Should the Gates Foundation Do Data Differently?

November 8, 2017 5 By Duncan Green

Spent a fascinating day last week talking to staff at the Gates Foundation at its HQ in a cold, grey and sleety Seattle (felt quite at bmgflhome). I presented the book in one of those ‘brownbag lunches’ that Americans love (although these days ‘clear plastic box lunches’ would be more accurate), and we then got on to discussing the implications for aid agencies in general and foundations in particular (here’s the slides from my presentation – foundation-relevant stuff at the end).

One big issue for them is data – how can they get the data that they and their partners collect to have more of an impact on policy discussions? I drew a comparison with other areas like governance, where people have realized that the kind of focus on supply side that we now see on data has failed to deliver the anticipated results – all those ‘capacity building’ workshops on good governance don’t amount to a revolution, apparently.

The governance people then moved on to work more on the demand side – let’s strengthen civil society to demand better governance (cue more workshops). More recently, they have gone into ‘convening and brokering’ mode (bringing together different, even mutually hostile actors to look for common solutions), along with ‘working with the grain’ of existing institutions, rather than just trying to implant alien institutions from elsewhere.

What might be the equivalent process on data, which in some ways is really just another institution?

Big DataOn the demand side, we know that decision makers are influenced by ‘critical junctures’ – those moments when windows of opportunity open up, often linked to shocks and failures, and those in charge suddenly become open to new ideas to sort out the mess. But the supply side of data is remorselessly steady state and not geared up to respond to such moments. So how about setting up a rapid reaction unit that spots such opportunities, then mobilizes the data from Gates and elsewhere and gets it into the hands of the right people?

And what’s the equivalent of ‘working with the grain’ when it comes to data – are there different kinds of locally data that are more deeply embedded in different societies than the standard universal metrics used by the international aid system? Would using that kind of data make it easier to influence policies and (maybe even more) social norms?

In passing, I also think the Foundation is slightly deluding itself when it swears allegiance to the unadulterated elixir of ‘evidence based policy making’, where evidence alone determines what governments do, and the nature of that evidence is heavily skewed towards statistical data (rather than, say, experience and judgement). Why? Because the Foundation’s own success illustrates that influence is often more about the messenger than the message – the fact that it is Bill and Melinda lobbying governments often matters as much or more than whether their message is data driven. So perhaps the Foundation should be more explicit about the importance of champions (and expand them beyond the Gateses – BMGF fellows dotted around the world? Evidence Elders?)

As for the equivalent of ‘convening and brokering’, how about hosting data surgeries, where the Foundation uses its convening power to persuade decision makers to present their thorniest problems, and a team of evidence geeks then help them identify what data could be of use in addressing them, and process it into a useable form. Is that already happening somewhere?

A couple of other ideas: select a dozen of the Foundation’s greatest hits – the iconic stories of success that every Too-much-data-300x150institution tells itself – and go back and do a rigorous ‘how change happens’ study on each. That would reconstruct a timeline, identify the accidents and blind alleys, champions, blockers etc and come to a more nuanced view of the role of data in influencing policy, compared to other factors like messengers, chance and so on. See previous rant about the risks of airbrushing out all the messiness and politics in the stories we tell ourselves and others about social change.

One other exchange at the Brownbag was interesting – I was asked what to suggest when there was ‘no neat conceptual model’ for the kind of systems-driven, adaptive management approach I was advocating. My response: ‘well, actually there is a very good model – entrepreneurs’. Can’t believe I ended up telling the Gates Foundation to learn from entrepreneurs! What is interesting is that the way they behave often bears little relation to the kinds of procedures even the Gates Foundation demands: I suggested they ask Bill to submit Microsoft’s strategy circa 1980 to see if it would have qualified for a Gates grant…..

Over to any of the Gates people who were present to set me straight or add their bit.