as Jordan, due diligence and oversight are more intense but it is precisely when risks are higher that partners need to be agile and nimble, with the UK government willing to assume more risk. While many partners acknowledge that DFID requirements have introduced efficiencies and new ways of working, they feel that both DFID and partners would benefit from a shared approach to risk management and learning from programmes. An initiative underway to streamline DFID’s operational model may be helpful in supporting the move towards system-wide use of adaptive management. Reinforcing the message that responsibility for risk-based management ultimately lies with senior management at country level or in headquarters, rather than with project managers, should reduce the default to compliance and create the space needed for more informed and innovative risk management.

DFID was one of the first donors to advocate for new solutions to development challenges, backed by some of the first challenge funds. Its innovation portfolio has now reached significant scale, breadth, depth and maturity and a number of ideas, such as mobile finance, have been brought to scale with impressive results. Innovation is a focus in around 50 different DFID programme components with initiatives ranging from challenge funds, to venture capital-style investing via the Global Innovation Fund, to ecosystem support such as the forthcoming Africa Technology and Innovation Partnerships programme. Over a 10-year period, DFID has invested over USD 1.9 billion (GBP 1.5 billion) in innovation-related programming across 10 sectors to support projects in 60 different countries, with the majority centred on Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In addition to success with specific innovations, the United Kingdom’s portfolio in Jordan demonstrates how fresh thinking and political leadership can lead the United Kingdom to adopt new and effective approaches (Annex C).

DFID is building the capacity of its country teams to engage in innovation, with a particular focus on technology4. A performance management system “Being My Best” introduced in 2018 has awards for staff demonstrating core DFID values and behaviours. One of the recognised behaviours is “encouraging innovation, and measured risks – then failing fast, adapting quickly, and sharing learning”. This is a positive step in building a culture of innovation as DFID aspires to do. A strategic narrative on innovation that clearly sets out where, when and why innovation should be pursued would be helpful in positioning innovation at the core of DFID’s culture and values.

Innovators, implementers and investors find that getting Treasury approval and political cover for risk-taking requires an unrealistic level of clarity at a very early stage, stifling the space for innovation and adaptive management. Although many identified the United Kingdom as an important source of ideas and evidence, DFID was not always their first choice of donor to approach with an innovative or high-risk proposal. In addition, they noted few examples of DFID’s explicit commitment to discuss failure (DFID, 2014[9]) being borne out in practice.

The United Kingdom continues to attract and retain committed and experienced staff with appropriate skills and expertise5. In particular, DFID’s knowledge and evidence are recognised as an asset for the entire development community. Knowledge and learning flow easily between DFID’s 1 500 advisers (Table 4.2), who are organised into cadres related to their main discipline, each with a head of profession. As a result, policies and programmes remain updated and relevant. Since the last review, the programme management cadre has risen in stature with a dedicated head of profession.

Civil service reform priorities in the United Kingdom include improving commercial knowledge, digital skills and diversity across the system. DFID has been proactive in identifying measures to increase the diversity of its staff. A group of 50 individuals across the organisation, known as the Fab 50, have volunteered to work on transforming the diversity and inclusion of DFID. Recruitment campaigns in under-represented regions and universities and provisions to support people living with disability to pursue their careers have yielded results – in 2018, 13.4% of home-based civil servants declared a disability and 14.4% identified as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic, above the civil service averages of 10% and 12% respectively (DFID, 2018[13]). Half of DFID Senior Civil Service posts are held by women, and pilots are underway to test whether senior posts can be opened to flexible and part time working (DFID, 2019[14]).

Assigning staff to build capacity across its own government, compounded by staff reallocations to prepare for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (EU), have stretched human resources in DFID over recent years. With an eye on a new strategic direction, workforce planning in DFID has improved. New management dashboards provide high-level and up-to-date information on current and future staffing, skills, diversity and performance. Future planning will need to take into account the extent to which DFID is expected to support other departments in the longer term, as well as identifying and recognising skills which can be drawn down from other departments.

DFID is paying more attention to staff wellbeing, particularly mental health, bullying and harassment. It has drawn from its work on Safeguarding (Box 4.2) to strengthen internal reporting and support mechanisms. Staff engagement surveys have high response rates, disaggregated results are fed back to teams of 12 or more people and remedial actions are agreed and monitored.

As noted in previous peer reviews, DFID staff have a high intrinsic motivation and loyalty, and retention is high despite relatively low salaries. Staff are nonetheless concerned about levels of morale in DFID and feel that little effort was made to engage staff and hear their concerns through the past five years, a period which was marked by uncertainty, extra workloads and significant shifts in management structures and policy direction as well as new pay negotiations. Effective staff engagement will grow in importance in the coming period.

The United Kingdom has maintained a strong and effective presence in its partner countries and in many fragile contexts. Embassy and High Commission teams benefit from appropriate skills, seniority and authority. Highly skilled diplomats, defence attachés, trade attachés, advisors and programme managers work well together and increasingly identify common objectives. In addition, all business units can draw on the competencies and resources available throughout the system, including staff in other country offices, through a highly effective requirement for staff to give 10% of their time for objectives beyond their team. In both Jordan and Kenya, there was scope to draw more on the knowledge, networks and perspectives of local staff when formulating strategies.

At the time of the review, DFID had 1 435 staff overseas, across 54 countries. Of this, 61% (872) are staff appointed in country. Staff appointed in country are recognised as critical to DFID’s effectiveness and every effort is made to offer them a career path and personal development opportunities. In particular, they have extensive training opportunities and can avail of professional accreditation processes to rise to the rank of senior adviser – many senior private sector advisers based in DFID India are a resource for DFID globally – and it has been possible for locally-appointed DFID staff to take up posts in another country. This is excellent practice and a source of inspiration for other DAC members as well as a model for a transition to harmonised staffing across the United Kingdom government – currently different categories of locally-appointed staff have quite different career opportunities. This policy of mobility for staff appointed in country has been an important factor allowing DFID to secure adequate staff with the right skills to work in fragile contexts. Other incentives to attract staff to fragile states include shorter postings, additional leave, salary uplifts and promotion opportunities.

As seen in Jordan, where Embassy staff are available and willing to convene, network and share thinking and engage in joint advocacy efforts, they are highly valued by all partners. In recognition of this, the Better Delivery team embarked upon a process to review DFID’s operational model, including a “Give Back Time” initiative to allow DFID staff more time to engage with, and learn from, programmes and partners.


[7] Cabinet Office (2018), Capability Review of the Cross-Government Funds Summary Report, http://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/695331/Capability_Review_of_the_Cross-Government_Funds_28032018.pdf (accessed on 31 January 2020).

[14] DFID (2019), Department for International Development Annual Report and Accounts 2018-19, Department for International Development, http://www.gov.uk/official-documents (accessed on 26 February 2020).

[11] DFID (2019), Safeguarding against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment (SEAH) in the aid sector - DFID’s standards, guidance for partners and information on how to report a concern, Department for International Development, https://www.gov.uk/guidance/safeguarding-against-sexual-exploitation-and-abuse-and-sexual-harassment-seah-in-the-aid-sector (accessed on 2 March 2020).

[13] DFID (2018), Diversity and Inclusion Annual Report, Department for International Development, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/795712/DFID-Diversity-Inclusion-Annual-Report-2017-18a.pdf.

[9] DFID (2014), DFID Management Response to the ICAI Recommendations in How DFID Learns, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/307370/ICAI-man-response-how-DFID-learns.pdf (accessed on 6 March 2020).

[1] DFID and Treasury (2015), UK Aid: Tackling Global Challenges in the National Interest, Department for International Development and HM Treasury, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/478834/ODA_strategy_final_web_0905.pdf.

[5] HM Government (2020), About us - Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/conflict-stability-and-security-fund/about (accessed on 31 January 2020).

[6] HM Government (2020), Cross-Government Prosperity Fund: further information, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cross-government-prosperity-fund-programme/cross-government-prosperity-fund-update (accessed on 31 January 2020).

[12] HM Government (2020), Guidance - Safeguarding Against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment (SEAH) in the Aid Sector, https://www.gov.uk/guidance/safeguarding-against-sexual-exploitation-and-abuse-and-sexual-harassment-seah-in-the-aid-sector (accessed on 2020 March 23).

[2] HM Government (2019), DAC Peer Review Memorandum (unpublished), Her Majesty’s Government.

[8] HM Government (2019), Joint Funds Unit management response to CSSF annual review synthesis report: 2017 to 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/joint-funds-unit-management-response-to-cssf-annual-review-synthesis-report-2017-to-2018 (accessed on 31 January 2020).

[3] HM Government (2019), Statistics on International Development; Table 3, National Statistics Office, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/854021/Table3rev1.ods.

[10] OECD (2019), DAC Recommendation on Ending Sexual Exploitation, Abuse, and Harassment in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance: Key Pillars of Prevention and Response, https://legalinstruments.oecd.org/en/instruments/OECD-LEGAL-5020.

[4] OECD (2014), OECD Development Co-operation Peer Reviews: United Kingdom 2014, OECD Development Co-operation Peer Reviews, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264226579-en.


← 1. For example, the Fusion Doctrine was introduced in 2018 as a more accountable system to support collective cabinet decision making on national security priorities, drawing on lessons from the 2016 Iraq Enquiry. See the executive summary at https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160708115158/http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/246416/the-report-of-the-iraq-inquiry_executive-summary.pdf. Similarly, new procedures were introduced to strengthen the advisory role of civil servants with ministers required to acknowledge in writing if they choose not to follow the advice of senior civil servants.

← 2. For example, Norway and Sweden have developed contractual tools and Memoranda of Understanding which allows the lead development agency to draw down expertise from other Departments in a timely manner, combining the agencies’ competence in “aid management” with the technical or political competence of other parts of government.

← 3. A Supplier Review in 2017 led to significant reforms including: a Strategic Relationship Management programme to improve collaboration with partners and unlock learning, creativity and innovation across portfolios; measures to open DFID’s markets to new supply partners, small businesses and developing country supply partners; and introducing terms and conditions preventing “exclusivity” agreements. A DFID Supplier Portal was launched in July 2019 to increase timely awareness of upcoming opportunities with DFID, whether in the United Kingdom or in-country. DFID’s Procurement and Commercial Division is working to diversify the supply chain by taking the lead across the UK government on an improved approach to contracting small and medium enterprises in partner countries.

← 4. For example, Frontier Technology Livestreaming awards DFID staff small budgets to experiment with new technologies, and Frontier Technology Futures involves week-long capacity building visits to help Country Offices understand the local innovation ecosystem and entry points for their work.

← 5. As the proportion of staff managing ODA in other Departments is relatively small, this section focus on staffing and skills in DFID.

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