11/01/2017 2:42 PM IST | Updated 12/01/2017 8:45 AM IST

Innovative Bureaucracy In Bangladesh: An Untold Story

Reuters Photographer / Reuters

While Bangladesh is being featured in the global media for all the wrong reasons, the country is undergoing through a transformative positive change—a story that is little heard of. The story is about breaking a century-old practice of the Bangladeshi civil service that, like India, was embedded in the history of colonialism—in essence, civil service used to be more about administration and less about serving the citizens.

This new Bangladeshi civil service story is one that goes from "What do you want here?" to "How may I serve you?"

However, that is not the case anymore as this new Bangladeshi civil service story is one that goes from "What do you want here?" to "How may I serve you?"

Let me begin this piece with an example of an imaginary Dulal Miah from rural Bangladesh. Even 10 years ago, Dulal Miah would have to travel at least half a day to reach the Deputy Commissioner's (DC) office and wait for hours as officials reluctantly sifted through piles of records to find his land deed if he wanted a copy.

Today, however, Dulal Miah has only to walk about an hour to his union council's digital centre about 4km away. If Dulal Miah wants official records changed for a piece of land he has just bought, he only needs to go as far as the sub-district office and apply. It takes about two weeks today, whereas the same service would have taken almost a month and a half and several more visits to the land office not too long ago.

Chances are, 10 years ago, none of Dulal Miah's three children would have had birth registration papers. Records show that only 10% of the people were covered in the 137 years between 1873 and 2010. In the last six years, however, coverage has gone up to 90% and the Dulal Miahs of Bangladesh can rest just a little easier.

There's more. The union council digital centres serve almost five million people every month, with more than 100 services that would mean trips to the DC office or the UNO (upazila nirbahi officer) premises at the sub-district headquarter (upazila sadr).

There is a priority healthcare scheme being implemented where upazila health and family planning officers hand out health-cards to the poorest of the poor.

Sub-district agricultural extension officers provide instant diagnosis and treatment for plant diseases based on the repository of digital knowledge they have stored into a system. Nearly 150,000 school teachers are collaborating on an online portal for a novel approach to teachers' training. One can only imagine the dividends it would yield.

When deputy commissioners use social media, particularly Facebook, to ascertain the needs and challenges of citizens, and reach out to them, they are in fact taking service delivery even closer, to the doorsteps of the citizens.

It is evident that Bangladesh's bureaucrats are testing uncharted waters "outside the box", and striving to innovate.

All this stems from humble but effective attempts at innovation by the civil service. Admittedly the very term "innovative bureaucracy" smacks of an oxymoron since bureaucrats are expected to follow the rules and be...well, bureaucratic, while innovation demands that actors look beyond rules and think outside the box.

It is evident that Bangladesh's bureaucrats are testing uncharted waters "outside the box", and striving to innovate. That is all part of a friendly contest among themselves to see who can vindicate the government's vision of a Digital Bangladesh by 2021. Many such innovations were showcased at a summit on digital innovation within the civil service.

For the purposes of government and public administration, innovation was simplified to an easily quantifiable concept—reduction of time, cost or number of visits for the citizens for a certain service. Hence a mere change, with or without the aid of information technology, is not innovation unless it has demonstrably made life easier for the citizens in terms of their time and money. At the other end though, ICT is used to eliminate numerous steps for delivering a service. Hence, new IT-enabled systems have replaced archaic ones in a bid towards what is called "service process simplification". This has become mandatory for every government organ.

Evaluations show decentralisation and service delivery through the digital centres have reduced time by 85%, cost by 63% and number of visits by 40%. A study of 23 services over the last six years shows that people living on the margins saved over half a billion dollars, thanks to easier access to public services.

Slowly but surely, Bangladeshi bureaucrats are on their way to proving that they are not averse to innovation—a quality without which Bangladesh would find it rather difficult, if not impossible, to turn into a strong middle-income country by the beginning of the new decade.