The role of data in decision-making: Dr. Kesete Admasu joins 3-D Commission roundtable

Big Win Philanthropy CEO and former Minister of Health of Ethiopia Dr. Kesete Admasu recently joined a discussion with current and former policymakers to examine how data can guide and improve decision-making on health-related policies.

Hosted by the 3-D Commission, the event was held as governments and health ministries across Africa face the critical and unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, accelerating the need for better informed decision-making.

It was observed that in many countries the response to the coronavirus has not benefited from high quality, widespread data, with decision-making still very reliant on traditional approaches to data collection or on the sporadic supply of information from new digital sources.

This reflects the fact that many governments are behind on their digitization efforts. Comprehensive data science systems with input on the social determinants of health (genetics, behavior, environmental and physical influences, medical care and social factors) are a rarity.

The roundtable heard that even major multilateral organizations have yet to fully integrate data science streams into their decision-making, with data science teams often divided between those who want to overhaul digital systems, and those who are perhaps more pragmatic and would rather integrate one innovation at a time.

Increasing the use of evidence-informed policy choices and is central to Big Win’s core mission of helping African leaders deliver on their transformational visions for children and young people.

Dr. Kesete emphasized that for countries to achieve their transformative agendas, effective cross-sectoral collaborations are essential in addition to data-driven decision making, as implementation all too often remains stuck in sectoral siloes.

He cited Ethiopia’s 2015  Seqota Declaration, a commitment to end stunting among children under the age of two by 2030, as an example of a multi-sectoral approach that has delivered results.

The declaration called for one plan, one budget, and one report, with inputs from ten government ministries. It is embedded into Ethiopia’s national development plan and uses monthly growth monitoring for children under 2 years as the confirmation that households are effectively being reached with integrated interventions.

Dr Kesete also stressed that health ministries must be able to speak the language of other ministries in order to advance their goals. It was better to talk to a finance minister, for example, about the benefits that spending on health would have on economic development, rather than making a simple emotional appeal about how many children would suffer if certain policies were underfunded, because so many departments had a compelling moral case in favor of receiving a bigger share of the national budget.

It is equally important to design tools to communicate the data to policy makers. He recalled how the Ministry of Health, during his tenure, had introduced clearly designed scorecards which compared how Ethiopia’s 11 regions and city administrations were faring on major health indicators. The scorecards and the narrative reports were shared quarterly to regional presidents. The move was effective in raising the performance of some regions.

While agreeing that a great deal of work needed to be done in building reliable data systems, participants concurred that the digital tools do exist to present data compellingly for the public and other stakeholders—thereby increasing transparency and promoting accountability.

The meeting was held virtually in early 2021 under the Chatham House Rule. Dr. Kesete gave permission for Big Win to summarize his remarks.

The 3-D Commission, an initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation and Boston University, is devoted to bridging the gaps between the fields of data science, health determinants, and policy and practice decision-making.