What will Biden’s Summit mean for the Indo-Pacific?

A research perspective.

Uma Kalkar, Andrew Young and Stefaan Verhulst
GovLab, New York University

Making public decisions is tough and getting tougher. From climate change to food insecurity, geopolitics to forced migration, the challenges confronting today’s decision-makers in the Indo-Pacific are unprecedented in their complexity and urgency. Standard decision-making toolkits seem stale and existing governance institutions appear increasingly sluggish and distrusted. In addition, restrictions on free speech online, military interventions in electoral processes, and corruption in governance and policing institutions are complicating legitimate attempts to innovate how we solve public problems.

Better data is central to better governance

Decision-makers around the world increasingly recognise that data and data science are central to meeting societal challenges and accelerating social innovation, philanthropy, international development, and humanitarian aid. The World Bank’s 2021 World Development Report, titled Data for Better Lives, provides further evidence of how data is becoming an essential asset for governance. The Summit for Democracy, President Biden’s effort to renew global action to protect and update democracy, should anticipate the role of data and technology in tackling today’s governance challenges.

But current approaches to using data for governance are often limited. Many data initiatives start from the data that is available, not the questions that matter and that could be transformative if asked and answered. Whether data improves governance will depend on what questions we ask, and how we define and prioritise them. Too often, data priorities are developed without engaging key stakeholders and communities to determine what kind of insight would help them the most to leverage data for solving public problems. We need not only data science but also a new science or methodology for formulating questions.

Earlier this year The GovLab teamed up with the Asia Foundation, the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development in Bangladesh, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies Indonesia to test out such a new methodology and find the top ten most pressing, high-impact questions around governance practices that could be answered if relevant datasets were leveraged in a responsible manner.

The linchpin of the process was tapping the brain trust of ‘bilinguals’, international and multisectoral individuals with both subject matter expertise and data science know-how. We sourced these participants to define and prioritise the core questions facing governance worldwide that would leverage data, setting the agenda for using data to improve governance. Following this expert consultation, we engaged with the broader public to gauge priority perceptions and steer actions.

To steer the sourcing of questions from the ‘bilinguals’, we developed and used a question taxonomy around the types of insights data can provide. In particular, we asked the bilinguals to focus on four types of questions that can help stakeholders unlock the value of data for governance. First, descriptive questions can help to increase situational awareness through the use of data. Global efforts to leverage data to understand COVID-19 trends and geographic distribution are one notable example. Diagnostic questions can help stakeholders gain a sense of cause and effect – tracking how media consumption patterns impact political behaviour, for example. Third, predictive questions can seek to forecast future events, such as anticipating the effects of climate change and adapting governance strategies to address future needs. Finally, prescriptive and evaluative questions seek to prescribe and assess the impact of policies or interventions, such as the deployment of alternative voting mechanisms.

The resulting list of questions looks at topics such as accountability, transparency, monitoring, institutional capacity, and inclusion in governance practices, citizen engagement, and mobilisation in the wake of social media and democratic regression. They include, for instance:

  • What is the relationship between transparency of government performance and public trust in government institutions? Which factors have the most significant impact on increasing public trust in government?
  • Does open governance affect the accountability of those in power; facilitate public debate and participation; and lead to more inclusive, transparent and timely decision-making?
  • How has democratic regression (erosion of democratic norms and standards) affected public service delivery? Does less democratic governance lead to less effective service delivery?
  • If citizens have greater access to data and information, does that mobilise them to take action and engage politically? Under what circumstances does that happen?
  • Which populations/groups are not represented in data that is collected and used for formal government decision-making? Who is most at risk of being excluded from consideration with the rise in data innovations?

These questions provide an action agenda for policy-makers, data stewards, and decision-makers across sectors to channel their efforts toward answering questions that have been crafted by experts and validated by the general public. Rather than taking a scattershot or ad hoc approach to the use of data to improve governance, stakeholders within the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere now possess a roadmap and organising framework for their efforts. These questions serve as a springboard to create meaningful data collaboratives and involve a breadth of stakeholders to channel data and expertise across society toward more effective and legitimate governance.

What are the key takeaways from our process and how does it relate to the Summit for Democracy? First, good questions serve as the bedrock for effective and data-driven decision-making across the governance ecosystem. Second, sourcing multidisciplinary and global experts allows us to paint a fuller picture of the hot-button issues and encourage a more nuanced understanding of priorities. Lastly, including the public as active participants in the process of designing questions can help to increase the legitimacy of and obtain a social impact for data efforts, as well as tap into the collective intelligence that exists across society.

A final word

A key focus for world leaders, civil society members, academics, and private sector representatives at the Summit for Democracy should not only be on how to promote open governance by democratising data and data science. It must also consider how we can democratise and improve the way we formulate and prioritise questions facing society. To paraphrase Albert Einstein’s famous quote: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes”.

Uma Kalkar, Andrew Young and Stefaan Verhulst
GovLab, New York University

Standard decision-making toolkits seem stale and existing governance institutions appear increasingly sluggish and distrusted.

Whether data improves governance will depend on what questions we ask, and how we define and prioritise them.