Review faults DFID’s approach to research evidence

Friday, 11 April 2014 11:53 GMT

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“Significant improvement” is needed to make the large volume of researchproduced by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) more accessible and relevant to its programmes, a review has found.

A largely outsourced research programme, staff who lack the practical experience needed to assess evidence and the cherry-picking of facts to justify decisions may further restrict the department’s efforts to implement better decision-making based on evidence, says the review.

“The solution is to generate less information, which is focused, synthesised and user-friendly, which will mean staff can actually learn from an otherwise increasingly impenetrable body of knowledge.”

Diana Good, ICAI

How DFID Learns, a report from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) published last week (4 April), finds that the department “performs relatively poorly overall against ICAI’s criteria for effectiveness and value for money”.

“DFID does not clearly identify how its investment in learning links to its performance and delivering better impact,” says the report, which assessed the department’s ability to generate knowledge through research, evaluation and personal development, and then absorb this information into its activities.

Lost results

DFID’s research spending — more than £1 billion (over US$1.6 billion) since 2009 — is often not targeted at its strategic priorities, meaning that valuable research is lost in a thicket of less relevant facts, says Diana Good, the ICAI’s lead commissioner.

“If research is too diffuse and not designed to assist key priorities, DFID is creating a vast volume of information that is even more difficult for staff to use,” she tells SciDev.Net.

“The solution is to generate less information, which is focused, synthesised and user-friendly, which will mean staff can actually learn from an otherwise increasingly impenetrable body of knowledge.”

Even when research is focused on the right questions, the department sometimes fails to bridge the gap between theory and practice, thus limiting the potential impact of findings on the ground, the report says.

An example it gives is DFID’s £350 million (nearly US$584 million)agricultural research programme, which, despite producing innovative and effective results, failed to get this knowledge into farmers’ hands.

Knowledge consumers not producers

Furthermore, 80 per cent of the department’s knowledge production is outsourced — something that should be reviewed, the report adds.

As a result, DFID staff are typically consumers rather than producers of information, and so may lack “the practical experience that allows them wisely to use this knowledge to make programming decisions”, it says.

Creating an Evidence into Action team in 2012 to improve information access and setting up regional hubs in India and Kenya to link research to implementation are steps in the right direction, but it is still too early to see how effective these efforts will be, it says.

Selective use of evidence

The report raises another concern about how knowledge is employed: managers’ selective use of evidence to justify decisions. This, it says, is unacceptable and yet “appears to be occurring with sufficient regularity to be a concern”.

Discussions with staff found that managers often filtered advice to make it more acceptable to their superiors — only 36 per cent of staff who responded to a 2013 internal DFID survey believed their bosses were committed to an evidence-based approach, the new report says.

Politicians regularly have to adapt to situations as new information comes in, so DFID decision-makers should stop trying to shield them from evidence they may dislike, says Duncan Green, a senior strategic advisor at charity Oxfam.
“As it currently stands, DFID managers’ relationships to politicians is that they give them no reason to have a negative view, but trying to keep everyone happy doesn’t create the right culture for learning,” he says.

The report recommends that “managers should not choose evidence that justifies decisions, rather they should use evidence to arrive at decisions. Ministers and senior staff must have access to all available evidence in order to make decisions. Staff should not be pressurised to provide selective analysis that does not take account of all available evidence.”

Scaling up best practice

Despite the areas in need of improvement, the report recognises DFID’s “potential for excellence”, says a departmental spokesperson.

The report concludes that DFID “has the potential to be excellent at organisational learning if its best practices become common”, highlighting several well-performing areas and practices.

“DFID delivers targeted results, maintains value for money and is recognised as one of the most transparent donors in the world,” the spokesperson says.

“We continually look at our processes in light of external evaluations like ICAI.”

Link to How DFID Learns

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