Dubai’s skyline shimmers like quartz; its soaring towers crammed with luxury boutiques and high-end hotels.

The United Arab Emirates has built a reputation for luxury, especially in its tourism sector. Little wonder, then, that this hospitality culture pervades the ranks of its public services. Innovation is often shaped by local context, and the government has borrowed from its towers and tourist attractions.

“We have a 7 star rating for our service centres, similar to the hotel industry,” explains Huda Al Hashimi, Assistant Director General in the UAE Prime Minister’s Office. “Every single service centre in our government has a plaque outside with stars, and they are audited by Lloyds of London so we have no influence on how these ratings are done.”

This rating provides an easy-to-grasp incentive for local public servants. Those that get five stars or above are visited by the Prime Minister, who awards the plaque directly, while those who have three stars or below “psychologically get a bit upset,” she says. “You work harder to improve”.

This scheme is one of many that the UAE has pioneered. Al Hashimi is responsible for using innovation to change the culture of government, overseeing the Mohammad Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation. She exclusively shared her lessons learned, and plans for the years ahead.

Straight from the top

First, a history lesson. The UAE gained independence in 1971, and much has changed since then. The country pushed relentlessly to establish a place on the world stage, using its oil wealth to press ahead across all sectors of the economy.

The spectacular growth of Dubai, its biggest city, is the best metaphor for the country as a whole.
“We see innovation as part of our DNA,” Al Hashimi says. “The fact that we have been able to achieve what we have achieved as a country in a very short period of time… we had to be very innovative.”

Like other countries that inherited limited infrastructure – Estonia and Singapore spring to mind – the government innovated out of need. Each took on the characteristics of its bigger industries: Singapore is run a little like a large property developer, with land the dominant focus of many policies; Estonia is more like one of its startups, experimenting often with technology.

The UAE, meanwhile, is engineering itself to success. It sets out big targets and invests heavily to achieve these. The latest national strategy is called Vision 2021, and contains detailed KPIs to achieve by the country’s 50th anniversary.

These targets cut “were not easy to obtain, so [they] needed a different mindset, a different form of push,” Al Hashimi admits. Four years after launching the strategy, the country created a Centre For Government Innovation that is “directly attached to the Prime Minister’s Office [and] as close to the leadership as possible”.

This centre has a remit to plan ahead with government, the private sector, and individuals, Al Hashimi says. “Our role is not to do, but to enable,” she adds. They create experiments in government, train officials, launch partnerships with industry, and engage the public in their plans.

Enter their labs

They call their key approach “innovation labs”, which aren’t permanent units – as in many countries – but a common framework for policymaking.

“We invite the private sector, we invite youth, we invite academics to come and co-create with government,” Al Hashimi explains. Like at PEMANDU in Malaysia, the ‘labs’ pull together thinkers from across sectors for brainstorming sessions. But, unlike in Malaysia, these intensive sessions last for a single day(albeit with extensive preparations). They also have substantial resources at their disposal.

“We give them access to tech shops and other areas so that they can prototype solutions with the private sector and with government,” she notes. One lab was held on climate change, with people testing sensors for air quality data and drones to improve pollution levels.

Another lab was held on healthcare, looking at ways to reduce diabetes. “These labs are a breakaway from the conventional way of addressing solutions to challenges,” she says, with a focus on generating ideas quickly to meet the national KPIs.

The labs even have backing from the very top of government. “The majority of the time, his Highness attends these labs as well, so these lab participants present their innovative solutions to the leadership,” Al Hashimi says. “On the spot, they actually get the endorsement that they need to make these solutions happen.”

Once an idea is endorsed, they are fast-tracked through the bureaucracy and pilots are launched. The PM’s delivery unit, also under Al Hashimi, allocates budget, staffing, and receives monthly progress updates. Some policies are even enacted at the labs – such as medical licensing. “We had three different local governments that were spending years to agree on a criteria for doctors. They agreed it on the spot and they signed it on that day.”

Chief Innovation Officers

chief innovation officers

How does government ensure that departments embrace the findings from these labs? They have appointed “change agents,” Al Hashimi says, who encourage a different way of thinking – even in the most risk averse of agencies.

Government has a dedicated Chief Innovation Officer in every single federal agency – 48 in total – and they are held responsible for pushing departments to deliver ambitious policies.

They even have their own budget, with 1% of all government spending allocated centrally for “fostering innovation in government”. CIOs use this to run training programmes, conduct labs, work across ministries, engage citizens, and experiment to hit the KPIs from the national strategy.

These roles have changed the mindset across government, Al Hashimi says. With clear political backing, agencies have embraced new concepts, and invested heavily in changing policymaking to make it more experimental.

Unsurprisingly, winning one of these positions is tough, with a special diploma needed before someone begins in the role. Successful applicants study on a dedicated course at Cambridge University and “can only graduate if they can prove an actual innovation solves a government challenge,” she says.

Future skills

This segues well into a challenge that all governments face – figuring out the skills that future civil servants need. What does the UAE make of the changing role of public servants?

The country is investing in its softer skills, Al Hashimi says. “There’s a lot of training in terms of mindfulness, positivity, acceptance of change,” she notes. Officials need to be able to accept and embrace quick changes to their delivery models, she adds.

There is even a dedicated Ministry of Cabinet Affairs and Future, which places a strong emphasis on strategic foresight and experimentation. They have the Dubai Futures Foundation, for example which is making waves with announcements on using blockchain across government. It runs a global summit for innovation labs, and also has built a ‘museum of the future’ that will help citizens and entrepreneurs trial new ideas in a dedicated facility.

While Vision 2021 sets out plans for the next five years, government has teams that are already furiously innovating ahead to plan for the next 50. Key objectives include reducing reliance on fossil fuels, using renewables to power the country, continuing to diversify the economy, and building health and education.

Government innovations are, ultimately, shaped both by their local economies and their leaders. Australia has a former internet entrepreneur pledging “agile policymaking”; Indonesia’s cities tend to be run by architects who favour big urban development plans.

The UAE is engineering its future with massive investments and milestones. They built a global metropolis in the desert in just over 40 years. What will be its digital equivalent?

The Government of the UAE is running the World Government Summit from 12 – 14 February 2017