ICAI publishes report on How DFID Learns.

Published: 4th April 2014

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has published a report on ‘How the Department for International Development (DFID) Learns’. Building on learning and applying what works in practice is essential if UK aid is to achieve maximum impact and value for money. In producing this report ICAI has been able to draw on the body of its 31 reports to date.

DFID has allocated at least £1.2 billion for research, evaluation and personnel development between 2011and 2015. It generates considerable volumes of information, much of which, such as funded research, is publicly available. DFID does not clearly or consistently link this investment to how it can deliver better impact.

We found that DFID staff learn well as individuals. They are highly motivated; and DFID provides opportunities and resources for them to learn but staff can struggle to deal with the volumes of information available. As an organisation, however, DFID itself is less good at using research and evidence to build on experience so as to turn learning into action.

DFID does not clearly identify how its investment in learning links to its performance and delivering better impact. Managers do not hold themselves and staff accountable for making sure that learning fully informs decisions and fulfils the potential for achieving impact. DFID needs to clarify further how it learns as an entire organisation. This is all the more important with DFID’s increasing focus on fragile states; and staff turnover.

We are concerned that the emphasis on reporting results can lead to a bias to the positive. DFID staff are sometimes using evidence selectively. It appears that this is often driven by managers requiring support for decisions. Whilst such selective use of evidence is not the usual practice across the department, it appears to be occurring with sufficient regularity to be a concern. It is clearly unacceptable.

As a result of these findings, we have given a rating of Amber-Red.

Graham Ward, ICAI Chief Commissioner, said: “DFID does not routinely assess the impact of learning on decision-making. Improving skills, sharing knowledge and know-how within networks and direct experience on the job improve performance. There are many examples of available knowledge not being used, to the detriment of DFID’s impact and value for money. DFID’s teams and staff should be more consistent in their approach to learning.”

Lead Commissioner, Diana Good, said: “DFID needs to increase the opportunities to learn continuously from how aid is implemented. It is not yet demonstrating sufficiently that it consistently learns from all stages of the delivery chain. In particular, it should deliberately and continuously listen to and use the knowledge and know-how of its partners and contractors; and that of the intended beneficiaries themselves. By identifying what works best, DFID can improve the impact and value for money of UK aid.”

ICAI has made five recommendations to support DFID’s future learning:

Recommendation 1: DFID needs to focus on consistent and continuous organisational learning based on the experience of DFID, its partners and contractors and the measurement of its impact, in particular during the implementation phase of its activities.

Recommendation 2: All DFID managers should be held accountable for conducting continuous reviews from which lessons are drawn about what works and where impact is actually being achieved for intended beneficiaries.

Recommendation 3: All information commissioned and collected (such as annual reviews and evaluations) should be synthesised so that the relevant lessons are accessible and readily useable across the organisation. The focus must be on practical and easy-to-use information. Know-how should be valued as much as knowledge.

Recommendation 4: Staff need to be given more time to acquire experience in the field and share lessons about what works and does not work on the ground.

Recommendation 5: DFID needs to continue to encourage a culture of free and full communication about what does and does not work. Staff should be encouraged always to base their decisions on evidence, without any bias to the positive.

The report is available here: How DFID Learns