Consolidate and expand the current approach to rebuilding DFAT capability – beyond the current focus on skills building – by adding a focus on incentives.
Acknowledge that staff respond to the messages and signals they receive about the value and status of development within the Department when deciding whether to build or consolidate their development expertise.
Make it mandatory for Departmental leaders to engage in development work, send strong messages about the value of development and create better rewards and pathways for staff to pursue a development-focused career within DFAT.
The current plan to restore DFAT’s development capability will only take it part of the way there. Since coming to power, the Labor party has consistently recognised the need to rebuild development capability within DFAT. The new international development policy (the policy) commits to “investing in the skills” required to deliver the policy through, in part, “high quality training and learning opportunities” for staff. While it’s sensible to focus on skills and training, the Department must also incentivise a high-performing development program and culture. More training, or even recruiting additional skilled staff, won’t solve a key constraint: that DFAT staff won’t build skills or specialise in development until they see that their leaders value it.
Increasing the supply of development skills isn’t enough – leaders must also signal demand. To truly build capability, the Department must send meaningful signals about the value of development work. Over the last decade, observers have characterised Australia’s development program as marginalised, diminished and stifled. They also argue that during this time, development expertise wasn’t valued or invested in. Development staff who didn’t leave after the AusAID-DFAT merger have reported that they don’t feel valued, have perceived a lack of career progression pathways and picked up informal signals to diversify away from development. The Minister for International Development himself noted that until recently, development staff felt the need to “be in hiding” because aid was a ”dirty word” in the Department. The new policy and plans for development capability are a promising turnaround – particularly the commitment to give development expertise a higher priority across the Department, including through creating a cadre of Senior Responsible Officers (SROs) for bilateral and regional development programs to improve transparency, accountability and program coherence. But more clarity is still needed about the status of development within the Department.
There’s momentum on restoring DFAT capability. Momentum is a key ingredient of any reform. After years of perceived neglect and inaction, there’s new attention and resources going towards strengthening DFAT. The Government committed $36.8 million in the 2023–24 budget for development capability to improve the management and effectiveness of the development program. More broadly, the Department is implementing a 10 year plan to build the capability that will underpin Australia’s international engagement as a whole, after its internal review found there were serious gaps emerging in DFAT’s ability to deliver on its mandate.
DFAT won’t be able to implement the new policy without a serious capability uplift. The policy commits Australia to many things, including working differently. When you stack it up – the promises that we’ll do more to address climate change, incorporate First Nations perspectives, build genuine partnerships, think strategically about development finance, the list goes on – it becomes apparent that meeting these commitments won’t be achievable by sticking to the status quo. Critics argue that DFAT’s current approach is not delivering a high-performing development assistance program. As long as there’s a perception – fair or not – that some people in the Department don’t care about, or understand development, DFAT is unlikely to elevate its performance and become the world-class development agency the Government says it needs to deliver this policy.
Keeping the current focus on skills and training, but also starting to nudge incentives by sending consistent messages about the value of development. External indications are that this is already underway. The Department could also run an internal communications campaign about development careers that spotlights the range of roles and work available to staff. This should aim to shift the thinking that casts development assistance as a ‘tool’ of foreign policy, and narrow conceptions of development-related work as contract management or implementation rather than strategic policy development and cutting edge bilateral, regional and multilateral cooperation.
Get Departmental leaders telling a more sophisticated story about the role and value of development assistance. Help DFAT Senior Executive Service (SES) – particularly those without a strong development background – build their understanding of the strategic benefit Australia gets from a high-quality program that contributes to development outcomes in its partner countries. This could start with a systematic effort to document examples of real, recent successes that deliver diplomatic and geo-strategic impact through highly effective development programs. These could be socialised amongst Department leaders through peer-to-peer knowledge exchange, story-based learning and exposure. This would ensure that development practitioners in DFAT see their work reflected in Australia’s foreign policy narrative.
And leaders should back these messages up with tangible demonstrations of interest and investment in development work – by attending development-related internal meetings, taking ownership of Development Partnership Plan processes, and making sure that development work is sufficiently prioritised within their work units. SROs will no doubt lead the way on this, but it shouldn’t be left to them alone – all SES with development programs in their patch must be engaged.
At the same time, DFAT must continue to embed development expertise at all levels. All graduates should complete at least one rotation in a development-related area of the Department and continue to receive training on international development fundamentals to signal that this is essential, and not a nice-to-have. Beyond that, any officer who joins the organisation should be encouraged to get practical exposure to the development program, through opportunities to be involved in monitoring, evaluation, and design missions and projects.
Making understanding development work non-negotiable. Use the annual performance agreement process to commit all senior staff in the Department to getting exposure to, or involvement in, program implementation. This could be through participation in evaluation, monitoring and design missions, attending program steering committees, or other day-to-day management functions. This would recognise that adults learn best through exposure and experience, and that no amount of training courses will substitute for the tangible experience of seeing and experiencing the mechanics of a program first-hand.
Rewarding a development career in DFAT. Pilot a talent management program for development staff that includes opportunities like secondments and exchanges, and short-term placements in other development organisations (like other bilateral donors, multilaterals, non-profits or think tanks). Include the option to collaborate with academics on research projects – demonstrating that development policy and practice is not just a ‘skillset’, but a legitimate field of international relations. This talent management program should articulate clear promotion and career progression pathways so all officers, including locally engaged staff, can see their future within the Department.
Demonstrating that development is core foreign policy business. Ensure minimum levels of development content in ministerial and parliamentary visits, statements, and speeches so there is constant, steady reinforcement that this is a critical arm of Australia’s international engagement. And unlike in other countries where development assistance and diplomatic functions have been merged into a single organisation, development is still not in the title of the Department – the Government could send a powerful signal by making this symbolic change.
Reaching for the sticks, not just the carrots. Tie DFAT senior leaders’ personal incentives to metrics that are indicative of development program performance, spurring them to demand higher levels of capability from their staff. The UK’s International Development Minister has set annual, public targets for improving public support for international development for his most senior civil servants. If Ministers aren’t quite ready for that, they could use their direct engagements with Departmental leaders to set clear expectations about development program performance, stating in no uncertain terms that creating a culture that values development skills and expertise is non-negotiable.
At the least, a level of internal accountability would help focus senior leader attention on the performance of programs in their line of responsibility. This could be through an annual presentation to the Deputy Secretary within the DFAT structure responsible for development, or the full Development Policy Committee, on their portfolio performance, success and key learning moments.
Policymakers may consider the job is done on development capability – after all, there’s new money and a plan to implement it. But they may also quickly discover the limits of the current approach and decide they need to tackle the environment that incentivises staff to build their development expertise – or not. If they do, it’s likely they’ll be attracted to the option of just making a small step, an adjustment around the edges. But it’s unlikely that this will pay dividends, given the scale of the challenge.
DFAT’s capability issues are often framed in the terms of a deficit, focusing on what’s been lost since the AusAID-DFAT integration, and asking for more supply in response – more staff, more skills, more evaluation, more accountability. But this take misses the critical ingredient: there must be demand for development effectiveness, and that requires leadership, and a commitment from the very top.
Starting with incentives, culture and leadership is a smarter investment than just throwing more training programs into the mix – but it has to go beyond the current approach of talk shops, dialogues and internal panels that send messages that are not backed up by action.
Ultimately, there’s a window of opportunity for policymakers who want to shift DFAT culture around development. Capitalising on the momentum for this kind of reform – which hasn’t been seen in a decade – requires new thinking.