Lessons from UK's reform experience: 3 success factors

The Palace of Westminster, which houses the U.K. Parliament, at night. What lessons can be learned from the U.K.’s center of government reform? Photo by: Phil Dolby / CC BY

Governments have always learned from each other, but these days there is an international market for “best practice.” There is a depressing tendency for global institutions, donors and consultancies to oversell idealized models. Too often, this is done in a way that lacks real understanding of the original reform being sold and rides roughshod over the context and priorities of the recipient government.

There is plenty of value to be gained by looking at other countries reform experiences, models and principles. But to get that value, you need a reflective, critical and self-aware approach — this is a process of learning not selling.

Real learning involves hearing the whole story — what went well and what didn’t. It involves understanding context and history, because these determine whether something that has worked in one country might help in another. For outsiders to help in this they must build relationships with counterparts in government and address problems that are relevant to them. As with any change project, you need to engage people by working with them as colleagues and building on what already works.

Donors and global institutions sometimes seem to see center of government reform as just another major project that needs a technocratic support of structures, models, plans, milestones. But the reality of reform in even the most successful of governments is that it is nonlinear and messy. It takes years — even decades — to transform the government. And it is fundamentally political. Those who would lead and support reform have to be pragmatic, adaptive and opportunistic. Their challenge is to spot opportunities for change and then ride the wave successfully.

Center for government: Offices in central government where officials and politicians have the mandate to make deliberate changes to the structures and processes of government and the civil service with the purpose of getting them to run better. The names of these offices vary in different countries; some examples include Cabinet Office, Office of the Prime Minister, Office of the President, Ministry of the Civil Service, Ministry of Planning and Economic Development, Ministry of Public Administration and so on.

Combining our 60 years of experience as practitioners, leaders, advisers and researchers of reform and change in development and in the U.K. civil and public service, we have identified three factors that increase the prospects of success of external support to center of government reforms.

These factors are not new, they are interrelated and provide a way of thinking — an approach to establishing a partnership toward achieving common reform goals that stick. They provide a framework of questions that need to be asked throughout the life of any program supporting the reform of a center of government.

1. Understand the context and enable ownership of the change.

Understanding the context starts with the motivation and position of local stakeholders:

• How much are those leading or championing the proposition actively committed and engaged?
• What are their histories, perspectives, priorities and motivations?
• How much authority and resources do leaders have to exert influence and drive the change required?
• Is there a wider leadership coalition developing around the change so that it is resilient to key transitions in reform leadership?
• Are there the necessary connections, support, alliances and relationships to get the change off the ground?
• How ambitious and realistic is the proposition in terms of scale, pace and scope?

The way these questions are asked and answered represent the crucial first steps in developing relationships with colleagues in partner governments. At this stage, it is more helpful to establish a good sense of the desired direction of travel rather than to encourage or reinforce expectations of the specific form and outputs of a potential project. It needs to be done in a facilitative way, working through a real issue in order to understand the root cause of a problem before generating collectively solutions. It is often a slow process of trial and error, iteration and adaptation.

2. Build capability, mostly on the job using a real-life situation by fostering new working habits.

The second success factor is building capability. The preparedness of the experts engaged in supporting a partner government reform process and their ability to change working habits and behavior is key to building capability.

This is best done through practitioners and peers — particularly serving civil servants or those recently retired who have actually done this type of work in their own government. They are generally more credible because they can offer up-to-date, relevant and practical ideas, skills and share their real-life experience.

Being a peer, however, is not sufficient. Peers and practitioners need to be briefed and supported to understand the context and scope of the work and their role; the facilitative and collegial approach to be used; when and how to use U.K. and other international examples; and the values and behaviors expected throughout the assignment.

By working together on a real-life situation or a priority area, reflecting on how it went and reviewing and adapting to support improvements, peers should aim to create “enabling routines” — working patterns and behaviors that underpin learning and even transformation. These are lasting and can be replicated.

3. Invest in getting the design right by testing and retesting your theory of change.

The third success factor is designing the right intervention. This should be co-developed with partners, based on getting to the root causes of a problem together and generating and implementing solutions. Implicit in the design is building the capability of partner government and not substituting capacity. Therefore the theory of change — its assumptions, inputs and path dependencies — need to be well understood at the beginning and continuously tested to ensure that the activities envisaged will translate into real and lasting improvements.

While these success factors are widely accepted, they seem much harder to put into practice. This is only going to be possible if donors are willing to accept the reality of reform and encourage opportunistic, iterative and adaptive approaches. The U.K. Department for International Development’s new guidelines allow for more flexibility while still retaining accountability. Other donors may follow. It is now a challenge for development practitioners to test the boundaries and make it work.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Peter Thomas

    Peter Thomas is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, and an expert adviser to the National School of Government International. He provides expert advice to government and other public service organizations on delivery, capability, performance and reform. His career has switched between senior leadership roles in all levels of public service and researching what works in public service reform with the aim of providing actionable insights for practitioners in the field.
  • Caterina Alari

    Caterina Alari has been a senior adviser in the National School of Government International from 2012 to March 2016 and is now based in Islamabad. She has developed and delivered programs of civil service reform, leadership development, ethics and integrity, service delivery and change management – in many countries including Mozambique, Uganda, Sudan, Angola, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan and Rwanda.