When historians come to judge the premiership of former UK prime minister, David Cameron, Brexit – inevitably – will loom largest. Another aspect worthy of prominence, however, is his backing for aid and development – particularly the commitment, at a time of widespread government cutbacks, to protect its budget at 0.7% of GDP. The move proved controversial for many, but it cemented Britain’s leading role as one of the world’s largest and most active donors to developing countries.
The government’s programmes are primarily deployed through its Department for International Development (DFID). Also playing a vital role, however, is the National School of Government International (NSGI), a cross-departmental unit set up in 2012 that sits alongside the Stabilisation Unit and operates in conjunction not only with DFID but also with the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Cabinet Office. Its purpose is to support the UK government’s international priorities on building stability overseas and engagement in fragile states.
Its director, Richard Jarvis, says that NSGI has filled a key niche. “We’re a young organisation, but there is a lot of demand from the countries we work with – especially fragile states – for civil service governance and establishing ethical and professional civil services,” he says. “And we’re already seeing evidence that our practitioner-to-practitioner model avoids some of the pitfalls of traditional technical assistance because it promotes a greater level of skills transfer. Having peers working alongside each other also helps to build institutional links between the UK civil service and the civil services of the countries in which we work.”
Machinery of government: gathering momentum
Although NSGI has only been operational for a relatively short period, Jarvis has many years of Whitehall service to call upon, including a stint serving as chief executive of the Civil Service Commission and experiences from further afield. “I caught the bug of working internationally in the early 2000s,” he recalls. “I was working for the international unit of the Cabinet Office and delivered, on behalf of DFID, some international programmes in the Balkans, particularly in helping Kosovo to build a new civil service. It was incredibly rewarding.”
And his work at NSGI is broadly similar, it transpires. “We have a particular focus on helping countries improve the effectiveness of their government and public services,” he explains. “What distinguishes us from many other DFID-supported programmes is that we are very focused on providing practitioner-to-practitioner support around civil service and centre of government reform. We do this by providing expertise from existing civil servants who are members of my core team and have had direct experience – in the UK and overseas – of working on change programmes. We can also reach back and provide UK civil servants who have got current expertise in specific areas.”
Working with senior counterparts at the centre of government in recipient countries means that they are well placed to influence and guide the decisions that lie behind impact on the frontline. Jarvis, though, is keen to stress that it is always important to think long term when it comes to these types of reform programmes. “One of the lessons that we’re keen to share and convey to our counterpart governments is that civil service reform and centre of government reform is often complex and messy and takes a long time to see the impact in terms of improved public services. And so you need to have a commitment to change for the medium to long term.”
The story so far
Such insights form part of a stocktake of activities and lessons that NSGI recently published in partnership with the UK’s Institute for Government. The paper identifies three categories of interdependent, nonlinear success factors that should be applied throughout any engagement with a recipient government: context ownership and iteration, design and people learning, and capability building. “The UK’s rich experience of reform is a key asset,” points out Jarvis. “We have experience of what does and what doesn’t work, but it is absolutely critical that any support we provide to overseas governments is focused on local problem-solving in the country involved and is iterative. We believe in learning by doing rather than having a grand plan and sticking to it blindly. It’s not about importing predetermined models or solutions.”
Another key aspect, Jarvis believes, is the local ownership of the development and change programmes. Success won’t follow if it is seen to be authored and managed by governments or others from afar. “We can play a role in brokering local political leadership – no reform will have an impact without that – but local ownership is absolutely critical. And it takes time to adapt to the local political context and build up the key relationships.”
He is also keen to impart UK civil servants’ knowledge of centre of government reforms which, he says, tend to be nonlinear and driven by politics. “These are often highly political initiatives,” he says. “Programmes of external support need to be agile and responsive to the reality of what can be slightly messy and political reform proposals. This means that the ability to spot opportunities and take them is important. Agility and responsiveness are both vital.”
The stocktake also reiterated that while good progress has been made, the appetite for assistance around the world remains undiminished – something that Jarvis professes to be unsurprised by. “Fifteen years ago the focus of this work was in the Balkans and there is still quite a lot of support for those countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Experience suggests that fragility and countries’ needs to meet various development goals will not go away,” he points out.
“And so one of the critical aims of the work we do is ensuring that our work is sustainable. We want to embed the value that we add into the host country civil service. That’s an impact which will, I’m sure, be welcomed by government and citizens alike.”
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