Exclusive: Change procurement to support innovation - ADB Tech Chief

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Shirin Hamid, Principal Director and CIO of the Asian Development Bank.

Traditional “rule-based” procurement is not going to fly in today’s world, says Shirin Hamid, Principal Director and CIO of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). “It will be three years before you go wherever you want to be, and with the rate of change, you’re going to be left behind.”

There are certain roles and ways of working in governments that need to change to accommodate for innovation and transformation, Hamid tells GovInsider. She is speaking from experience: This CIO has been leading ambitious IT and data governance reforms within the ADB, keen to modernise how the decades-old organisation operates.

She spoke with GovInsider on the sidelines of the recent ConnectGov Leaders Summit in Edinburgh, Scotland on data governance reform, her insights into spearheading innovation efforts, and what lays ahead in the next few years.

The thing about innovation

ADB works closely with governments and private sector in Asia Pacific to further development agendas, support sustainable long-term growth, build digital economies, and eradicate poverty through finance and knowledge products and services. But these development projects, in the form of loans and grants, typically mean working primarily with finance ministries – which may not necessarily “know the technical language”, Hamid says.

The entire procurement approach needs to change for the digital age, she believes. For instance, “how do you change your procurement documents to actually allow for real time reporting and monitoring?” Hamid remarks. The ADB procurement and operations teams are actively transforming procurement in this direction, she adds.

At the same time, leadership must change too – and be “hungry to do more”. The bottom line is that innovation must come from the top, Hamid stresses. Innovation will surely fail if it is not the priority of an organisation’s leadership, she thinks.

Leading differently

There are CIOs comfortable with backend, ‘keeping the lights on’ type stuff, says Hamid. “But if you really think you are into digital transformation, actually taking the country, ministry, organisation to digital transformation, your role has shifted.” What’s more, innovation needs a well thought-out, long-term strategy that effectively integrates digital into development plans, she continues.

Hamid acknowledges that government counterparts can “still be hesitant” to think about the potential of transformation. “They often don’t have the art of the imagination of putting in IOT, digital twins.” It is up to the leaders of today and tomorrow to rethink how technology could change people’s lives for the better.

Public-private partnerships are one piece of this puzzle, Hamid adds. The right partner can help to bring the “art of possibilities” to the attention of decision-makers, who have the clout to integrate innovative ideas into roadmaps and country plans, she believes. The ADB set up a dedicated Digital Technology for Development Unit last year that functions as a “broker for partnerships” and helps governments discover the possibilities of technology, according to Hamid. They work “from an operational perspective, harnessing the various technologies and capabilities”.

Another piece of the puzzle is the need for change in culture and mindsets, which are just as important for APAC governments as having enough resources for development. “How do you have the institutional capacity to actually leverage on digital technologies to drive that digital economy?” Hamid muses. “It’s about people, the process, culture. Sort that one out, have the right vision, and then you get there.”

Busting siloes

Before ADB can work effectively with governments seeking change, it first needs to look inwards. “If your ICT infrastructure is outdated, if your own internal capacity is outdated, then how do you actually present yourselves to your partners?” she points out. “For the institution to actually to be an effective partner out there, we need to walk the talk.”

She began by addressing large, rigid legacy systems, and changing the organisation’s attitudes towards data. Data governance reform starts with mindsets, says Hamid.

This means helping everyone in the organisation, across all levels, to understand their role in collecting, owning, and analysing data. It involves creating a “common vision” for the organisation, where everyone can understand the impact and value of data, and feel a collective responsibility for it, Hamid explains.

Often, the people at the top have a better understanding of the function and value of good data, versus the people in the trenches at the bottom – the ones who are actually carrying out data entry, Hamid notes. “What do you mean by building people and building capacity, if you don’t have that common vision? People on the ground also have to understand that they are not building data just for their own department – it has actual meaningful impact as it cascades up and down the organisation.”

This is one answer to the problem of siloed data. “The perception out there is, it’s my data. It’s not the institution’s data, it is not the country’s data,” Hamid notes. ADB tackled this by creating a ‘data dictionary’ that spelled out definitions, guidelines, usage, and formats of data for 11 key indicators. Data dictionaries are meant to help organisations better manage their databases and organise metadata. This way, everyone in the organisation has a common understanding of the data that it collects, and what it is worth, Hamid continues.

The next few years will see further changes to the ADB. Hamid is keen to create a “digital twin for the organisation”. This will help the organisation keep close tabs on the progress of various projects, and “drive insights, and value and impact”, according to her. She also hopes to use AI to “scour our project completion reports, lessons learned, and the insights from the news” and compile all of that into something insightful.

Her vision would be to bring newness and dynamism to how this largely traditional organisation works. And if it works within the ADB, hopefully it works for regional governments. “Sometimes you have to take risks.”

Shirin Hamid was speaking at the ConnectGov Leaders Summit in Edinburgh, Scotland on 8-10 July, organised by CIO Academy Asia.