The International Development Committee held an inquiry into DFID's use of contractors, involving a one-off oral evidence session on 6th June. Inspired by this, the seminar focused on the question of whether DFID gets the balance right in terms of its use of private and non-profit sectors in security and justice programming (S&J). Representatives from the private and non-profit sectors engaged in a purposeful discussion about how to achieve a better balance.
Questions debated included:
- What are the key problems with the current system of outsourcing DFID S&J programming?
- What are alternative ways/systems of outsourcing that DFID could use which would better harness the benefits of private and non-profit sectors?
Chris Aston who manages Coffey’s Rule of Law programme in Pakistan represented the private sector while from Saferworld, Paul Murphy represented the non-profit sector.
Chris Aston, Rule of Law programme manager Pakistan, Coffey
Chris outlined how Coffey responded to DFID’s challenge of continuing to deliver on a rising S&J budget with decreasing in–house capacity. In doing so he provided an overview of the issues faced by organisations in this space more broadly. He highlighted five key areas:
- Implementing HMG Programmes – Delivery Models
- Implementing HMG Programmes – Why Outsource?
- Outsourcing Mechanisms
- Outsourcing Issues
- How can we better harness the benefits of private and non-profit sectors?
A number of recurring issues came out of this, such as challenges of procurement frameworks with CSSF, how to ensure coherence and value for money across HMG programmes and how to mitigate and work with the high risks in conflict affected states.
He asked, what are the incentives to being a “good supplier”? Going beyond your requirements? Your record isn’t taken into account for future tenders. He outlined how sometimes the sector picks easier targets as it’s on those they can deliver clear results. But, he asked, does this come at the cost of ambition, ingenuity and change on the ground? How can organisations follow the recommendations of ICAI and move towards problem solving and learning, with some of these constraints?
Moving forward Chris recommended we bring all types of providers to bear, breaking down silos and thinking more coherently about delivery models. Complexity is increasing, and the complexity and ingenuity of our deliveries must adapt to match it.
Paul Murphy, Executive Director, Saferworld
Paul started off by stating that while there has been some public criticism of the scale and costs of DFID’s S&J contracts, the ambition of DFID should be acknowledged. He argued that today we needed to be questioning if and how S&J programmes are actually working in their currently delivery guise. He framed his presentation around a number of areas:
- Suppliers: According to Paul, a few organisations are beginning to dominate the S&J sphere in the UK. Does that rigidity of preferred suppliers negate the potential for working nimbly, politically, and responsively in ever changing conflict contexts?
- Scaling up: Scale of a project is no substitute for quality and efficacy. Results must be qualitative not just quantitative.
- Value for money: Paul argued that the profit incentive that has to be included to attract the private sector can sometimes lead to imperfect behaviours that might not best contribute to DFID’s overall S&J ambitions. Do competition incentives contribute to open source knowledge sharing, collaboration and better learning and programming? Or does it shut down strategic avenues?
There was a wide ranging discussion on whether DFID has got the balance right between private and non-profit organisations in S&J programming. Key points included:
- DFID was encouraged to focus on getting the design of its S&J programmes more attuned to needs, results and problems, not inputs and scale. Much of this discussion referenced the 2015 ICAI report on S&J, which was worried by DFID’s lack of strategy, lack of problem solving commitment, and lack of learning. Were each of these problems exacerbated the longer supply chains became? If so, do we need more room to discuss DFID’s tenders face to face to ensure relevance and direction from the outset?
- There was a broader question about whether the current procurement model is attuned to longer term peacebuilding needs. Does contract work unintentionally encourage unaccountable, short term work? And are the larger companies, in taking too much of the pie, beginning to unhelpfully narrowly define what success in S&J programming looks like?
- Results agenda leads to things that are easy to measure, but are very unambitious
- There was disagreement in the room on the state of CSSF, with for profit companies seeing it as less bureaucratic and an overall positive step, whilst NGOs worry its formulation has been slightly opaque. For smaller organisations, it perhaps involves ‘a leap of faith’ to be involved in consortia because so little information is available around it – especially its strategic objectives. Is too much focus shifting towards winning a bid rather than the actual delivery of security and justice?
- Many were in favour of mixed delivery, drawing on each sectors’ strength. However, does that require a level of internal oversight at HMG that is likely to be absent for the foreseeable future? And so with that oversight absent, does too much (quality, contracts, learning commitments, consortia mixes) depend on the good will of the Prime contractor?
- Learning was held to be significantly absent from S&J work, especially on today’s topic. As a result, some actors, in particular the private sector, were said to “on occasion promise the world” with little evidential recourse at DFID’s disposal to challenge the validity of their assertions.
- A lack of a clear S&J strategy in DFID makes S&J programming more vulnerable to being cut in country offices.
- There are no clear answers. Perhaps the key takeaway was that, above all, value for money and quality must direct DFID’s allocation of S&J work. While we can debate who deliver what, people at the other end of aid don’t care, so long as the quality is the same.
- There was general agreement that this was the start of an overdue discussion, which will need to continue.