a2i’s empathy-triggered culture of public service innovation is built on the 3 pillars of PURPOSE, AUTONOMY, and COMPETENCE.
Focusing on changing the mindset of the govpreneurs, a sense of PURPOSE was established through ‘reducing TCV’ – reducing the time (T), cost (C) and number of visits (V) it takes for citizens to access government services. “Reducing TCV” went viral within the civil service in Bangladesh and became the byword for innovation.
Starting from the Country’s Premier to the most senior civil servants have now embraced this notion and publicly echoed that “failure is ok”. This makes the spirit of the bureaucratic rules more important than their wording, the end more important than the means. It gives govpreneurs a sense of autonomy and the ‘Service Innovation Fund’ provides them with the means to experiment and bring their ideas to life.
COMPETENCE, the third pillar, captures the intrinsic motivation that govpreneurs have to get better at accurately understanding the challenges that citizens face, and identifying the key pain points. ‘Empathy Training’ and ‘Service Process Simplification’ gives thousands of govpreneurs the tools and that sense of competence to walk the last mile of service access in their shoes; to experience challenges from their perspective and identify solutions that make sense for them.
a2i’s Digital Service Design Lab (DSDL) organizes workshops that bring together civil servants, ordinary citizens, local technology companies and international experts to visualize and analyze manual services end-to-end, simplify them by eliminating redundant steps required of citizens, design the digital incarnation of the simplified services, prepare budgets and implementation plans. The workshop ends with the secretary of the relevant ministry or departmental head responsible for a service approving the plan for execution followed by nationwide implementation. However, the DSDL team continues to interface between the ministry and the tech company that is awarded the final contract, for as long as necessary.
The uniqueness of this methodology is that both service recipients (citizens) and service providers (concerned ministries) are involved in the digital service designing process which not only caters to the requirements of both parties but ensures ownership of the concerned ministry as its officials are directly involved in the process.
Moreover, participating in the workshops, interacting with citizens and ministries at the design stage has contributed immensely to developing and maturing the local IT industry’s capacity to develop citizen-centric digital government services. To the extent that, Bangladeshi IT companies are now also working internationally, for example in Fiji and the Philippines, providing e-Government solutions.
Nothi is Bengali for ‘file’, and refers to the humble, government paper files that are at the very heart of the government decision making process. They are like red blood cells; nothing happens without them. Once submitted, every citizen request for a service is first put in a new nothi.
eNothi is a digital decision support system which is already in use in nearly 12,000 government offices ensuring faster processing of citizens’ applications for services through the electronic movement of files across different administrative layers. With e-Nothi, a2i created a virtual backend for government offices where citizens could submit the electronic forms that they filled in (themselves or, with the help of Digital Centre Entrepreneurs) on the National Portal. It is the ultimate workflow system of the government not just for services, but all decision-making. Even decisions like project approval, procurement, etc. which are not citizen-facing services in their own right but rather intra-governmental G2G services.
Revolutionizing the traditional filing system, e-Nothi provides a solution to several problems that plagued the previous manual system. Problems such as time taken to search for specific paper files out of literally thousands of bundles, misplacement of files and knowing the status of files being processed have all been remedied through this innovative intervention. Connecting over 11,370 offices, the system has boosted the efficiency of tasks by creating transparency, accountability and coordination among the government offices and in the work process.
The traditional incentive system of bureaucracy is designed to maintain the status quo. So, while there are no rewards for innovation, innovators can expect to suffer the consequences of experiments that fail.
The strategy thus became to employ ‘recognition’ as incentive. Outstanding efforts by individuals and innovation teams are identified and put on public display through a series of Innovation Fairs. They spark healthy competition among ministries, departments and individual civil servants alike. At the first such fair, the Hon’ble Prime Minister personally awarded the prizes for best innovation team and innovator. The effect was tremendous. Government officers, often working at the very grassroots level, people who had never even been to the capital Dhaka, were instantly propelled to fame both within their respective ministries, the government sphere and nationally.
Annual Public Administration Awards (PAA) have now become the single most exciting event of the civil service calendar. Recipients writing ‘PAA’ as a title next to their name has become a proud tradition.
a2i was always conscious of the paradox of funding: you need some to bring an idea to life–but too much often diminishes the ability to stretch your imagination. Thus, the Innovation Teams are always encouraged to be entrepreneurial in identifying and utilizing funds from within their ministries to scale up innovative services and their delivery mechanisms nationally.
However, to facilitate the making of a stronger case to seek ministerial funds, a2i launched the ‘Service Innovation Fund’ to open up an unprecedented opportunity to incubate solutions from both government and non-government actors. Nearly half of the nearly 7,853 proposals to the fund have come from the private sector, NGOs, universities and even individual innovators. Successful case studies of innovation in service delivery are also showcased and celebrated through national and district level Innovation Fairs.
Perhaps the biggest benefit from a2i’s efforts to cultivate empathy among government officers is that it shows them ‘why’ to do something rather than telling them ‘how’ to do it; thereby tapping into their innate desire to do good work and unleashing each individual’s unique innovation potential.
Empathy Training was a twist on the mystery shopping idea, handpicking about thirty government officers from different sectors – education, agriculture, social service, law enforcement, etc. and orchestrating them to go to different offices. The policeman visits a school. The teacher goes to a land office. The land officer goes to a hospital. Without administrative knowledge and privilege, civil servants become mere customers, and they begin to understand citizen’s problems much better. They bring back scathing criticisms about what is going wrong in each of these places. And what happens, when they reflect together as a group, is that they begin to identify what must be done to improve things.
reached through 2,175 training courses
Initiated by Ministries/ District Administration
Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, by constantly depicting government as boring, unimaginative, bureaucratic leviathans, we have boxed them into a corner where we struggle to think of them as capable of being anything else. In fact, historically, it has been the public, rather than the private sector, that has actually been the vanguard of accelerating revolutionary innovations and transforming the world.
a2i’s iLab incubates and accelerates innovations to tackle some of the most pressing societal and environmental problems that Bangladesh faces today by leveraging technology; particularly, electro-mechanical devices, Internet of Things and renewable energy.
It reaches out to individual innovators, students and startups through innovation and challenge competitions. Promising innovators receive seed funding from an innovation fund, access to a Maker Lab, and mentorship by experts from both industry and academia.
The incubation process also features guidance for young innovators to turn prototypes into practical and viable solutions. “Prototype to product” development is iLab’s last but most significant area of support before scale-up through commercialization. Innovators are further supported with copyright and patent filing to protect their intellectual property.
With each officer concerned primarily about what happened on their desk, the people responsible for delivering a service as a whole lacked both a shared understanding of the challenges and the means for coming up with collaborative solutions.
Thus, a2i supports the Cabinet Office to identify senior officials who exhibit a natural internalization of the shared purpose of citizen-centric innovation and an entrepreneurial zeal. It facilitates the process of them officially, through a government order, being designated as ‘Chief Innovation Officers’ to lead ‘Innovation Teams’ within all tiers of government – from the ministries all the way down to the sub-district level.
Nearly 1,000 Innovation Teams comprising over 6,000 officers have been formed. These Innovation Teams led by the Chief Innovation Officers are equipped with team building skills and feature a peer support structure with a deep understanding of the current design of services and their delivery mechanisms. Enabled by social media and departmental blogs, they identify transformational opportunities and areas where policy reforms would need to take place to ignite service delivery innovations at the field level.
How do govpreneurs in Bangladesh innovate? How do we actually reduce ‘TCV’ – the time (T), cost (C) and number of visits (V) that it takes for citizens to access services?
‘SPS’ brings together civil servants working on the value chain of the same service at different levels – from the ministry right down to the field level – helps them literally paint the big picture of the entire process flow and redesign them eliminating unnecessary steps within and between ministries in order to optimize end-to-end processes and automate non-value-added tasks.
In doing so, SPS empowered them to fundamentally rethink how they do their work in order to dramatically improve the quality of services, cut operational costs and reduce TCV for their citizen clients.