The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)’s IT system has been slammed as “dysfunctional” by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI). The group, which scrutinises the UK’s aid efforts, said it had been restricted in its efforts to recruit and pay staff by the government department’s inadequate tech set-up.
As part of its annual report for 2022/2023, the ICAI said that the merger of the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for International Development (DFID), which saw the FCDO created, had led to “significant corporate challenges”. It said since 2020, the body has faced greater issues with accessing information, carrying out country visits, dealing with a continually changing cast of interlocutors as well as dealing with the FCDO’s IT systems.
ICAI looks into the aid delivered from the UK to countries such as Afghanistan and India, as well as the aid used for asylum seekers and refugees in the UK. They also look into how transparent UK aid is to the public. It spent £3.6m in the financial year 2022/2023.
FCDO merger became a catalyst for ICAI’s challenges
Back in 2020, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the DFID and the FCO would merge, with the newly combined DFCO to be led by the foreign secretary.
At the time, the UK spent 0.7% of its gross national income on official development assistance – in line with the United Nations targets. However, this commitment was scrapped in 2021 as well as budget reductions for the FCDO.
Writing in the forward of the report, chief commissioner Dr Tamsyn Barton said that since the merger the UK’s development efforts had been impacted by outside challenges such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Russia’s war with Ukraine. However, these crises had been compounded by the “challenges of implementing the government’s decisions on the machinery of government changes and the series of major budget reductions.”
ICAI was unable to pay contractors due to finance systems
ICAI itself has been subject to a review which could “compromise ICAI’s independence” from the government, Barton said. She added that has also faced “corporate challenges”, relating directly to FCDO’s IT, HR and finance systems.
“ICAI has been linked since 2020 to a much bigger department with many pressing priorities,” she said. “We have faced greater challenges in accessing information, carrying out our country visits, dealing with a continually changing cast of interlocutors, and having to use FCDO’s IT, finance and HR systems, which have been dysfunctional for most of the time.”
Barton explained that in the cases where the advisory body could recruit staff, it still lost out because the contracts took too long to be issued. The finance systems also delayed clarification on its budget, which resulted in temporary staff or contractors not being paid for several weeks.
“The International Development Committee (IDC) has been a great help to the whole commission in advocating on ICAI’s behalf for FCDO to address these difficulties, pressing for information to be released, and for ICAI’s budget to be preserved to fulfil the work plan agreed with them,” wrote Barton.
A FCDO spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring ICAI has the resources needed to scrutinise across a range of development issues and considerable progress has been made to address issues, including those around recruitment and budgets.”
The government is still playing catch-up on the digital transformation of IT systems
Back in March 2023, the National Audit Office (NAO) released a report about the transformation of government IT systems. It said that across the government, outdated IT systems and ageing data were a key source of inefficiency and created a major constraint to improving and modernising government services.
It also said that the Central Digital and Data Office (CDDO) was failing to close the gaps in digital skills within other government departments. It also criticised the small budget allocated to the office (£8bn through to 2025) to achieve its objectives.
“Many business leaders [in government] do not yet have the expertise required to comprehend and tackle the challenges the civil service faces in a digital age,” NAO said.