By Matt Foster

15 Apr 2016

As the new UK Aid Strategy sets out a bigger role for the rest of Whitehall in spending development money, DfID's permanent secretary Mark Lowcock sits down with Matt Foster to discuss the challenges of working across government – and why his department won’t lose its sense of mission

The Department for International Development is, Mark Lowcock admits, “a very unusual” part of Whitehall.

“My objective is to see, at some point in the future, the world advance to such a point that DfID isn’t really needed,” he says. “And that’s not the aspiration of every government department!”

Right now though, DfID’s enthusiastic permanent secretary has plenty to be getting on with (including a pack of jelly beans he’s been powering through to beat the “mid-afternoon sugar deficit”). His department is currently translating the UK’s new Aid Strategy – which aims to better align efforts to help the world’s poorest with broader national security and foreign policy goals – into action on the ground.

Department for International Development must not lose sight of poverty focus as more departments take on aid spending – MPs
Who has the best civil service in the world? DfID chief Mark Lowcock on the UK's plan to find out
Department for International Development perm sec Mark Lowcock: "Our biggest challenge in 2015 has been defeating Ebola in Sierra Leone"

Global development is, Lowcock tells CSW, “the most amazing success story in human history”.

“Fifty years ago, the lives of the majority of people who lived on the planet – more than 50% – were characterised by being hungry a lot of the time, seeing their kids die in infancy, not being able to get their kids into school, living in conflict and insecurity.

“And now, because of progress in agriculture, healthcare, education and because the world is less violent, less prone to conflict than it was 50 years ago, it’s no longer over half the world’s population who are in those circumstances – it’s less than 15%.”

But that progress, Lowcock says, has prompted a shift in the way the UK thinks about overseas development. A billion people around the world remain in extreme poverty, and the increasingly global nature of the drivers of poverty mean that a narrow focus on disaster response and economic assistance won’t be enough.

“Whether it’s climate change, migration, terrorism, pandemics or organised crime – there’s an international dimension to most of the problems in the world,” Lowcock says. “The Aid Strategy is about reflecting on the progress that’s been made. But it’s also about reflecting on the fact there’s a new set of challenges.”

The strategy turns the government’s gaze to four key areas. As well as the bread-and-butter DfID work of responding to humanitarian crises and providing direct assistance to people in poverty, the document also makes clear that the UK’s international development efforts – and its ringfenced aid budget – will go towards “strengthening global peace, security and governance” and “promoting global prosperity”.

“Things that are affecting the lives of people in the poorest countries have a very unhappy tendency in the modern world to spread across borders,” Lowcock says. “So one of the big messages of this strategy is that Britain’s national interest and the development interest – the moral responsibility – overlap. Those two things are mutually reinforcing rather than somehow being in tension with each other.”

“The Aid Strategy is about reflecting on the progress that’s been made. But it’s also about reflecting on the fact there’s a new set of challenges" – Mark Lowcock

Underpinning the Aid Strategy is the UK’s ongoing commitment – now enshrined in law – to spend 0.7% of its Gross National Income every year on Official Development Assistance (ODA). The government’s decision to protect aid spending at a time of wider public sector austerity was undoubtedly a contentious one, but Lowcock says he believes there is now “a settled view” on the need for the UK to play its part.

“Increasingly, people don’t want to debate whether we should do development or not. What they want to know is: are we spending the money well and getting the right results from it? I worry much less than I used to about having to make the case for development.”

But while DfID has traditionally taken the lead on how that aid money is allocated, the broader goals set out in the new strategy mean that other parts of Whitehall – including the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – will be taking on an increased responsibility for where it ends up. While the proportion of ODA spent by DfID in the last parliament stood at 85%, by the end of this parliament it is projected to fall to just 72%.

Dr Alison Evans, chair of the Independent Commission on Aid Impact – the watchdog set up in 2011 to scrutinise the government’s ODA spending – tells CSW that while it is “not entirely new” for DfID to be working with the rest of Whitehall, the latest strategy is likely to present both opportunities and challenges for Lowcock’s department.

“The commitment to deliver billions of pounds of aid in cross-government funds and through other departments’ budgets is really a shift upwards in terms of ambition around this whole-of-government approach,” she says.

Evans points out that other departments do not have the same level of experience as DfID in handling aid spending, and says they will have to get used to complying with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s strict rules on what counts towards the 0.7% target.

So how is DfID helping those departments handle their new duties? Firstly, it has worked with the Treasury to scrutinise bids for ODA spending, giving a “traffic light” rating to departments’ proposals. And Lowcock says many of those departments are now “hiring people from DfID to help them manage larger volumes of development spending”.

“I basically think that’s a very good thing, because we have fantastic people here who are really good at what they’re doing and if they can help others with that, that’s a good thing,” he says. Although he adds: “There are some days when I would quite like my colleagues to hire a bit more slowly from us, because we need to make sure we’ve got the right staffing capability as well. But DfID is at the disposal of the rest of government in maximising the effectiveness and impact and value for money of the whole of that 0.7%.”

“The commitment to deliver billions of pounds of aid through other departments’ budgets is really a shift upwards" – Dr Alison Evans of aid watchdog ICAI

While MPs on the International Development Committee have broadly welcomed the new cross-government approach, they’ve also been pretty clear about one of the risks – namely, that the government could lose sight of its requirement to use ODA to help the world’s poorest people.

“This is especially a risk with other government departments, which have key aims other than poverty reduction and some of whose spending may not fall under the powers and requirements of the International Development Act 2002,” the committee said in March. “Poverty reduction must be the primary purpose of UK aid spending, with other objectives surrounding security and the national interest flowing from it, rather than the other way round.”

Lowcock says the government has been “absolutely clear” that it is not setting its commitment to eradicate poverty “to one side”. All departments will, he stresses have to comply with the OECD’s rules on what counts as aid spending – although “one or two” departments will not be bound by the UK’s own International Development Act.

“The government has been crystal clear that it is determined to keep the UK in the position where we have the reputation internationally of providing the highest possible quality and the biggest possible impact on poverty in what we’re doing – and that means fully complying with the OECD rules and being completely transparent and open to scrutiny from the select committee and ICAI and others.”

While DfID has clearly benefited from the government’s decision to shield overseas aid spending – indeed, the National Audit Office says the department is “unique amongst central government departments in having its budget increased significantly” over the last parliament – Lowcock’s organisation has not been immune from the cost pressures facing its Whitehall neighbours.

DfID has cut its central administration costs by just under a third since 2010, while its running costs have fallen by around 2%. At the same time, it has upped its frontline programme spending, and, in contrast to many other departments, taken on more staff: headcount is up by a quarter since 2010. So where has Lowcock found those savings – £400m more of which have been asked for by the Treasury over the next five years?

“When we moved into this building in 2013” – he says of the department’s 22 Whitehall home – “we saved something like £70m compared to our previous London HQ, partly because everybody from me downwards now sits in the open plan and we hot-desk. We’re much more efficient in the way we use the space.

"Pay restraint absolutely has an effect in some areas" – Mark Lowcock

“And we’ve taken a lot of cost out of our support functions, because, like lots of the rest of government, we make much better use of digital capabilities, much better use of commercial. We drive value for money much harder and much more effectively through our suppliers. And we’re able to use technology much better to free people up from routine, mundane, administrative tasks to the higher-value-added tasks.”

Civil service-wide pay restraint has also played its part, he says, with the Treasury’s ongoing policy of capping annual pay rises at 1% “really bearing down on wage and salary costs”. But has that pay policy hampered DfID’s ability to attract the kind of specialists it needs to do its highly complex job?

“It absolutely has an effect in some areas,” Lowcock says. “In some specialist areas and in some very senior positions, especially finance, and in commercial, this is something that you can see across the whole of government.”

But the effect of pay restraint on recruitment should not be overstated, Lowcock is quick to add. “The truth is that most people in the UK who want to work in development want to work for DfID because we have a fantastic reputation, an amazing ability to get things done, and a nice working environment, where people are really engaged and motivated by what they do.

“So we’re able to hire, in most areas, people of the most sensational calibre and people who come in from outside and who get to know the organisation are always very struck by the calibre of people.”

Lowcock says the department has also benefited from the One Government Overseas programme, which brings all UK government overseas staff – regardless of their department – into single buildings, mostly run by the Foreign Office.

“Almost everywhere now, government is co-located in the same facilities,” he says. “That means we can share our services and share our skills, which drives a lot of value for money – but we also can join up much more on policy and programme matters than used to be the case when we were spread around the capitals that we were working in.”

That kind of close working with the Foreign Office is a far cry from the traditional turf wars between that department and DfID, which was spun out of the FCO’s Overseas Development Agency in 1997 in a bid to move international development up the political agenda.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and Lowcock’s old boss, tells CSW that he believes DfID and the FCO are now “good colleagues” and that the former has become a “better Whitehall citizen”.

"DfID is much more integrated across the whole of what government does" – Mark Lowcock

This is partly because the political leadership at DfID and the FCO went to great lengths to emphasise that they were on the same page when they took office in 2010, Mitchell says.

“We knew each other’s minds. We said the war was over, and furthermore, we were going to make DfID more of a department of state for development in the developing world and perhaps a bit less of a well-upholstered NGO moored off the coast of Whitehall.”

As a DfID lifer – Lowcock has spent all of his three decades in the civil service at the department and its predecessor – does he recognise Mitchell’s characterisation of that change?

“I do,” he replies. “And I think it’s been a very good thing for the department and for the government as a whole. DfID is much more integrated across the whole of what government does. There’s not much we do these days that we don’t do in partnership with other government departments.

“If you look back to the Ebola crisis, the UK sent more than 2,000 public servants to Sierra Leone, essentially because that was the only way to solve the problem. And there were hundreds and hundreds of military personnel, hundreds of people from the health system, hundreds of people from here in the department – all of them engaged in solving that problem. But no one department on its own had everything necessary to do that.”

Lowcock’s long stint at just one government department could be seen as a disadvantage as DfID seeks to build relationships across government. But Mitchell (pictured), who picked Lowcock for the job in 2011, says there was “no question” that he was the right man for the job.

Crucially, the former cabinet minister says Lowcock acted as a steady hand and “institutional memory” for the department at a time of “restless, driven” reform for the organisation – which was still getting used to having its policy direction set by a Conservative for the first time.

“For the machine, the civil service, to work really well, the right foil for that is someone of enormous experience within DfID to reassure staff. And Mark performed that task perfectly.

“Mark’s guidance and his advice were always welcomed. When he said, ‘That would be quite a courageous thing to do, minister’, we students of Yes, Minister thought very carefully before doing it. His advice was always outstandingly good.”

While many of Lowcock’s fellow perm secs have spent their careers moving around Whitehall departments, his long tenure at DfID is certainly striking. Was a career in international development always the aim for a man who admits he “didn’t know what the civil service was” when he was growing up in a council house?

"His advice was always outstandingly good" – former development secretary Andrew Mitchell on Lowcock

“In my third year of college, I had three job offers,” Lowcock recalls. “I could’ve gone to train to be a teacher, which I think is a really fantastic profession – my brother’s a teacher and it’s a wonderful thing to do. I could’ve gone to train to be an accountant, which I subsequently did. And then I had a job offer to come and work here.

“A wise friend sat me down and said I had to think about how I was going to feel in 40 years’ time at the end of my career, bouncing grandchildren up and down on my knee. They’re asking: ‘So you’re an extremely boring old person – what did you do with your life?’

“You’re probably not going to persuade your grandchildren that your job was interesting – but if you’re lucky you’ll feel like you made a good choice. And that is why development – particularly over the last 50 years where there has been an explosion in opportunity, and where life has got a lot better for most people on the planet – has been an amazing thing to have done.”

And despite having worked in “all the available war zones in one way or another” over the last 30 years, overseeing projects to help people facing the “worst possible” circumstances, Lowcock says he remains an optimist.

“Unless you can see through to the possibility of things getting better, you probably don’t do this for 30 years. Of course, there’s no shortage of problems that we’re dealing with now – especially in the Middle East. But I can also look back over that period and see how much has improved in so many places. And that gives you a bit of confidence and resilience, and it reinforces your determination that places in a bad situation at the moment can also be helped to improve.”

…Why social mobility matters
“My mum left school when she was 14 and my dad when he was 16. My first memory was playing in the garden of the council house we lived in when I was a little boy. I didn’t know what the civil service was when I growing up. But I had an amazing opportunity – I got into a posh university [Oxford] and then into the Fast Stream. So I’m a big personal fan of this campaign we’ve got going now on social mobility. Because one of the other things the civil service needs to be is representative of the country. We have to be like – and to understand – the country that we’re serving if we’re going to do well, and that means being composed of all different sorts of people.” 

…making his department more diverse
“There are aspects of the diversity agenda which I think we should have got to earlier. We had a very strong focus on providing better opportunities for women. It used to be the case here, when I was appointed, that about 30% of the SCS were women. And now that’s nearly 50%. So I’m really pleased with that. But we haven’t made the same progress on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Staff – I really want us to do that. Likewise, we need to provide more opportunities for people with disabilities.”

Mark Lowcock was photographed for CSW by Paul Heartfield

Share this page