On an island located hundred kilometers off the shores of the capital city of Abu Dhabi, a UAE government retreat took place for all members of the Cabinet who gathered for two consecutive days in informal settings at the turn of the year. The ‘retreat’, held on ‘Sir Bani Yas’, the country’s largest natural reserve, discussed the outcomes of the ‘UAE Brainstorming Session’, a first-ever nation-wide technology-led citizen engagement initiative in the country.
The organizers’ objectives were highly ambitious in terms of process and expected outcomes: engage citizens through technological means to transform the country’s education and healthcare sectors. These two vital sectors have traditionally faced chronic challenges compared to the county’s strong performance globally in other developmental indicators. Given the wide diversity of the UAE society, an innovative solution was required first to identify the type and scope of the challenges faced by different segments in the society, and then come up with proper solutions on the micro and macro levels. The government has had few choices given that many reform initiatives launched, new authorities introduced and massive investments pumped in the two sectors over the past decade with only small incremental improvement in both sectors. It was clear for the government that to take vast leaps in terms of quality of services in the two sectors, people in the UAE, including all segments of the community, had to be brought into the picture, engaged and empowered to take part in the policy making and service re-design and improvement cycles.
Traditionally, the UAE experienced an informal participatory process of the ‘majlis’ (Arabic for council) where citizens interacted with rulers and community leaders to highlight problems and concerns in their communities in direct physical gatherings open to the public. However, until recently, there has never been a formal or even informal process in the UAE where the public was able to communicate directly and systematically en mass with the government –let alone take part directly in government services design or delivery.
The proposed concept was adopted at the highest levels in the government as the country’s first technology-based citizen engagement platform. The “UAE brainstorming session” initiative highly utilized the country’s solid information and communication technologies (ICT) infrastructure as well as the society’s strong social acceptance of ICTs, especially social media networks, in order to crowd-source solutions and ideas to enhance the quality of public services in both sectors. Eventually, thousands of people from all walks of life proactively and voluntarily took part by proposing more than 82,000 new ideas and innovative solutions using various social media channels. Many challenges in the country’s public health and education sectors were identified and targeted, effectively leading to new initiatives taking place on the ground.
Focusing on the utilization of social media in the process of citizen engagement in public service co-design and co-production, this case study documents the UAE brainstorming session process, highlights an innovative technology-based approach in citizen-government interactions and extracts lessons from local and regional contexts.