Practitioner Insights: building government capacity from within

‘Capacity building’ is a much-used term, but a clear understanding eludes many practitioners.


As part of the first cohort of Oxford Policy Fellows, I worked as an embedded legal advisor in the legal department of Djibouti’s Ministry of Finance. This two-year position, with a remit of building local capacity in the long term and providing immediate gap filling, gave me a unique insight into the realities of building government capacity from within.

Capacity building is a task often assumed by short-term consultants in collaboration with donor agencies. A key risk here is focusing on ‘deliverables’, most easily measured by the number of training sessions given, the attendance level of those sessions, and perhaps on the production of template documents or other outputs. As someone who has been on the receiving end of such efforts, I find this approach often to be, at best, ineffective. In this note I share the main lessons I took away from this experience. I hope that this can help practitioners to consider an alternative perspective when designing and delivering capacity-building programmes.

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Informal is (often) better

Coming from a background as a private practice solicitor, my initial visualisation of what ‘capacity development’ encompasses tended towards training seminars, with PowerPoint slides and handouts, and a focus on blackletter law and current market practice. This didn’t quite seem to fit with the context in which I was hosted and, during my two years in Djibouti, I came to understand the term ‘capacity development’ in a different way: it needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be limited to formal training sessions but in fact can come in many forms.

In working one-on-one with my colleagues as and when issues arose, I found a way to build capacity that was less intimidating to my audience, necessarily tailored to their needs and, in fact, less time consuming for me to prepare. This is the privilege of being an embedded advisor – I could factor in capacity building right alongside my other, ‘gap filling’ work – and sharing an office with my colleagues every day for two years allowed for gradually building a solid relationship of trust. Eventually, my colleagues were even asking to redo work that I’d already done to learn from it, demonstrating that this approach allows for genuine buy in.

Work with what you’ve got – small, incremental improvements

Another of my preconceptions that shifted over time was the need to achieve certain capacity building ‘milestones’. One of my first actions was to set out an ideal training programme for the team, with topics we should address, and what I aimed to achieve by the time I had left. Obviously, it is good to aim for something; however, I found that my ideas about what was needed changed quite dramatically with experience working in the team. At first, this presented me with a seemingly insurmountable challenge – how would I fit my training programme into this context? Instead, what I changed was my approach. Rather than trying to follow a set programme, I adopted a more opportunistic approach – building on and improving what was already happening in the team. This resulted in perhaps a more modest capacity building effort, but one which I believe will have a more lasting impact than something ambitious but ultimately ill-suited.

Build in flexibility

Linked to the above two points is a need for capacity-building efforts to be flexible. Adhering too strictly to a pre-designed programme is bound to reduce impact. As relationships and contextual understanding develop, it may be necessary to take a different tack. The strength of the Oxford Policy Fellowship is the fact that it is demand-led. This enabled me to constantly adapt my capacity-building strategy as I gained a greater understanding of the needs of my host team, devising small exercises to build on specific skill gaps as needs arose.

How not to build capacity – large training programmes

Well intentioned capacity-building programmes do not always deliver results. On occasion, I witnessed this in Djibouti: an external provider, a wide audience, a huge investment of resources, but little discernible impact. Two of the key pitfalls are as follows:

  • Casting the net too wide: often, training programmes are delivered to a huge audience. The attraction in this approach is obvious if the programme’s success is measured by the number of people ‘trained’. However, when the target audience is very large, I would argue that it is not in fact targeted – this results in a divergence of interests, capabilities, and previous knowledge that means the programme cannot effectively pitch itself at any group.
  • Insufficient adaptation to, and understanding of, the context: happily, I did not encounter any ‘off-the-shelf’ training while in Djibouti. All external providers tailored their content to the Djiboutian context, studied the relevant legal texts, and consulted with the appropriate stakeholders. In some cases, this did not go far enough and the trainers betrayed a lack of understanding of the context in which their audience works. At times this is benign – a simple misunderstanding that doesn’t affect the validity of their recommendations – but even slips of this nature can damage the confidence of the audience significantly. In other cases, misunderstanding the context can lead to inappropriate advice. The ill-effects of this can be far-reaching.

In summary, based on my experience as an embedded advisor, I would recommend the following to practitioners looking to genuinely and impactfully build capacity in governments in low- and middle-income countries:

  • Focus on smaller groups and look to build capacity by working alongside recipients, rather than aiming to build capacity simply by delivering training programmes.
  • Aim for less ambitious but more realistic capacity targets, building incrementally on existing capacity, building towards to ‘good enough’ rather than pushing for ‘best practice’ or the ‘perfect solution’.
  • Structure capacity-building programmes so that they can be flexible to allow for adaptation as understanding of the needs and context develops.

Vanessa Fullerton is a public sector governance consultant with OPM and is part of the Policy Execution Hub. She specialises in the law and policy interface, and also advises on governance, policy execution, political economy, and capacity building. Prior to joining OPM in 2018, she spent two years as an Oxford Policy Fellow, placed in Djibouti’s Ministry of Finance as a legal advisor. Vanessa has a legal background with four years’ experience as a solicitor/trainee solicitor focused on international infrastructure and energy projects.

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