Economic advisory support to governments: usable, trust-based and quiet

9 July 2024
SERIES Political philanthropy 7 items

Over the last year, the OTT team, in collaboration with INASP, has explored examples of government advisory work – especially on economic policy – from all over the world.

We were particularly interested in economic advisory work funded by philanthropic foundations, which are increasingly grappling with how to engage with political actors, particularly governments.

Our reading and consultations have given us a fascinating insight into the shifts within the external advisory landscape, with philanthropies now beginning to recognise that sustainable change is not possible without government engagement. 

In this article, we’ll explore 10 insights into the economic advisory landscape.

10 insights

1. External advisory work is often not seen 

Advisory work often happens ‘in-between the lines’, or ‘around the edges’ of larger government partnerships or capacity development efforts. It’s usually time-bound, quick and reactive, and advisors are generally balancing short-term engagements with long-term envisaged outcomes. 

While external advisors can have a high degree of access and influence, their role and activities are often not made public or written up in learning reports. 

Successful advisory work was described by one person we spoke to as “usable, trust-based and quiet”.

2. Ownership really matters when working with the government 

This is seen by many as a key difference to working with civil society, where non-governmental organisations’ (NGOs’) need for funds means that donors have more space to influence (even impose) their agendas. 

With a government, this is very different. Despite all that has been said and written about ownership, it remains an active issue, and governments are extremely sensitive to it. 

The real or perceived imposition of external advisors can have damaging long-term consequences. Therefore, gauging and responding to demand for advice from governments is critical. 

It’s also worth bearing in mind one of the most commonly cited risks of external advice: it can duplicate or undermine the work of civil servants or national advisory structures, which provide analysis and advice on an ongoing basis. 

So, understanding and engaging with the current advisory landscape is important for funders of external advice.

3. The external economic advisory landscape is often described as a closed and homogeneous space

Knowledge inequities can constrain the external economic advisory landscape to the same old thinking.

Across many of the very different country contexts that we considered, the landscape was typically described in a strikingly similar way: a small group of the ‘usual suspects’.

Often, what seems to determine ‘credibility’ in the selection of external advisors and the knowledge that they are able to bring, are markers such as location, gender, education, epistemological paradigms, personal connections, and networks. +

So, the familiar questions around equity and diversity in knowledge systems are very much present in this space, with philanthropic organisations uniquely positioned to promote the redress of knowledge inequities.

4. Trusted personal relationships are critical 

Rather than a large, long-term, formal partnership between institutions/organisations, advisory work often hinges on the relationship between two individuals: the advisor and the person receiving the advice. 

Its effectiveness is largely determined by a personal level of trust. The tone and process of advisory discussions matter significantly. And governments will often request (or veto) individual advisors.

Successful examples of effective advisory support often involve creating ‘safe spaces’ for policy-makers to discuss controversial topics without risk, which can facilitate more productive advisory relationships. 

Cases in which advice didn’t work are often linked to disruptions in personal relationships or communication difficulties between the advisor and the government. 

This works both ways. Reliance on personal relationships can protect institutions from reputational risk. +

5. Timing is crucial

The uptake and impact of advice are strongly affected by windows of opportunity in the political context. Therefore, donors need to be quick to gauge and leverage entry points to support impactful advice. 

Political transitions often constitute key windows of opportunity – many stories we heard started with a newly elected, reform-minded government. 

Pressures on the government caused by crises are also key opportunities – we heard several cases where domestic or international political pressures had created new motivations for governments to seek advice. 

Philanthropic donors may be more able to act with the flexibility and speed required to take advantage of such windows of opportunity than their bilateral or multilateral counterparts.

6. Spaces for change exist, even in ‘difficult’ contexts or regimes 

As one person we spoke to remarked, “Government is much more complex and diverse than the President”. 

While we heard of cases where donors were wary of funding advisory support to governments based on the notoriety of the leader, we also heard about a case where donors flocked to support an initially reform-minded leader whose government later took a different turn. 

For instance, in contexts affected by corruption, providing advisory support in policy areas that are less affected by this can help build tools and systems to identify and address corruption in other sectors later.

7. Opportunities for change often exist at the technical layer of government rather than the political 

Such opportunities for change can manifest in unexpected ways and spaces for change might also exist in specific policy topics but not in others. 

Advisory work needs to resist seeing the government as a static, monolithic entity. It should carefully identify entry points and potential users of the advice within particular ministries or organisations in which the authority, acceptance and ability to act on advice will have a critical bearing on its uptake.

8. Subnational levels of government can offer unique opportunities for change

We heard that local governments may be more invested and proactive in seeking solutions through advisory support as they’re closer to the issues. 

In contrast, national governments often face more fragmented and politically influenced decision-making due to their coalition structures and broader scope of responsibilities. 

Therefore, some advisors seek to circumvent these challenges by engaging at the subnational level. 

9. Working with governments is risky

No government work is risk-free: contexts can change quickly, with initially reform-minded governments taking new directions. 

There are many risks in providing advice – for the providers and funders of advice as well as for governments – such as the following: 

  • It may not be used at all  the report might be ‘put in a drawer’ 
  • It may be used as a ‘cover’ or tick-box exercise to conceal other dynamics 
  • It may be instrumentalised and actively used to counter the very values it was provided to bolster  
  • Public coverage of external advisory relationships, particularly on sensitive economic issues, may have political and financial repercussions for governments
  • Coverage of advisory relationships may also have reputational consequences for donors and other partners, such as local civil society organisations

10. Gathering and sharing learning from advisory relationships can be difficult

In practice, advisory work often happens ‘between the lines’ and ‘in the margins’, partly because of the aforementioned sensitivities.

This means it’s often not explicitly acknowledged or studied in many of the contexts that we heard about – not only is it not very visible while it’s happening, but it’s also not very visible in the literature.

However, the landscape is now shifting and philanthropic foundations are seeking more impactful engagements with governments. 

Given this, the time may now have come for more open-reflections and analyses of the advisory ecosystems, providing the opportunity to explore how these relationships work.