Envisioning the Future of a Nation
Huda Al Hashimi, Deputy Minister of Cabinet Affairs for Strategic Affairs, talks to Governance Matters about the UAE’s efforts to achieve its ambitious 50-year development plan.
At a ministerial retreat that the UAE Government hosted in 2010, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, announced the UAE Vision 2021 plan, which was an ambitious blueprint to make the UAE one of the best countries in the world in time for the 50th anniversary of the country’s union.
Fast forward to 2022 and, says Huda Al Hashimi, Deputy Minister of Cabinet Affairs for Strategic Affairs, it has been a success. “What happened during those 12 years was transformational,” she told Governance Matters. “When we started we quickly realised that the UAE Government needed to rebuild its capability, machinery, and culture to deliver on the vision.”
The result was a rethink in public policy, with investment in capability-building and innovation, all in a bid to build a new, revolutionary machinery of government. This included a comprehensive legislative reform programme to change the rules on how government and the private sector operated, improving efficiency and transparency through a digitalisation programme that upgraded thousands of services.
This required a fundamental change in outlook. “Strategic planning and performance management became core to how government entities planned for success and delivered results,” Al Hashimi said. “The existence of the planning framework created a stronger sense of accountability. Excellence and competition became essential ingredients for success in government, with several programmes measuring and rewarding excellence explicitly.”
“The benefits of the UAE’s work do not end there. According to Gallup’s 2021 Global Law and Order report, it has the second highest percentage of people who feel safe in the world;1 the joint highest ranking for economic stability in the world, according to the 2019 Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum;2 and the UAE’s economy is today the second largest in the Gulf.”3
Building the Next 50 Years
After the success of Vision 2021, what next for the UAE? The answer is to build on Vision 2021’s success by developing a longer-term mission: the UAE Centennial 2071. This programme of strategic reform taking place over the next 50 years is “seeking to address the fundamental components that create success for a nation,” said Al Hashimi. “The Government has narrowed this down to four pillars: a future-focused government, excellent education, a diversified knowledge economy, and a happy and cohesive society.”
From Vision to Implementation
As policy practitioners well know, it is one thing to energise people with a grand vision and quite another to implement it in the long term. “UAE Centennial 2071 operates on a time-frame an order of magnitude longer than anything we have tried before or that many governments are organising,” said Al Hashimi. “It requires the Government to try and anticipate both what the world will look like in 50 years and what the UAE’s place in that world will be.”
“The development of the UAE Centennial 2071 involved several efforts and workstreams that came together to produce this long-term vision. At a high level, the Government started by reviewing the results of UAE Vision 2021: where did it succeed and why? Where did it aim too low? Where could more have been done to deliver more impact?”
The time scale meant that engaging with youth became a priority for the UAE Government. The Government held several public consultation and engagement programmes that gave citizens an opportunity to be involved in setting the 50-year vision. This went so far as a programme involving nurseries, where children were asked to draw pictures of how they saw the world of the future. “These efforts,” said Al Hashimi, “gave us useful insights on how young people perceive the world, and the dreams they have for its future without the influence of biases or misconceptions.”
Of course, it was not left up to nursery school children alone to envision that future. “The Government organised several future foresight efforts for each of the key sectors, cross-pollinating ideas from UAE-based policymakers as well as experts from around the world, in order to identify the biggest drivers for change, and from that to establish future scenarios and opportunities for the UAE,” said Al Hashimi. “We also held intense, full-scale Cabinet retreats where Government leaders considered where they stood, the opportunities that were before them, and where they wanted the UAE to be in 50 years. This effort was guided by the Prime Minister, who always pushed and encouraged the Cabinet to think bigger.”
Al Hashimi believes that recent events on the world stage have vindicated that approach: “The past few years have shown us that you need to be aware of what is happening around you to be able to adjust as well,” she said. “What we have learned in this cycle is to find enough space to maintain business as usual with its plans and budgets, but to leave room also for large-scale strategic projects.
“As well as being prepared for negative shocks from outside our borders, we can also bring positive change to the rest of the world. For example, the UAE recently pledged US$ 2 billion to support a series of ‘food parks’ in India that will bring together farmers, processors, and retailers to tackle future food shortages through best practice and innovation.”
The Benefits of a Track Record
It is not only the public that has an interest in how and when the 50-year Centennial will be achieved. Government leaders have recognised the need to communicate the Centennial to the civil service. Al Hashimi said that the Government has prioritised accountability and an intentional attitude towards ensuring the Centennial remains at the forefront of civil service thinking. “The leadership vision guides everything that we do,” she said, “from the objectives that we set to the programmes that we work on. There are two questions that can settle any debate: ‘Does this produce tangible results for the citizens and residents of the UAE?’ and ‘Does this help deliver the leadership’s vision?’”
These efforts, the Deputy Minister said, are helped by the achievement of UAE Vision 2021 which showed that the UAE Government has a proven background of success: “When leadership has a track record of setting ambitious targets and then delivering on them, their vision of the future carries more weight and becomes a north star that others can align with. This spurs investment in the economy, especially in the sectors addressed in the vision. It also creates a feeling of confidence and stability in the public.”
Even with the UAE’s track record, crafting a cogent, credible plan of action for a strategy that will outlive many of those working on it is no small task. Crucial to the UAE’s approach has been the detail, ensuring that civil servants are on board with the programme and that they have a clear understanding of their roles within it. Al Hashimi said: “Each government is different, and each government has to do things a little differently. In the UAE, we have a comprehensive strategic planning and performance management framework that guides everything that we do.”
New Processes for a Ground-Breaking Project
To break the long-term goal into manageable targets, the Government divided the 50-year timeframe into 10-year increments, and further into five-year planning cycles. These allowed the Government’s leaders to set concrete, measurable objectives for each planning cycle to ensure adherence to medium-term goals, and formed the basis of budget allocation and performance-tracking.
“Securing public confidence along the way, especially with such a long-term project, is key,” Al Hashimi said. “If there is an endless delay in implementation, that is not something that our nation is willing to accept. So with that there need to be very clear target milestones, so you can actually visibly show the implementation success, celebrate that, and then move on. If there are no milestones during a three-year transformative project, people do not feel what you are doing. You need to show that you are actually making change; the public needs to have a sense that there is progress happening.”
The UAE Government has implemented a performance management system called Adaa (Arabic for “performance”). This system, which continues to evolve every few years as the machinery of government changes, tracks the delivery of strategic and operational programmes and key performance indicators (KPIs) across government. The system shows how each initiative in government, and each KPI, contributes to the delivery of the one-year operational plan, the five- and 10-year strategic plans, and ultimately the 50-year vision.
Leaders have also crafted a series of initiatives to identify and accelerate priority projects. Last year, the Prime Minister rolled out a new methodology that called for a greater focus on short-term transformative programmes with tangible impact. These programmes, known as the transformative projects, are the responsibility of Cabinet Ministers, who sign performance contracts committing to their delivery.
At a higher level, the Government is also focusing on four to five transformation projects per entity, projects that embody the long-term vision and come with annual targets that can demonstrate their impact. This effort involved getting ministers and civil service leaders together to identify their top annual priorities and to make those the subject of a five-day accelerator. These sessions brought together groups of civil servants identified by their ministries or agencies to design their strategies and plan their transformative projects for this year.
What makes a transformative project? “These programmes are priorities to show rapid change and impact,” Al Hashimi said. “It needs to be measurable, if you cannot measure what you are proposing then it will not be identified as a transformative project."
“Also, it should be disruptive. If it is business as usual, then the entity should add that within their normal strategy. If it is something that is not the usual way of doing things, then we can push that through. The key message we want to give is that we want to build on what we do rather than stay stagnant. That is why we are building a strong culture of performance management and a strong culture around strategy planning.”
Working Across Government
To facilitate complex projects, the UAE Government has also introduced two innovative systems.
Cross-sectoral high-priority programmes, which are more than 30 initiatives identified by the Government that require the coordination of several ministries or entities to execute them effectively, are programmes that are critical for the achievement of the UAE Centennial and often require systemic, transformative change. These cross-sectoral programmes are tracked at the centre of government by the Cabinet General Secretariat, and their progress is reported directly to the Prime Minister for accountability.
The other is a three-day Annual Government Meeting. These events gather all the senior leadership from the Federal Government as well as the Governments of the seven emirates to ensure that all are aligned, and to give them the opportunity to coordinate for maximum impact.
Al Hashimi says that all this innovation is an inevitable consequence of the scale of the UAE Government’s ambitions. “Our leadership puts very ambitious, sometimes seemingly impossible, visions for us to deliver,” she said. “To achieve success, we have to ensure that all government work stays true to that vision, and continuously look for ways to make the impossible possible. Not backing down to more realistic expectations has challenged us to look for these innovative solutions. A big part of our work involves nudging leaders and teams towards more ambitious programmes. Not thinking big enough is often where things can break down between setting the vision and the resulting implementation.”
Stewarding National Values
The Deputy Minister re-affirmed that the entire journey is possible only because it is supported by a sense of national destiny, a common belief that everyone is working towards an agreed goal, one that may be ambitious but can be reached if the entire country wills itself forward.
“When a nation tries to reinvent itself, to match and then exceed the leading nations of the world, this requires a phenomenal effort from everyone from the most senior leaders to the most junior employees. It also requires that everyone who is involved in this effort puts the best interests of the nation above their own personal interests. They must believe that ultimately this will come back to them many times over when they see the results of their work in how their nation has developed.
“This level of commitment and sacrifice can only be made by people who have a greater purpose, a greater calling. We believe that no purpose is more important to us than the story that the UAE stands for,” Al Hashimi said.
“Most importantly, the UAE Government believes that our people deserve the best, and there is no reason why they should not get it. It shows when leaders believe in why they do what they do. It shows in the passion with which they lead and in the decisions they make.”
The Critical Lessons on
Implementation from Vision 2021
Visions tend to be very exciting at the start, writes Huda Al Hashimi, but then people forget about them quite quickly. With Vision 2021, the UAE Government kept it alive by breaking down the timescales, having milestones such as annual government meetings that could show that tangible progress was made and it was improving people’s lives. That gives everybody involved a sense of progress. Of course, there is a balance to be struck between studying the issues and diving in head first, but if there is anything that we have learned from the past two years,
it is the importance of agility.
I have been fortunate to have gone through many rounds of articulating a vision, starting earlier in my career from the local perspective in the city of Dubai before moving to the national level for the whole of the UAE. At a city level, you are able to do things that are more concrete, more direct with the citizens that you serve.
At the national level, you are looking at multiple cities and their goals, how they align and how the cities’ different strengths come into play. It is important that ambitions and priorities align with where each level of government can be most effective.
The UAE Government, in its endeavour to implement its programmes, took the national vision into classrooms, teaching children about what it was, why it mattered, and how they could contribute both now and in their future careers. Outreach projects like these help to keep the mission connected to the people. It is important not to be too rigid or bureaucratic and become disconnected from the public.
We live in a fast-moving world and an approach that was valid in 2014 would operate very differently now. You need to be engaged and to show foresight about what is happening around us. This does not necessarily have to come from government, it could come from the private sector, civil society, or think tanks. For example, the UAE Government certainly borrowed ideas for how to drive through policy from the accelerators you see in the start-up business community.
Huda Al Hashimi leads the process of developing the National Agenda to meet the UAE Leadership’s Vision as Deputy Minister of Cabinet Affairs for Strategic Affairs. She coordinates country-level strategies and provides consultations to the UAE government on issues related to strategy and innovation, representing the UAE locally and internationally. Al Hashimi also leads the setup and operation of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation (MBRCGI), established to stimulate and enrich innovation within the government sector.