An independent review of why, where and how Australia’s development program is operating at home and abroad. Failing that, a suite of other measures to improve development program outcomes.
We need to better understand what’s working and what’s not when it comes to implementing our development program, which means a clear-eyed look at the impact of our policies and practices. We then need to bake good practice into our processes to ensure we aren’t wasting time, effort, and money.
A key problem is the translation of policy to practice. Work carried out by the Lab’s Madeleine Flint and Richard Moore found that this is one of the most persistent problems the development program faces — so we really need to tackle it. Read their analysis — A Review of Reviews here.
There are two issues at play here as well: one is knowing how well we’re travelling, the other is knowing if the direction we’re travelling in is the right one.
Firstly, Firstly, we lack the objective data and insights to determine how effective our implementation is. Sure, even after the decommissioning of the Office of Development Effectiveness, there are still evaluations being done, but very little at the meta level and no big pull backs to answer the question, 'what does it all add up to?' It’s been more than a decade since we took a big-picture, independent look at the effectiveness of our implementation, and it’s safe to say the world has moved on since then. A long-noted DFAT tendency to see policy as practice means that the practical implementation of projects can sometimes work at cross-purposes and miss achieving overall objectives. Once the new development policy is set in 2023, it’s time to work through the opportunities and challenges of its implementation.
With a new policy under development, and the political will for change, now is the time to think about the most crucial aspect of development — its actual delivery and the outcomes it achieves. This is where the ‘rubber hits the road’ and where our success (or failure) is determined.
While the Department is undertaking a capability review, it’s not clear if a budget will be attached to the plan. Nor do we know if there will be substantial focus on development capability — as distinct from broader consular and diplomatic capability. Given the operational demands of delivering a development program, it’s critical that development performance is considered distinct, albeit alongside broader Departmental capability.
Just as crucially, there has not been an independent review since 2011. Consider the world of 2011 to that of 2022 — that’s four Australian foreign ministers and five prime ministers ago. Meanwhile, development practice has shifted substantially since then. We’ve had the AusAID/DFAT merger, seen new forms of financing introduced, and our immediate region has faced significant challenges, whether environmental, social, or strategic. We can’t have this much change in the world and the Department without pausing to take stock.
Before locking in a new policy, we might want to consider the things we would be seeing if its translation into better practice and stronger results was indeed successful. One area might be more effective country planning, as we have already discussed on the Pitch. We would also see the release of sub-strategies for areas of critical change, along with a consideration of the ambition and implications of localisation for development programming. We might also see a major investment in management capability; that is, the ability for individuals and institutions to take up the direction they’ve been set and put into practice.
‘Are we seeing those things?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then perhaps a review is surplus to requirements. If not, then perhaps we should look at how we can achieve those outcomes.
Recreate a more central and powerful development core within the Department that is responsible for longer term thinking and driving this through the system. This might look something like the trade area within the Department. This would be a major change, but would still keep development firmly within the department. It would adopt a model that was contemplated when AusAID and DFAT merged in 2013, but rejected in favour of a dispersal of downsized skills and dissipated authority.
An alternative step would be an implementation taskforce that answers to the Secretary. Operating for a refined period, its job would be to carry out the substantial work of implementing the new development policy including setting up the subsidiary systems and sub-strategies that will ensure the new policy is translated into practice in Canberra and in-country.
A complementary, structured approach would be to bolster the Aid Governance Board and establish a standing committee focussed on the operational implementation of policy. The board’s current role could be bolstered in both its strategic remit and authority to drive accountability for outcomes. Giving it such power and authority would lead to better implementation that was backed by sound reasoning.
Either way, something akin to the Office of Development Effectiveness should be re-established, with the remit to conduct and publish more rigorous, transparent, evidence-based assessments of the impact of our development efforts.
A significant step would be to create a body close to the top of the Department whose job would be to provide thought leadership, analysis, and policy development. It would have the remit of aligning development implementation with longer-term strategic thinking and budgets, with the authority to make this happen. It might look something like the US State Department’s Policy Planning function, which drives the money and aligns it with strategy based on strong intellectual underpinnings.
As discussed, Government should commission in independent operational review by 2025. It’s been more than a decade since the last one and the world of 2022 is vastly different to that of 2011. However, rather than just being an operations review, this should really be an outcomes review to provide an insight into the real impact our program is having. It’s worth noting that now is not the time for a review, it’s something we should be doing in a couple of years once the new policy has settled.
We should take advantage of an opportune point in time. The stars are aligning for us to consider the longer-term strategic objectives of our development program and drive implementation to reach those goals.
We have a Minister keen for change and hungry for ideas. We have a Government taking development seriously and beginning to put more dollars behind that commitment. We also have a policy review under way that will set the direction for development. We have a region keen to engage on what challenges Australia needs to address.
Let’s not waste the moment.
Work by the Lab’s Madeleine Flint and Richard Moore dived into independent development reviews dating back to the 1980s. Their work found four persistent problems that need to be addressed. These concerned a need to be clear on the motivations for Australian development efforts; the implementation of serious tools and technology to focus the program; the chasm between policy and implementation; and making the most of the development ecosystem. Their analysis suggested an operations review as a crucial step in addressing these.
Bridi Rice, Madeleine Flint and Jason Staines.