Civil servants can develop ‘deep expertise’, but need the right learning environment

Published on 8 September 2020

Peter Taylor

Director of Research

Paul Knipe

Director of Consultancy, Impact and Influence

DFID’s robust and credible evidence, research and learning standards offer a powerful model that the FCDO and other government departments can follow, so that unbiased, independent evidence and interdisciplinary learning informs and shapes policies.

The Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor, Dominic Cummings has made no secret of his criticism of the civil service, including that it lacked people with ‘deep expertise’, as he undertakes a widespread shake-up of Whitehall. One strand of the changes afoot is the merger between the FCO and DFID to form the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which officially came into being on the 2nd of September.

Despite criticism of DFID among Conservative MPs, and the Prime Minister himself when he was Foreign Secretary, one area that DFID led all other UK aid spending departments on was staff retention, individual and institutional learning, and the use of research and evidence.

The set-up of the FCDO is an opportunity for the new ‘mega’ department to incorporate the strong learning environment established at DFID, ensuring a training and development programme that develops and retains expertise and facilitates the use of research and evidence. This offers a learning model that departments across Whitehall spending the UK’s overseas aid budget could all benefit from.

Using independent and unbiased evidence

DFID is widely recognised as a global leader in research and evidence-informed development policy and programming. For example, since its establishment DFID has commissioned evidence syntheses reports from experienced researchers, through external research helpdesks run by leading academic institutions. These provide independent and unbiased evidence summaries from which DFID staff make their own analysis and judgement.

DFID has also improved individual and organisational learning, recognising learning is essential for UK Aid to achieve maximum impact and value for money. Spurred on by ICAI’s critical report, How DFID Learns (2014), DFID has increased opportunities for collective, interdisciplinary learning. ICAI’s follow up report, How UK Aid Learns (2019), found that more needed to be done among UK aid spending departments to integrate learning into aid management processes. It recommended DFID be mandated to support learning across these departments, given its established approaches and expertise.

Investment in organisational learning

The Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development programme (K4D), was commissioned by DFID in 2016 to continue its tradition of independent research helpdesks and to increase interdisciplinary learning opportunities through collaborative learning journeys, where specific competencies and skills are developed, facilitated by thematic experts.

The experiences of delivering the K4D learning programme provide powerful evidence that the new FCDO should consider in seven areas that relate to individual and departmental learning:

1. Quality, unbiased evidence syntheses

Survey responses show us that helpdesk synthesis reports are being used to inform business cases, programming, bilateral and multilateral discussion and negotiation, diplomatic telegrams, and evidence bases for learning journeys and other individual and organisational learning.

2. Space to engage

Learning journeys provide space to discuss, reflect and engage. By chiselling out space in busy schedules, staff have the time to focus, learn and explore challenges and solutions to complex development challenges, such as how to scale up social norm change, or the longer-term implications of changing food systems.

3. Space to collaborate

The more successful learning journeys bring together colleagues from across disciplines, government departments, and development partners, who may not otherwise have the time or opportunity to cross paths. Different perspectives can enhance learning outcomes and lead to ownership and uptake, as shown, for example, by a series of DFID multi-cadre conferences on leaving no one behind.

Learning journeys have created or worked with existing communities of practice across government departments, are setting up Action Learning Sets, or have paired advisors with different thematic backgrounds at country level, to increase interdisciplinary learning. The Education, climate and infrastructure learning journey, for example, brings together people from what was DFID’s education, climate and environment, and infrastructure cadres, the European Union, Education Development Trust, Australian Council for Educational Research, Global Partnership for Education, and K4D into a coalition of the willing.

4. External thematic leaders and facilitation

External experts provide independent scrutiny, challenge, thematic input, and facilitation to further enhance the learning experience and likelihood of evidence uptake.

5. Virtual learning

Virtual learning has dramatically increased due to Covid-19 restrictions, leading to virtual conferences, breakout sessions, even collaborative strategic planning (complete with virtual sticky labels) through platforms like Zoom and Mural. Never before has it been so easy to get people together from across time zones, and to easily record and share learning and discussion.

6. Effective resources, public good and institutional memory

Concise evidence syntheses and learning resources such as infographics, opinion pieces, short talking head videos (such as these on Water Security), and topic guides are increasing uptake and reach and contributing to learning and evidence in the public realm. These, along with multimedia event reports on internal government and external repositories are also contributing to public good and institutional memory

7. Learning from the process and capturing impact

While assessing direct attributional impact from activities is challenging, evidence on K4D’s contribution to UK Aid impact and value is emerging. To provide a measure for the impact of K4D the programme recently refined its monitoring and evaluation framework to capture impact stories and case studies, through after-action reviews and impact logs.

The level of importance that DFID placed on unbiased and independent evidence and learning to inform development policy and programming must not be lost in the creation of the FCDO. It should be built upon and strengthened, and all departments across government could learn from it.


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