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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Big data presents opportunity for innovation in policy making

Public policy wonks and aficionados of bureaucracy swear by evidence-based decision making. However, it is also undeniable that critical public policies seldom achieve intended outcomes. More often, public policies are associated with either unintended consequences or ambiguous outcomes. Whenever policies succeed or fail, it is unclear for whom and why.

For example, free primary education policy implemented in all EAC member states has not produced access everywhere. Moreover, learning outcomes are uneven and contested. Various agricultural policy provisions have not improved national food and nutritional security or eliminated the need to import primary food commodities. Moreover, policies and programs aimed at improving maternal, neonatal and child health have produced mixed results.

Sound evidence is necessary but not sufficient to produce desired, equitable wellbeing outcomes as consequence of policy or program implementation. The abundance of misalignment of policy objectives and policy outcomes suggests that existing evidence-based approaches to policy making do not address the critical elements across the policy cycle, which are necessary for effective program or policy implementation and results or impact

Moreover, the context of policymaking has become more complex. Public participation and bottom up actions are becoming increasingly important, often required by law. Citizens are more literate, well informed and actively engaged in the policy formulation and implementation process as well as government decisions and actions. More and more, with the ubiquity of social media platforms and with devolved levels of government, citizens have become agents of good governance and not passive beneficiaries.

Big data – the burst in variety, velocity and volume of data, including growing prominence of unstructured, non-sampled data available on social media – is providing new opportunities for innovation in the policy cycle, and especially with a huge potential to improve policy effectiveness. The emergence of big data has made possible the development of tools, including statistical and geospatial analysis, sentiment analysis and visualization, which aim to support key stakeholders at every stage of the policy cycle hence facilitating hindsight, deepening insight and informing foresight.

While traditional policy analysis has been devoted to retrospective (ex post) analysis, the combination of complexity thinking and big data analytics will enable a critical addition to the toolbox, prospective (ex ante) analysis, which essentially informs foresight hence, defining expected policy impacts, while enabling near real time policy/program evaluation and refinement during implementation.

Policy or program design and implementation is on the cusp of a fundamental leap; from decision-based approaches to an exciting new dawn of intelligence-based models that are powered by big data analytics.

Big data therefore provides an invaluable companion for program development and design, identification of indictors for program monitoring and evaluation as well as stakeholder mapping.

In my view big data analytics presents an opportunity for policy makers and bureaucrats, as well as big donor agencies to think and design policies and programs as testable change hypothesis. Moreover, implementation locations provide unique geographic, socio-economic and institutional arenas for real world experimentation, testing and learning innovation in policy formulation and implementation.

We must halt the decline of our universities

The report on quality audit of university education by Kenya’s Commission for University Education (CUE) was a sobering indictment of the state of university education. The problems are grave and range from missing grades to the quality faculty staff to widespread academic fraud.

The findings of the CUE report, which was released early this year, demands that bold actions must be taken to restore the credibility of Kenya’s universities. This is especially critical in the age of a competitive knowledge-based global economy. Our true and most dependable resource is the quality of our human capital. We cannot afford to gamble with the future of our youth.

The time to act to restore confidence in public universities and secure the future of our country is now. Last week Dr. Matiangi, CS Education, urged stakeholders to re-examine how public universities are run. According to Dr. Matiangi, a lot of “bad things” are happening in our universities and the government could no longer “live with the kind of wastage and corruption that thrives in our universities”.

Dr. Matiangi has signaled a raft of reforms. These include tightening financial management. For example, the Universities Funding Board will manage financial disbursements. Moreover, all tuition revenue from parallel programs will be remitted to the national treasury. In 2015, Treasury CS revealed that public universities accounted for the largest share of “missing billions” of internally generated funds.

Public universities have not been transparent about their staffing levels. A recent audit revealed that all 31 public universities were not honest about the number of employees they have, inflating the figures by 2,513. In his recommendation for reform, CS Matiangi wants all support staff to be hired on contracts as opposed to the current terms, which are permanent appointments. 

Furthermore, Dr. Matiangi recommends that junior academic staff, tutorial fellows and lecturers, should be hired on short contract basis. Only senior lecturers and the professoriate will be hired on permanent and pensionable terms. As one would expect, this will be resisted by the Universities’ Academic Staff Union.

The reforms proposed by CS Matiangi can make a huge difference. One would hope that the Universities Funding Board does not become a painful, inscrutable new cuticle of bureaucracy, which in time becomes infected with Kenya’s most inevitable afflictions, corruption and ineptitude.  

The transition of terms of employment from permanent to fleeting contracts must be managed with sensitivity. Untidy contracts for junior faculty could dry out the supply of a dynamic and motivated reservoir of future professors. We must be clear about the criteria for promotion to the ranks of senior lecturer – the golden gate into permanency. Dr. Matiangi must tread carefully here.

That Dr. Matiangi’s reforms are well meaning is not in doubt. What is in doubt is whether these reforms can be executed conscientiously. The future is summoning all of us to do the right thing by our children. Universities cannot be havens for corruption and fraud. Universities must the pillars of rectitude and moral clarity.


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