Willing to fail: Is the UAE leading a new approach to data collection and management?

Written by Jonathan Glennie

Innovation. Verve. In the world of data, these are words we tend to associate with the private sector, with young start-ups at the vanguard of the latest technology. When we think of government organizations concerned with data (such as National Statistics Offices, to use the jargon) other words come to mind: Clunky. Unoriginal.

Is that just the natural order of things? Must public sector data be musty and grey? Must it always be 10 years behind the funky private sector? Or are there ways that government organizations can innovate as well? And if so, what environments and contexts are most conducive to institutional innovation in statistics and data?

With money in short supply, innovation and efficiency could be as important as extra financing if we are to progress the “data revolution.”

The global data sector got to know one particular government agency pretty well in 2018: the UAE’s Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority, host of the second UN World Data Forum, which took place in Dubai in October 2018. And one thing came across in almost every conversation with them: the drive to innovate.

Before 2015, each emirate in the UAE had its own statistics office, but there were concerns that some of the estimates being created by international organizations were missing crucial data developed by the local offices.

So in 2015, coinciding with the momentum created by the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) process, a new federal authority was created: the Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Authority (FCSA), merging the National Bureau of Statistics with the Emirates Competitiveness Council.  The idea was to put the data collectors, data users, and data innovators under one roof, and to link better between the local offices and the federal level.

But they wanted to do more than just organize the flow of data better.

FCSA’s Malik Al Madani, pictured at TReNDS’ biannual meeting on the sidelines of the UN World Data Forum in October 2018. Source: Jay Neuner for TReNDS

FCSA’s Malik Al Madani, pictured at TReNDS’ biannual meeting on the sidelines of the UN World Data Forum in October 2018. Source: Jay Neuner for TReNDS

“As we were creating something new, we thought we wouldn’t just create a classic stats office,” says Malik Al Madani, Director of the Strategy and Future Department at the FCSA, with whom I spoke. “We wanted to ride the wave of new data, big data. Internationally agreed standards exist for stats–but big data is different, a new challenge. We needed to create room for experimentation.”

As an example of the innovation ushered in by this new stats agency, Al Madani highlights how the UAE’s population data has changed in the last three years. Previously reliant on a–yes, clunky–census that cost the government millions, the team now look at administrative data to improve their numbers.

So what was it about the new setup that encouraged innovation and change rather than more of the same? Al Madani rejects the suggestion that those famously large Emirati government budgets are behind innovative approaches. “You can have money and still have an old-fashioned approach. We do operate within boundaries.”

Instead, he insists that the UAE has a particularly open approach to trial and error. “In our agency, and the UAE in general, our leadership keep pushing us to experiment and not to fear failure. You can try new things.” The population idea was a new one. Would it work? Would the pain of doing something for the first time be worth it to achieve cost-effective and better data in long term? “We have an entrepreneurial culture throughout our public sector. One of our prime minister’s favorite saying is, ‘The biggest risk is not to take risk.’ If we fall, we fall forward and get up, and walk forward again.”

This is quite different to the language one sometimes hears in the aid sector. A recent UK aid minister was known for promising to “bear down on waste” and to ensure that every penny of every “hard-earned British taxpayer's pound” was well spent–and this language is common in government departments under constant scrutiny. Is it any wonder that people are nervous to fail?

While the large budgets available to the government may not be the drivers of innovation, one wonders whether the UAE’s particular political settlement facilitates it somewhat. Talk to statisticians and other civil servants in Western countries, and they will likely emphasize their accountability to the media and the public. Yet these mechanisms are more likely to constrain their behavior from fear of misspending money or wasting time than to free them to experiment. In the UAE, it is different. Civil servants seem to have a profound upward accountability to their ministers, the very institutional agents encouraging them to experiment.

And the UAE’s confidence is well-placed. The country is conscious of the bold investment and political decisions taken a few decades ago that have led to the rapid growth and modernization which characterize the country today.

And this trend to see failure as an opportunity to learn is increasingly central to modern development theory, too, as the loose Doing Development Differently coalition demonstrates. It insists on flexibility and adaptive management, essentially learning by doing in always unique contexts.

Each political system has its pros and cons, and clearly the UAE system has its own pitfalls as well as pluses. But if there is something to learn from the UAE, it is perhaps that for innovation to take place, practitioners need to be protected somewhat from the kind of accountability that can clip your creative wings. They need to know that they will progress in their careers if they experiment, even if not every experiment comes off.