It was not too long ago when Bangladesh, a South Asian country with a population over 160 million, was ridiculed on the world stage. However, that is now history as Bangladesh has made remarkable socio-economic progress—a fact acknowledged by Indian economist Amartya Sen. Bangladesh’s development model has managed to gain respect on the world stage.

While Western scholars have given much credit to non-government organisations for socio-economic progress, it is a fact that socio-economic progress of any developing southern country like Bangladesh is heavily dependent upon progressive government policies. Successful application of non-government programs are dependent upon a non-despotic government vision for development.

Despite Bangladesh’s progress, the country has been stifled by political violence, terrorist attacks, and climate change—for which the country is paying the price as a result of the luxurious lifestyles and development of other nation states.

However, these challenges have not been able to hold Bangladesh back. Rather, the country had turned challenges into opportunity.

Fostering new ideas for innovation

Under the visionary leadership of Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, the country now is being held as a model for climate change in the world. The United Nations has awarded the Prime Minister a UN Environment Prize of Leadership on climate change.

Once at the receiving end of the Western model of development, the country is now aiming to assert leadership by fostering new ideas of government innovation, and has taken steps to transfer its knowledge to other Southern countries.

There are few aspects of government innovation in Bangladesh that deserve wider attention. Firstly, the country has undertaken an empathy-driven public service reform. This empathy-driven methodology arranges training for mid-level civil servants working in the field and dealing with citizens on a daily basis. The participants act as ‘secret shoppers’ and visit citizens’ access points for services outside their agency or area of expertise.

This truly places them in citizens’ shoes since they are forced to navigate the public systems without an official nor privileges. This experience helps participants develop both a critical eye that they use to scrutinise their own agency’s delivery systems, and a sense that it is indeed possible to make the necessary changes because rules don’t forbid them, their fears do.

Rethinking workflows

Secondly, Bangladeshi public service is simplifying its methods of service delivery under the model of ‘service process simplification,’ or SPS. SPS helped government officials analyse and redesign workflows within and between ministries in order to optimise processes and automate tasks.

It empowered them to fundamentally rethink how they do their work in order to dramatically improve the quality of services, cut operational costs, reduce time needed, and enhance value for their citizen ‘clients’. A true testament of the effectiveness of the SPS methodology is the fact that more than half of the 600 innovation pilots launched by civil servants in Bangladesh don’t use ICTs at all! But, all of them simplify service delivery processes.

“It empowered them to fundamentally rethink how they do their work in order to dramatically improve the quality of services.”

On average, time to receive services has been reduced by 85%, cost by 63% and the number of visits to ministry offices by 40%. A study of 23 services over a period of six years reveals that simplification and digitisation saved citizens over half a billion dollars.

Thirdly, the government of Bangladesh is enabling the whole of society to innovate through a Public Service Innovation Fund. It helps innovators in Bangladesh who face a few common challenges, such as lack of funds to develop complete prototypes, and testing the efficacy of prototypes with real users or beneficiaries.

The Service Innovation Fund (SIF) was designed to provide seed funds and incubate cost-effective, user-centric, home-grown innovations to solve some of the most important problems affecting underserved communities. To date, SIF has attracted over 3,000 innovative proposals using an online platform called ‘Idea Bank’. It has also granted over a quarter million dollars to government agencies, development organisations, non-governmental organisations, academic institutions, private companies and even individuals.

Reaching out to the underserved

Finally, to decentralise the delivery of public services and take them to the doorsteps of millions of underserved citizens the government has established over 5,000 one-stop information and service delivery outlets known as Digital Centres in all union councils, the lowest tier of the Bangladesh government.

The Digital Centres ensure that the underserved, such as rural women, people with disabilities and the elderly – regardless of their literacy and ICT literacy – can access vital information and services. A typical Centre is about 4 km from the average rural citizen’s home, whereas a government sub-district office is about 20 km and a district office over 35 km.

These innovation steps were undertaken by the Access to Information project at the Prime Minister’s office in Bangladesh and they were able to attract the attention of other southern countries.

All about collaboration

Bangladesh has also emerged as a strong champion of South-South cooperation. The country firmly believes that the rate of development in the Global South can be fast-tracked using far fewer resources through a collaborative South-South and triangular cooperation network. This network is focused exclusively on empowering Southern countries to learn from and support one another in identifying vital innovations and scaling up novel solutions to public service challenges by customising the necessary tools and strategies to their unique country contexts.

In this regard, it should be mentioned that Bangladesh has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the governments of Bhutan and the Maldives. It is now planning to hold a two-day international workshop to build the capacity of 20 civil servants from Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Maldives, Indonesia, Mongolia, Suriname, Uganda and Benin. They will learn about homegrown public service innovation strategies, tools and products developed in Bangladesh that have proven to be sustainable at scale.

Bangladesh will also organise learning visits for the participants to various field locations in the country to enable them to see the innovations in action firsthand, and understand the context in which they serve and thrive.

These interactions will also support the establishment of a collaborative, learning network that will: a) engage in South-South and triangular partnerships; b) run innovation pilots, and adapt and scale ideas in varying country contexts; and c) by the end of the project, compile a publication on successful case studies of South-South cooperation for public service innovation and work to proliferate these practices globally.

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Image by Naser I Hossain