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By sharing data Gulf government agencies will improve decision making

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Government agencies in the Gulf are notoriously reluctant to share data. This massively impedes local researchers’ ability to contribute to policymaking, and inadvertently creates a dependence on extravagant international consultants.

Good statecraft requires a change in cultural attitudes toward data accessibility.

As an academic working in the US, acquiring data from a government agency was straightforward. Ideally, the data would be freely available, like the wealth of statistics at the Federal Reserve system or the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other entities had simple privacy-related forms to complete, while smaller agencies required an email to a data manager whose contact details were clearly presented on the agency’s website.

Generally speaking, the biggest potential impediment was a work-shy civil servant masterfully combining byzantine processes with out-of-office email responses to evade your request. However, data handlers largely expect and welcome data requests from researchers, and are even keen to learn from your final results when available. The Gulf’s data culture is decidedly worse. Many government agencies publicly share no data, or their data is patchy and old.

Moreover, they intentionally present data in aggregated form so as to remove all of the details that could assist a scholar in answering an interesting research question.

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When you reach out to the civil servants by phone or email, they are usually primed to respond to a data request with a low grade interrogation: “Who are you? What do you want to do with the data? Why are you doing that research project?” Getting any data will often involve a letter from the head of your organization to the head of theirs, offering ample opportunity for the request to drown in an ocean of red tape.

Gulf researchers are therefore prevented from taking the initiative in assisting policymakers. If an American scholar has constructive suggestions for the US Treasury, they can use the abundant freely available data to make a rigorous case, and then share the research with peers and the Treasury itself. The resulting discussions elevate the quality of both policymaking and research.

The skyline of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014, is seen at night in this aerial photograph from a helicopter. (AFP)
The skyline of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014, is seen at night in this aerial photograph from a helicopter. (AFP)

A Gulf-based researcher trying the same thing is instantly derailed because they have no data with which to investigate the issue or prepare a compelling argument.

This system also means that local researchers are unable to distinguish themselves as experts in the work of those government agencies. When an American president seeks the counsel of an expert on the US environment, there are many options among the thousands of American environmental scientists who have downloaded and analyzed the data provided by the Environmental Protection Agency and other government entities, and who have published scientific papers in leading journals, forging a reputation for excellence in that field.

Their peers in the Gulf cannot cultivate similar reputations because they are denied the crucial ingredient that is data. Consequently, it is far more difficult for these local scholars to compete with global consulting firms when offering advisory services to policymakers, leading to their marginalization and disenchantment.

The roots of this culture are deep-seated power dynamics in the civil service. Rather than seeing the sharing of data with people outside the organization as a way of generating mutually beneficial insights, Gulf functionaries typically perceive granting access to their data as making a rod for their own back. The data may be used to demonstrate weaknesses in their performance, either as an inadvertent byproduct of the research, or even as part of a Machiavellian plot by the researcher to undermine the agency’s leadership.

Ignorance plays a role, too: some civil servants have minimal exposure to the concept of research and how it can contribute to policymaking, and so they can’t even imagine that your data request is rooted in an honest desire to produce valuable knowledge. This anti-intellectualism is reflected in the fact that Gulf civil servants rarely invite scholars to share their research with the agency even when they do grant access to data, since they literally don’t care what your research findings are.

As a first step to addressing these deficiencies, government agencies should convene symposia where external researchers are invited to share the research they have conducted using that agency’s data. The agency’s head should attend, listen attentively, and engage the researchers regarding how additional data might help them produce better research.

The Gulf countries’ economic visions are about creating knowledge economies. They cannot be realized if government knowledge stays in narrow silos uninhabited by researchers, and guarded by Gollum-like civil servants shrieking “my precious.” It is time to open the floodgates and allow Gulf researchers to bathe in a sea of data.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.