Bangladesh showcases sweeping public service reforms at global meet

Dec 2, 2013

UNDP Bangladesh’s A2i programme showcased its innovation model at the inaugural Global Innovation Meeting in November this year, mapping out the key interventions that have resulted in a series of sweeping reforms in public service delivery in the country.   

The UNDP meet, held in Budva, Montenegro, took stock of the current state of social innovation and citizen-led design both at large, and within the UNDP network.

The Budva Meet brought together some of the top minds in social innovation and citizen-powered public service reform. Along with these leading thinkers and practitioners, innovation champions from across UNDP’s network, including senior management (10 Resident Coordinators, top executives from Central Bureaux) and programme staff (representing 16 country offices) came together to present their lessons learned, to talk through case studies from outside the organization, and to think about how each participant could take immediate action based on findings from the workshop.  

The event was designed and hosted as a partnership between the UNDP Montenegro Country Office, the UNDP Regional Service Center in Bratislava, the Knowledge Innovation and Capacity Group, of Bureau for Development Policy, the Bureau of Management, and the Regional Bureau for Europe and CIS. 

KAM Morshed, Assistant Country Director at UNDP Bangladesh and a project manager for A2i, argued at the meet that ‘design-thinking’ was a key element of the innovative approach used by the programme to usher in reforms.  “It was important to develop innovations that at once leveraged ownership within the bureaucracy, whilst pursuing a strategy that readjusted its thinking based on real-time learning,” said Morshed.

A summary of his presentation is mapped out in the text below:

When the United Nations Development Programme partnered with the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s office in 2007 with a common vision to make public services in Bangladesh more citizen-centric, the odds had seemed heavily stacked against any lasting impact.

The Access2Information programme, as it was called, sought to use technology to ensure wider access to public services.  But technology was not the solution, and everyone involved knew this. The challenge was to build ownership for a reform agenda that saw citizens at the centre of public services, which would then leverage available technology meet citizen demands.   

The existing systems and rules, crafted in 18th century colonial Bengal and entrenched through decades of practice, had undergone reforms in the past. But these reforms had, by and large, improved work processes rather than focus on the demands and expectations of ordinary citizens. The common stereotype that the bureaucracy battled against was of a system closed to outside influence, which blocked and punished innovation, and remained fiercely protective of the ‘old ways.’

In the six years since, that stereotype has crumbled in the face of a strategic shift of mindset within the bureaucracy, which has adopted the mantra of public service reforms, taking political ownership for a flurry of Quick Wins achieved as a part of the A2i programme, and now starting to value innovators within the system.   

Through Quick Win initiatives, so called because they were initiatives typically rolled out within a year’s time, achieved results at an unexpected scale.   

What happened next

In 2012, invigorated by the success of the first phase of reforms, and seeing opportunities to replicate this success across the government, A2i decided to adopt a far more ambitious reforms agenda.

If the first phase of quick wins had yielded any wisdom, it was that individual champions among senior bureaucrats had been key to unlocking the ‘closed systems’ and ‘old ways’. Now the programme planned to leverage this buy-in to spread a culture of innovation across Bangladesh’s bureaucracy so that the reforms agenda might take on a life of its own and have an impact greater than the sum of its parts.  The mantra for the new phase was to build innovation ecosystems within the bureaucracy. 

For this happen, department after department would have to adopt living systems that continuously sought, developed and implemented innovations rather than adopt reforms recommended by one-off initiatives. In order to achieve this, the programme managers looked to create an emergent strategy, designed and redesigned through every layer of progress, abandoning the conventional static or deliberate strategy that stops engaging with the problem having formulated a solution.  

The values of design-thinking came hand in glove to the new idea of systemic reforms. It was an approach that sought to combine empathy for the problems faced by users, creativity in identifying solutions, and engaging citizens in assessing their applicability. Focussing at length on the problem, from an end-user perspective, allowed civil servants to formulate better solutions.

In the past it was always senior bureaucrats and their peers who had proposed the innovations they would roll out in their respective ministries. In the next phase, A2i started engaging with citizens’ groups, youth groups and businesses, along with the government and donors, in order to identify the user-end problems well before going on to jointly develop possible solutions.     

The project used tested methodologies such as crowd-sourcing, challenge funds, etc. and adapted these models to the specific country context. Key to the future legitimacy and adoption of the solutions that emerged was in building ownership for them within the bureaucracy.  Whether it was social solution design camps/ hackathons for youth engagement or use of social media platforms for bureaucracy-citizen dialogue, or awards and recognition schemes, every step of the design was done jointly with the government counterparts. Top government bureaucrats, the same champions from an earlier phase, now sought to create and expand risk-free spaces, and mentor efforts by their junior colleagues to learn and understand the needs of ordinary citizens, and finding ways to meet them.