All governments rely on the apparatus of bureaucracy for governance.
With the end of British rule in 1947, India and (West) Pakistan got on with their self-rule. West Pakistan, like British colonial rulers, needed bureaucrats who could maintain discipline, law and order in East Pakistan.
Because of their high discretion in decision-making, Pakistani bureaucrats did not need to focus on responding to citizens’ needs. This further strengthened the British tradition of creating a class of de-nationalised bureaucrats, distanced from citizens’ needs. In fact, ‘bureaucracy’ was a much-hated word in the Bangladeshi political lexicon due to its exploitative role under Pakistani colonial rule.
The First Five Year Plan two years after independence noted that bureaucrats are “neither innovators nor catalytic agents for social change,” (Planning Commission, 1973, p.4). Today, the ongoing Seventh Five Year Plan (2016-2020) has outlined the activities of chief innovation officers at the ministry level and innovation officers at the field-level administration, for driving social change (GED, 2015).
How can one explain such a shift in the bureaucratic role, at least in terms of national planning linguistics? One evidence is the Digital Bangladesh political mandate of the current government. It was launched in 2009 and was part of the first national development vision – Vision 2021.
In 2010, Bangladesh ranked 134th in the e-Government Development Index (eGDI) and moved to 124th position in 2016, and further up to 115th position in 2018. Such improvement in one of the most comprehensive measures of e-Government performance has been possible, as the latest eGDI report notes, due to the country’s strong record under the online service index component of the Index.
The eGDI confirmed that e-Government has been “recognised at the highest level of [Bangladesh’s] administration,” i.e., PMO and Cabinet Division, as part of the Digital Bangladesh mandate (UNDESA, 2016, p. 118). The role of PMO and Cabinet Division in the online service delivery transformation under Digital Bangladesh needs to be explored and reported in greater detail.
We focus on one crucial impact of Digital Bangladesh 1.0 (2009-2021): the definition and application of innovation. The role and activities of the two public sector institutions – the political (PMO) and administrative (Cabinet) nerves – have been very much anti-colonial and citizen-centric.
Two basic arguments can support Digital Bangladesh’s success as a vehicle for social inclusion and empowerment: (a) the simplicity and uniqueness of the innovation definition; and, (b) implementation of an Empathy Training Program (ETP) by Cabinet Division.
There is no single, universally agreed definition of innovation; its usage has varied from economics, public policy and psychology to physical sciences. The government of Bangladesh has defined innovation in public service delivery as a method that reduces time, cost and number of visits (TCV) required for availing information and services (GED, 2015).
Second, building on the first argument, the ETP provides bureaucrats (field-level and ministry-level) with dedicated time and risk-space to experiment with new ideas within the TCV parameters, without any fear of penalty or reprimand. The ETP was designed by the Access to Information (a2i) Innovation Lab following a Design Thinking (DT) approach to public administration reform.
The a2i can be viewed as the government’s Nudge Unit, and it has been driving Digital Bangladesh activities since 2009, in collaboration with Cabinet Division and many other ministries, if not all.
Unlike the UK government’s Nudge Unit (Behavioural Insights Team) which focuses on budgetary and fiscal efficiency, a2i’s objective is to make bureaucratic behaviour more entrepreneurial by introducing TCV based public service delivery innovation.
The ETP begins with a five-days training, followed by implementation and recognition. The five-days training follows the DT’s method in “bringing bureaucrats outside their office; confronting them with real-life situations; and helping them directly grasp users’ challenges and expectations,” (Allio, 2014, p. 16). An ETP participant is instructed to visit an office not under their jurisdiction as a secret-shopper to enrich ideas generation capacity.
Such an experience is valuable in reducing the distance between bureaucrats and citizens. The First Five Year Plan of Bangladesh stipulated that bureaucrats would “live and work among the people as one of them,” (Planning Commission, 1973, p. 34). The ETP is the first attempt to make this come true after more than forty years of independence.
After the training, participants return to their offices where the implementation phase begins by putting the idea into test. The final stage is the recognition stage where successful public sector entrepreneurs are invited for a two-day documentation training in Dhaka. This two-day seminar is organised by the Cabinet Division, PMO and ministries concerning the innovation.
An LSE blog noted that the ETP is “breaking century-old practices of the Bangladeshi civil service [which] used to be more about administration and less about serving the citizens,” (Chowdhury & Beresford, 2017).
One example of a successful ETP innovation is a Fish Advice mobile app. A bureaucrat came up with this idea in addressing the problems faced by fish farmers in accessing information on diseases, fish culture methods and fish production related issues. Similarly, another ETP participant transformed the paper based registration system for cooperatives by introducing an online platform. This has significantly reduced corruption and sped up the registration process.
Bangladesh is in talks with many governments from the Global South (e.g. Bhutan, Philippines and Fiji) which are eager to emulate the ETP model. Nevertheless, Bangladesh has some more distance to travel to reach Singapore’s status.
The government of Singapore is an ideal country when it comes to bureaucratic role in service delivery process. It is not only because of technology application that makes Singapore stand out but its uniqueness is the government’s strong willingness to quickly address citizens’ grievances, by following a ‘No Wrong Door’ policy.
The No Wrong Door policy empowers the citizens to such an extent that no government agency can reject a citizen’s application. If an agency receives application on an issue which is not under its jurisdiction, it must redirect the application to the right agency and ensure that the latter agency responds to the applicant; and, if the application involves more than one agency, the agency receiving the application coordinates a single consolidated response, saving TCV in the Bangladesh sense, for Singaporeans.
A new Digital Bangladesh 2.0 (2022-2032) political mandate is urgently required to consolidate the successes recorded under Digital Bangladesh 1.0 (2009-2021). The role of a2i in driving forward Digital Bangladesh 2.0, as a sub-component of Vision 2041 mandate, will be critical. The a2i has focused on bureaucracy’s behavioural aspects and promoting the use of technology for citizen-centric reforms. Such a reform effort clearly echoes the global development goals theme of “leaving no one behind,” where the role of bureaucrats as service providers and agents of change, is of utmost importance.
The a2i will need to work on ensuring that innovation, as a process, is institutionalised within the public administration hierarchy and structure. It will require modernising the recruitment, training, job posting and transfer, and promotion processes, besides adding new structures for recognition of successful innovation. Digital Bangladesh 2.0 will face legal challenges as citizens will need to be more responsible about protecting their democratic right, and less prone to “sharing” bigotry remarks.
The policy discourse of Digital Bangladesh 2.0 will need to be balanced from the bureaucracy-citizen perspective, bringing the entire government machinery closer to its citizens. Besides technological perspectives, it will need to be informed by a psychological analysis of how the public administration’s entrepreneurial culture, the key to driving public service delivery innovation process, will be upgraded in tangent with a modernised, middle-income Bangladesh.