OpEd: The Transformation of the Public Sector Is a Challenge Facing All Governments; Saudi Arabia Is an Example of Huge Change

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Written by Husameddin AlMadani

The root and branch modernization and professionalization of the public sector happening in Saudi Arabia—required to usher in an era of diversified economic growth and increased opportunities for Saudi citizens—is a change almost as big as Vision 2030 itself. It will have implications for the global public policy discourse.

This week the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman started his American state visit, engaging the world in his vision for the future of Saudi Arabia and the opportunities it provides beyond its borders. Vision 2030 is an ambitious plan to liberalize the economy and introduce social reform and is amongst the biggest socio-economic change in the country’s history.

The scope and reach of these reforms demand a rapid modernization of the way Saudi Arabia is administered. And they raise interesting points to consider for all governments and decision-makers on how to harness technology and data to drive transparency, accountability and efficiency in public policy-making.

The Saudi Vision’s governance model promotes efficient planning within government agencies and enables coordination among them to achieve common national goals. The Crown Prince’s Council of Economic and Development Affairs has introduced a series of new government bodies to support reform efforts, encouraging a culture of greater efficiency. These bodies include the National Center for Performance Measurement (Adaa), the Delivery and Rapid Intervention Center (DARIC) and the Project Management Office of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs—all focused on enabling and supporting change.

Adaa was established to measure the progress and delivery of public entities within Saudi Arabia, enabling them to achieve greater efficiency. Adaa tracks progress on initiatives, programs, and objectives through internationally established measurements, supporting all ministries working towards the ambitious goals set out in Vision 2030. However, Adaa is also looking outwards and has created a first-in-class interactive platform that collects and visualizes global data to help support better data-led policy making for the global community.

The International Performance Hub (IPH) captures 1.2 million data points from leading global indices such as the OECD and the World Bank, using technology developed with Microsoft and Dell, and covers areas ranging from education and energy to society and industry. It is aimed at helping governments, NGOs and multi-lateral agencies make the transformation towards data-driven decision-making, something we believe is key not just for fast-developing economies, but for long established ones too. We hope the IPH can help empower institutions and individuals to get one step closer to addressing today’s most pressing worldwide development challenges.

Importantly, Adaa has been praised by the World Bank on its ability to build a strong in-house team with extensive expertise on performance measurement. In some areas, such as quality assurance or data presentation and visualization, the Bank views Adaa’s expertise as astonishing, saying it is “at or beyond what could be found in many OECD governments”. That indicates our journey may provide an important contribution to the discourse on public sector reform, from Boston to Beijing.

Easy, intuitive data delivery is key to making sure that the Saudi population is kept abreast of progress, which is essential for Vision 2030. That is why Adaa is also capturing citizens’ feedback on public services, to make sure that the voices of the different communities are heard in the evaluation and improvement of government performance. Beneficiary Experience employs several methodologies to capture this feedback including evaluation applications, mystery shoppers, public satisfaction polls and focus groups. This is something that governments across the world are increasingly focused on.

There are early, encouraging, signs that reform is already working in Saudi Arabia. Business licenses for women, for example, went up 11 percent in the last quarter due to deregulation and policy enhancements. Government online services have drastically increased. The WEF Global Information Technology Report Saudi Arabia now ranks 18th globally, compared to the less stellar 73rd position in 2012. Lastly, the Kingdom is moving towards its goal to augment SME contribution to GDP: in the third quarter of 2017, total operational income for the segment increased 11% compared to the same quarter of 2016 (USD 218 million). We aim to improve the private sector contribution to GDP from 40% to 65% under Vision 2030. The only way we will know if we achieve that, and the Vision 2030 program more broadly, is if we track and measure progress, regularly and transparently.

The task at hand is monumental. We want to move away from an economy based solely on oil, so we must completely transform the way we look at our resources and evaluate our economic potential. Our geographic, cultural, social, demographic and economic advantages are all conducive to creating a more diverse and sustainable economy. But we need a public sector built on technology, rigor and quantified, established metrics to get there.

It’s easy to talk about scale and change, but people don’t believe talk, they believe numbers. We are measuring a broader sweep of indicators than ever before. We understand the world is watching, and we understand our citizens are watching. As we change, we hope to share the lessons of our journey with others—the complexities of the modern world will demand much of our public sector, but it also demand similar transformation from government agencies and development communities across the globe.

About the author: Husameddin AlMadani is the Director General for the National Center for Performance Measurement in Saudi Arabia (Adaa). He is at the forefront of the performance revolution in Saudi Arabia; the Center he leads is tasked with measuring the impact and delivery of the Kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030 agenda. He is also a member of the Vision 2030 Strategy Committee headed by the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. In his capacity as a leader of Adaa and the country’s foremost authority on performance measurement, Al Madani has been featured in media including NPR, Sky News, the Times and the World Bank blog.