The public service delivery system has been perceived as one of the most important ways of reducing poverty through poverty alleviation programs. The provision of services is the core function of government. This is the point of direct interaction with citizens. So it is a critical issue for the government to deliver their services and make sure that the services are provided effectively, efficiently, equitably, and transparently. The delivery of public services has recently been the subject of significant reforms, in particular at the local government level. While the Constitution of Bangladesh provides for a highly decentralized public sector - stating that local governments in every administrative unit of the Republic shall be entrusted to elected councils - in practice, Bangladesh is widely considered to be one of the most centralized countries. However, substantive reforms have taken place in support of a more decentralized public sector since the first few years of the current government led by the Awami League.
Over the past decade, the ‘Access to Information’ (a2i) project, set up by the government of Bangladesh in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), has been driving innovation in public service delivery. The substantial projects have revolutionized public service delivery across Bangladesh and now serve as models for countries around the globe. It has dramatically cut down the time, cost, and several visits required to access services while hacking away at bureaucracy and corruption.Now, millions of Bangladeshis, even in the country’s remotest areas, can quickly obtain a range of public services, such as birth certificates and land records, through digital centres. The digital centres ensure the underserved, such as rural women, people with disabilities and the elderly, regardless of their literacy and ICT knowledge, can access vital information and services. These one-stop service centres are micro-enterprises run by “citizen entrepreneurs,” one male and one female, in tandem with elected local government representatives. They leverage modern technology to provide citizens free and fee-based access to both public and private services. Some of the public services include land records, birth registration, telemedicine, and passport and overseas job application as well as application to various other government services. The private services offered by digital centres include mobile financial services, insurance, and different types of computer and vocational training.
Social safety net payments represent a critical government intervention aimed at preventing citizens from falling into extreme poverty and supporting them so that they can strive for a better life. Electronic payment of conditional cash transfers or other social program payments touch millions of the most financially excluded and vulnerable populations through social benefit payments. Since the government can dictate how it pays recipients, digitizing such payment streams has high potential to accelerate financial inclusion in the short to medium term by laying the foundation, in terms of policies, infrastructure, and people’s attitude, for enabling more comprehensive efforts by the private sector.
Countries across the world are seeking better ways and means to deliver public services to their citizens. They are looking for solutions to fix acute problems that fit specific situations, with the aim of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It’s a matter of pride that innovations from Bangladesh are transforming public service delivery in the Philippines. The bureaucratic hurdles to obtain a senior citizen’s card or a grocery booklet can leave many short of food and susceptible to illness. There is only one government office that serves a broad region, which provides the card and brochure. For many, it is a journey that can take several hours, and when they get there, they may still not get what they came for. Now, that lethargic bureaucracy in Cotabato could soon be a thing of the past, as the country adopts lessons from a new leader in innovative public service delivery: Bangladesh.
Now, with the support of UNDP, a2i is spreading its innovative solutions to several countries. It is working with local authorities in the Philippines, where public service delivery in small cities and towns faces multiple challenges. These challenges include bureaucratic rules, a lack of technology, and poor decision-making. The country’s decentralized structure has spawned diverse administrative systems that are poorly managed and don’t link-up with one another. Geography creates another set of hurdles, as many people live on remote islands or in mountainous regions. Some areas are prone to natural disasters, and some are plagued by inter-religious strife, further compounding the situation.
Now, inspired by a2i’s solutions, the Philippines has introduced a ‘4D’ design and development program to transform traditional services into efficient digital services. The process involves four steps: diagnose, design, demo, and develop. The first three steps are completed within ten days, and digital services are established and delivered within six months.
Politicians, citizens, and bureaucrats identified 4D as the best solution for local government to overhaul unresponsive and unaccountable public service delivery. The aim is to ensure efficiency and effectiveness through new services that are user-centred, simplified, integrate digital tools, and use data, when available; meanwhile, in the Pacific region, the Government of Fiji is adopting a2i’s ‘4D’ system to track countrywide delivery of a Poverty Benefit Scheme. The result, a web application called the ‘Start-to-Finish (S2F) Service Delivery Tracker.’ The tracker, also available as a mobile app, allows citizens to submit online service requests and to track the progress of delivery.Now there is a need for experimentation in the collection of data on innovation. While there is good evidence for how to collect high quality data on the strategies and tools that policy makers use to innovate and the innovation capabilities, so far surveys have not attempted to capture the existence and effectiveness of high-level strategies to support innovation, such as strategic management policy for innovation. In my opinion, the government should consider this for further improvement.
(The writer acknowledges with gratitude the different sources of information.)
The writer is a Chinese Government PhD Fellow and Assistant Professor, Department of Public Administration, Jagannath University, Dhaka