During my time at Harvard Kennedy School, I’ve taken many classes, and attended seminars and workshops that emphasize the importance of meeting people where they are and really understanding the audience or constituency one wants to serve. The focus on empathy for self-development is in itself a difficult thing to internalize, and as it turns out, implementing this among colleagues is very different from building it into an organization’s operational flow. Empathy is a complex yet profoundly powerful tool that can be used to improve the delivery of public services, but often it’s the public-service sector that struggles to be flexible enough to build it into their practices. The Prime Minister’s Office in Bangladesh, however, has exemplified one path to embedding empathy in its operations. In the last decade, Bangladesh has seen a shift in public-sector development via approaches that target high growth, self-reliance, and adoption of technology yet keep social inclusion, collaboration, and culture at the very heart of those advances.
In working towards the Sustainable Development Goals, the government has embraced the idea of “govprenuership” — entrepreneurship by the government — which allowed for collaboration with organizations and parties that were working on some of the same issues with which the government was actively engaged. One result of this collaborative effort was the a2i Public Service Innovation Lab+, a key driver of the government’s public-service innovation agenda. Short for “Access to Information,” a2i helps government officials (re)design and create channels between ministries in order to share, automate, and optimize end-to-end processes. Beyond a simple digitizing scheme that has established over 5,000 Digital Centers and allowed the public to access data such as land records, birth registration, life insurance, mobile finance services, vocational training resources, and even telemedicine, a2i is aiming to change the processes by which these services are delivered.
A2i’s credo lies in developing an ecosystem within the Bangladeshi Civil Service that relies on citizen-centric, modern service delivery rather than traditional bureaucratic control-based procedures. In their effort to put citizens first, they are instilling the belief that public services must be created for the people who use them, not the people who manage them. They do this via an “empathy methodology” that places relatively senior government officers into the day-to-day lives of citizens for whom specific services are created. It is similar in concept to that of the secret shopper, with officers acting like citizens at access points for services that are particularly outside their ministry’s area of expertise. As explained by a2i, this puts the officers into the citizens’ shoes as they are forced to traverse these public systems without any official help. The point here is not to criticize one ministry’s efforts, but rather, this experience allows participants to scrutinize their own agency’s delivery and to address the overall quality of service.
Examples of a2i’s success with this approach include a junior land officer realizing that building a covered waiting area for his poor, aged clients was as necessary an input as was automating a land registry service in order to weed out corruption. In the Fulbaria, Mymensingh district, there were only 46 government agricultural field officers located at the sub-district level that served more than 80,000 farmers. When the farmers needed time-sensitive and up-to-date advice on plant disease treatment, they had to travel 20–30 kilometers, expending resources such as time and money, to consult with the officers. A graduate of a2i’s empathy training course realized that this was not really serving the public and thus helped create a standardized pictorial database of over a thousand problems for 150 plant types using over 3,500 pictures and made it freely available online. Accessing this information not only became easier, but it also helps educate younger generations of farmers who are more internet savvy and technologically oriented.
This kind of approach was also used in the education industry when government officers realized the difficulty in holding teacher-training classes to enhance the capacity of 1 million teachers serving nearly 30 million students. It just wasn’t practical. Instead, with the help of local teachers, a2i developed an online platform called the “Teachers’ Portal” through which each member-teacher is connected with a teacher-educator and that offers mentors who are accessible seven days a week. Since membership is voluntary, it encourages schools and teachers to take the initiative to engage in constant learning, as well. There are currently over 150,000 members. What is evident in these success stories is that the key drivers of the program are context-specific rather than only data-driven. Essentially, instead of diving into solution-oriented service delivery, they focus on problem-driven service creation.
A2i serves as a model case for the Problem-Driven-Iterative-Approach (PDIA) to development, coined as such by Harvard Kennedy School’s Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock. This approach has four key principles that differ from the standard approach to development. First, PDIA begins with identifying locally nominated and described problems in performance rather than implementing preconceived and externally designed best-practice solutions to commonly faced problems. Second, it aims to create an “authorizing environment” that fosters self-emerging decision-making and accountability that, in turn, encourages “positive deviance” and creative thinking. This is in sharp contrast to designing projects and programs and then teaching (or hiring) agents to implement them exactly as designed or following a recipe. Third, it puts in place feedback loops that facilitate experimentation through learning, and learning as a result of experimentation. This is also very different from current practices in which implementation is followed by post-evaluation, leading to long lag times and rigidity of practices. Fourth, this approach actively engages collaboration between agents from various layers of society (end-user to policymaker, say) to ensure that reforms are practicable, legitimate, relevant, and locally sustainable rather than external experts pushing a top-down transmission of ideas. In this same way, the Prime Minister's Office in Bangladesh, using their a2i program as a platform, is working towards a larger mission — a digitally progressive and connected Bangladesh. The empathy methodology puts the PDIA theory to the test by having local governing bodies listen to citizens self-define, self-assess, and co-create solutions to problems that affect their particular ways of life.
These efforts highlight the government's intentions to deeply understand the specific situations citizens face in different communities across the country. They also highlight how replicable the PDIA model is across public-sector work. It isn’t an easy task to change governmental procedures, and often due to the lack of buy-in, governments don’t actually succeed in carrying out process-oriented change. However, a2i’s success makes a tangible case for the external validity of this approach, even if digitizing data may not be the goal of other entities (government or not). In fact, a2i has begun championing south-to-south cooperation by sharing its learning, models, and methodologies with other developing countries in the region. September 2015 witnessed the launch of a2i Maldives, and in July 2016, Bhutan signed a memorandum of understanding with a2i. Having policymakers go through the existing processes of the current policies is an interesting way to understand the gaps between design and implementation, and perhaps facilitates a deeper sense of learning than via secondary sources and external assessment metrics. This learning-prior-to-doing is perhaps the reason for success behind a2i’s efforts, and it is exciting to see what kind of change and growth this approach will bring to Bangladesh’s public-sector performance, and hopefully beyond.
Access to Information (a2i) Programme. (2017, February 5). Public Service Innovation Ecosystem. Retrieved April 6, 2017, from Access to Information (a2i) Programme: http://a2i.pmo.gov.bd
Chowdhury, A. (2017, February 21). How a2i is using empathy to foster innovation in Bangladesh. Retrieved March 28, 2017, from United Nations Development Programme: http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/blog/2017/2/21/How-a2i-is-using-empathy-to-foster-innovation-in-Bangladesh.html
Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock (2012). Escaping Capability Traps through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). Cambridge: Center for International Development at Harvard University. https://www.hks.harvard.edu/centers/cid/publications/faculty-working-papers/cid-working-paper-no.-240
The Economist. (2012, November 2). The path through the fields. Retrieved April 6, 2017, from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21565617-bangladesh-has-dysfunctional-politics-and-stunted-private-sector-yet-it-has-been-surprisingly