Reimagining technical assistance: the people we need

Technical advisors play one of three roles when supporting governments; doers, partners or facilitators. Each of these roles requires a different set of skills, and produces distinct outcomes.


30-second summary

  • Technical advisors can play several types of roles when supporting the government. They can be doers, partners and/or facilitators. Navigating this space poses significant challenges in terms of managing governments’ and donors’ expectations, ensuring a nationally owned process, and managing reporting requirements even in the more adaptive programme management frameworks.

  • In practical terms, each model of technical assistance have implications on the type of staff required to deliver the work – this may refer to seniority, skills and knowledge, geographic representation.

  • Development and implementation partners need to consider multiple trade-offs when making decisions about staffing their projects.

In our first blog in this series we set out the case for viewing technical assistance as a policy choice, ending by setting out three roles technical advisors play when providing support to governments – doers, partners and/or facilitators.

Simply put, doers are performing government functions, partners are providing specific support to the government (in most cases, technical support on specialised areas), and facilitators are working with government to enable change and facilitate complex processes. In choosing between these three options, Governments make a policy choice as to the type of technical assistance they require, and their desired outcome from the support provided. Doers replace capacity, partners supplement capacity, and facilitators build capacity.

From our perspective, this choice produces three distinct outcomes. On one end of the spectrum, the choice of technical assistance might lead to government and development partners bringing the skills and expertise into government to replace a function. Alternatively, government may wish to deliver the policy through its existing capabilities. In which case technical assistance might be brought in to provide mentoring and support to government officials to develop their skills and knowledge to deliver the required function. The result of this policy choice requires a very different set of skills, and here in lies the most significant challenge of providing advice to government globally, which is exacerbated in situations where governments skills and knowledge are limited.

Depending on the policy choice a government makes, the technical assistance solution will be somewhere on the spectrum depicted above. For each of these roles the expectations in terms of skills and expertise are different.

A successful doer could be either a local or international expert, but with specific technical competencies required to perform certain tasks and delivered agreed outputs. The profile of a partner is, in many cases, that of an international expert with primarily technical skills as they need to provide highly specialised inputs. They may also need to have some professional skills, including process management and facilitation – depending on the needs of the programme and the envisaged support. The facilitator needs to be able to manage processes, have the right authority and the seniority to work across multiple levels within government. Their technical skills may be useful, but not that relevant as the facilitators are not advising on what should be done, but rather on how to get things done.

What this means in practice? Learning to value different skills

In practice, the policy choice over the type of technical assistance that governments require should drive the type of skills and expertise that are deployed. Unfortunately, much technical assistance is provided without considering this choice. The result is the provision of expertise, much of which lands in the doer grouping, without real consideration as to the value of this type of support. Moreover, the providers of technical assistance tend to find it easier to provide output oriented – doer – support.

We argue, based on our research, that doing this differently is challenging, but beneficial. There is a wide range of academic literature that has clearly set out the benefits of a more facilitator type approach. However, deploying this approach requires us to reimagine technical assistance – especially in terms of the skills that we deploy.

To date, technical assistance is, well, technical. It tends to value technical expertise over more practical ‘soft skills’. This is often driven by the expectations from the government and client that technical skills produce the results. There is absolutely a value and place for these technical skills, but in the current context there is an over reliance on the technical as an indicator of capability. It’s not surprising, a lot of senior people in the development community have exceptional technical skills, and governments often want the ‘best technical capabilities’, creating a hard to break cycle.

But, it’s a cycle that must be, and can be, broken. Taking the view that the provision of technical assistance is a policy choice, where the type of support is chosen and not just the issue to be focused on, is the first step. The next step is to start to look at what types of skills are required by the providers of technical assistance to deliver the doer, partner, and facilitator types of technical assistance support.

This requires a refresh of the skills in the sector. To be a good doer might require very robust technical expertise. Over time, we would hope that being a good doer would be driven largely through the emergence of national expertise (something we’re seeing from the growing emphasis by governments and development partners to hire national and regional experts). The skills required here will remain highly technical, and often the individuals doing them will blend into government.

The partner option balances the pure technical skills, with an ability to manage dialogue and engagement with government. It requires the technical advisors to take a ‘come with me’ approach. Delivering in the partner mode requires a more nuanced understanding of the environment, while at the same time, having a willingness to challenge.

On large donor programmes, this partner role is increasingly delivered by a successful mix of national and international expertise. The national experts bring their local networks, technical expertise and contextual understanding. The international expertise provides quality assurance, challenges the status quo with the local experts, and pushes experts towards partnership – encouraging governments to build sustainable capacity. Finding the right mix between national and international experts is critical to striking this balance.

Finally, the facilitator role requires the most significant change in mindset from governments, donors and providers of technical assistance alike. Its not easy to deliver, and requires very different skills from the pure technical mindsets often present in the doer mode. Here, the contracting of technical assistance needs to be revised. The tyranny of a CV needs to be replaced by a demonstration of facilitation, coaching and mentoring skills. Sadly, the international development sector lacks individuals with this experience, largely because we haven’t asked for it before. This has to change.

Let’s get real

We have found across a range of our programmes that often technical assistance is provided as a mix of these three models, but one mode predominates. Most often the doer or partner mode. This is the comfort zone for governments, development partners and technical assistance providers. It is not as onerous for governments, it under the control of the technical assistance providers, and it appeases an external funder as some results are achieved at the end of the programme. The main disadvantage though is that the results may not be sustained beyond the life of a programme, and limited capacity is developed to deliver similar work independently in the future.

If we’re serious about providing valuable technical assistance, a mindset shift is needed. First in terms of expectations for what technical assistance should provide – let’s be clearer up front as to the expectations. Let’s see technical assistance as a policy choice of government. Second, once that choice is made, a shift in mindset is required for what an expert should bring to the table in terms of skills to deliver the desired outcome. This will take time, and awareness from all sides. It also requires development partners to think differently about the way programmes are constructed with government.

Alexandra Nastase is an experienced development professional who designed, implemented and evaluated multiple technical assistance programmes in the past decade. She leads the work on reimagining technical assistance. Alexandra’s work is centred on strengthening state capability and government performance to deliver public services in Asia, Africa and Europe. She held multiple leadership and senior advisory roles for multi-million technical assistance programmes funded by the World Bank, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the European Commission, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and UN agencies. Before joining OPM, she also worked for the World Bank, UN and non-governmental organisations.

Ben French is an entrepreneurial leader focused on solving wicked problems. Ben's passion is exploring the drivers that enable organisations and individuals to challenge the status quo and address complex social challenges. As Acting Director of Consultants, Ben is responsible for overseeing OPM's consulting activities that support low and middle-income countries' pursuit of inclusive and resilient socio-economic development. Ben has over 12 years' experience building lasting international partnerships, and operationalising diverse, international organisations to deliver impact.

This is part of a blog series about Reimagining technical assistance. We will explore the current models of delivering technical assistance, what are the challenges to achieving the development objectives and to navigate the reform space for delivering effective technical assistance.

For a full account of this approach, please check our two published papers: on the challenges to delivering effective technical assistance and on the current models to deliver technical assistance and opportunities for change .

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