Reimagining technical assistance: what role should technical advisers have in supporting government reform?

Exploring the different roles of technical advisors in supporting governments – and the challenges in shifting towards a facilitator role.


30-second summary

  • An adviser as a facilitator is key to capacity development.

  • The term ‘technical’ assistance makes the implicit assumption that the assistance needs to be technical, solution-oriented, focused on the what of reform, not that much the how. This is not the reality of what transformation change programmes need.

  • The level of risk appetite for learning from experimentation to solve 'wicked' problems influences the role advisers can play.

  • The capabilities required to play a facilitator role, as compared to a technical expert role, are also significantly different.

The first blog in this series set out how technical assistance must be a policy choice. We also explored the different types of roles that technical advisers currently play: Doers, partners and facilitators.

There is an in principle recognition in the global development space that external advisers can add more value and are able to build sustainable state capability if they are enablers of change, not change-makers. This is a significant departure from some of the current de facto models of delivering technical assistance, where the implementers are primarily doers. The most pressing dilemma is that the exclusively doer approach finds justification in countries that need capacity development more than any other environments. Yet, the shift required to move from doer to facilitator is complex and challenging. Too often, difficulties are overlooked, and they shouldn’t be. We argue for a change in mindset from country governments, development partners, and the providers of technical assistance alike.

The facilitator role is important when aiming for capacity development

Why is the facilitative role so important? In the first blog of this series, we emphasised the importance of seeing technical advice as a policy choice for the government to achieve its development objectives. This approach is essential for the government to own the problem and deploy assistance in areas where it is needed. Depending on the role of the technical advisor, there are limitations to the type of capacity to be sought, usually having to do with how central learning is to the programme. By capacity, we are referring a government able to perform its responsibilities.

  • In most cases, the doer approach can only be a solution for capacity substitution. The technical advisors are usually focused on delivering outputs on set timeframes, and the success of their work is the quality of the output – for instance the advisors may be called to deliver the services, to do a sector strategy or to negotiate on government’s behalf. The process and the learning journey are rarely considered.
  • The partners usually deliver highly specialised technical advice to the government. The difference from the doer approach consists in how expectations are set with regards to the role of the government. In this scenario, it is expected that the government is driving the process and the reform plan, and the advisers are only supplementing the existing capacity. For instance, supporting the government in setting up a health insurance programme, with the external advisors providing limited technical analysis and advice and working with the government counterpart to design relevant schemes and policies.
  •  The facilitator approach, by definition, is focused on learning and capacity development. As it does not perform the government functions, but only supports governments in doing their work and in learning by doing, the potential to achieve strengthened capability is higher. Facilitators are useful in providing an external perspective, challenging some of the assumptions for how things work, which is critical to making change happen. The central focus on learning is essential as the measure of success is not the quality of the output, but the progress in building the individual competencies (knowledge, skills, behaviours), the organisational capacity and the enabling environment. For instance, in supporting complex reform programmes of sustainable health system strengthening that cuts across levels of governments or departments, the facilitators can work at different levels to enable change, to organise working groups based on specific problems.

Why is it so difficult to make the shift from doer to facilitator?

In our work we have found that there are design and capability challenges in making the shift.

At the conceptual level, using the term ‘technical’ assistance makes the implicit assumption that the assistance needs to be technical, solution-oriented, focused on the what of reform, not that much the how. This term continues to be used even when recognising that some of the problems dealt with in reform programmes are wicked problems.

By definition, a wicked problem is difficult or impossible to solve because of sometimes incomplete, contradictory or changing requirements as well as interdependencies. Reform pathways in complex problem areas are not clear at the outset, and as a result, progress is not linear, and is difficult to measure with standard indicators. For instance, one of the underlying assumptions in programmes aiming to improve performance of health systems has been that inefficiencies arise out of information asymmetry, and can be resolved through technical solutions aimed at providing better information about government performance and citizens’ entitlements. Recent literature emphasises the importance of thinking in systems, and suggests coordination and collective action challenges influence the behaviour of actors much more than information asymmetry does, and therefore, cannot be resolved only through technical solutions. Rather, what is required in such fluid contexts is a more politically astute and enabling support, to drive change.

At the programme level, this tension translates to an attempt to define a theory of change and a programme logframe that are focused more on results and less on outputs. This can create some flexibility to experiment, adjust the workplan based on the complex political economies, the levels of capacity or changing priorities of the elected representatives. This inclination for experimentation is balanced by the existing risk appetite. Incremental support that focuses on a set of predefined outputs is more comfortable and easier to account for when risk aversion is high. Multilateral and donor organisations may need to step up and enhance the risk appetite for learning from experimentation to solve wicked problems.

From a delivery perspective, the capabilities required to play a facilitator role, as compared to a technical expert role, are also significantly different. In programmes focussed on technical inputs, technical skills are accorded priority over other important aspects, such as soft skills, understanding of political context, and relatable expertise. Moving to genuinely facilitative programming will require engaging individuals who play that convening role, in addition to providing technical direction. It is important for advisors to be able to build trust with counterparts and communicate and network effectively. In addition, in a scenario where the understanding of the local context is key, the focus will need to shift from international to national experts. In some cases, this will require a move away from the current accountability trap of focusing on high-quality results and less on building processes to support capacity development in the government and the larger ecosystem.

From our experience, what works is having a well-thought mix of skills in the team. For instance, in the Sub-national Governance programme, strong local teams work with internal experts. The role of the local groups is to be the primary counterpart for all government engagement to implement reforms. They are connected to local networks, can navigate the spaces of reform and get the right authorisation. The international expert’s primary objective is to ensure that local teams are equipped to challenge the status quo and support transformational change not only to implement short-term actions.

It’s not easy to build sustainable capabilities and balance the long-term objectives of institutional reform with the short-term pressure to show progress within project and/or political cycles. There is almost always a trade-off between being useful now and relevant later. Governments need to deliver results to their citizens. Donors need to show the results of using taxpayer money. Implementers need to report stories of success to the donors. This may result in a reduced focus on capacity development and processes, and more impatience to show progress in the current period. We believe it’s time we move the conversation from the principles of reimaging technical assistance to the practical considerations and trade-offs actors need to consider in the day-to-day policy execution.


Alok Rajan works on capacity development within government, and building state capacity for policy execution. He has a background in public service delivery reform, specifically in the service delivery interface between government and businesses.

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 & 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 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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