Want a development data revolution? How about giving staff more autonomy?

2 min read
A recent presentation I gave at the World Bank on becoming a data smart development organization provided me with a good excuse to revisit Nesta’s report on the “Rise of the Datavores”. The report, which is soon to be followed by a new piece of research,  revealed how only a small minority of UK businesses (18%) base their decisions on data analysis (what would be the percentage in the development sector?) . The authors call this minority “the datavores” and identify some interesting traits that characterize them: for example, datavores are twice as likely to run controlled experiments to see what works and they are 25% more likely to say they launch products and services before competitors. It was the chart below, however, that particularly caught my attention. It shows that that data driven decision making and decentralization of authority go hand in hand. “Datavore” companies (DDC) are significantly more likely to agree than their less data savvy competitors (XDC) that their employees are free to try new ideas and set the pace of their work.
Source: Nesta, The Rise of the Datavores
The authors conclude that:  
“Businesses perhaps need to take a hard look at their organisational and management structures if they are to fully reap the benefits of data. They need to ensure that data is available wherever it can be deployed more effectively, and that those employees who have the right data are empowered
 to act on it”
Perhaps the reason why this chart particularly resonated with me is that I had just finished reading Owen Barder’s excellent speech [pdf] on evidence and scale in development, in which he presents the results of 2 studies – a review of evaluations of 10,000 aid projects from nine different development organizations and an analysis of 4,700 public sector projects in Nigeria. Both studies point in the same direction. The first one shows that “aid agencies that allow a large degree of autonomy to their people on the ground and in implementing agencies see a much lower decline in performance for projects in a complex environment than do agencies which exert a higher degree of monitoring and control”.  Along the same lines, the second study indicates “that freedom to adapt and respond improves results for most programmes but most especially for complex projectsand that performance monitoring has a significant negative effect on results;.
Based on this evidence, Owen concludes that: 
'It is the autonomy, not the results measurement, which is bringing about the improvement. It follows that the results agenda is likely to improve project effectiveness when it is used instead of micromanagement of inputs and processes, but likely to make little or no difference if it is used on top of that micromanagement, as has often been the case with official aid agencies in recent years.’
So far the heated debate on the “data revolution” and the post2015 agenda has focused, for obvious reasons, on issues such as data quality, new targets and indicators, better feedback loops, open and big data, new approaches to monitoring and evaluation, etc. If we want more development sector “datavores”, should equal emphasis be put on data availability at key decision-making points (ie. close to the action) and staff autonomy to act on insights from those data? 

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