Empathetic Bureaucracy: a2i’s Attainable Vision

– Dr. Kazi S.M. Khasrul Alam Quddusi

To give relief to the common people from unwanted hassles and sufferings relating to long distance travels for a number of occasions, incurring high costs and inordinate delays in getting public services, Access to Information (a2i), placed at the Prime Minister’s Office, has gone for innovations such as reducing TCV (the time, cost and number of visits it takes citizens to access services) and SPS (Service Process Simplification) with the motto of turning the civil service empathetic rather than sympathetic by which the civil servants will treat themselves in the places of the commoners and feel the ‘pain points’ of the latter.

 

a2i claims that its work has enabled thousands of civil servants to restructure services in a citizen-centric manner and the civil servants and digital centre entrepreneurs have been trained to execute e-Services centrally created by many ministries with facilitation from a2i. The immediate outcome is that more than 5,000 digital centres and the national portal combining more than 43,000 government offices now provide with over 100 services to an average 4.5 million underserved citizens at a much lower TCV than before.

 

As claimed by a2i, services that previously required multiple visits to the district government office some 20-30 kilometres away are now available at the nearby digital centre within a walking distance of around 3 km.

On an average, thus, time to receive services has come down by 85%, cost by 63% and the number of visits by 40%. A study of 23 services over a period of 6 years reveals that simplification and digitisation saved citizens over half a billion dollars.  It will take time and efforts to verify the veracity of the resounding statistics.

 

However, they are very positive tidings even if one takes them with a grain of salt. More good news is that reducing TCV is claimed to have become the buzzword for innovation within the Bangladesh government. Reducing the time, cost and number of visits it takes for citizens to get public information and services puts them at the centre and offers simple standards to measure and communicate efforts to improve public services and their delivery systems. Even partial execution of the scheme will spell tremendous service delivery improvement.

 

If the civil servants really want a sea change in their image, they are expected to embody the principles enunciated by a2i and signify the same. An air of change is very much there. However, the ego problem is still there to stand in the way of the bureaucrats and the common men. This psychological barrier needs to be dealt with for which the think tank in the government and the bureaucracy need to go for a philosophical brainstorming because the legacy left by the British is too deep-rooted to be unlearned by some sermons.

 

So, to get an empathetic bureaucracy right away is still a little too much to expect. However, there is no harm in visualising such a scenario in the horizon and a2i exudes that very hope. Service Process Simplification (SPS) is a2i’s another innovative tool for reducing citizens’ hassles which emanates from ‘Business Process Re-engineering’ (BPR).  BPR is a popular mechanism in the private sector for simplification of system requirements and processes. a2i, however, renamed it as ‘Service Process Simplification’ (SPS) to make it more suitable for policymakers and government service providers who consider themselves as service-providers rather than engaged in either ‘business’ or ‘engineering’, and very rightly so.

 

In collaboration with the Cabinet Division and various government ministries (which formulate policies) and their directorates (which are responsible for service delivery) a2i claims to have trained civil servants to apply SPS by mapping out entire service delivery processes, leaving out unnecessary steps and redesigning them to be more easily accessible to citizens from a greater number of delivery-points. Detailed profiles have also been developed by a2i containing grievance redressal processes, and associated rules, policies and laws.

 

To date, a2i claims to have trained more than 1,000 officers from 36 government organisations to apply SPS to more than 400 vital services. To institutionalise this citizen-centric way of improving public services, each Annual Performance Agreement signed between the Cabinet Secretary and the Secretary of a particular ministry now makes it mandatory of simplification of at least one service and digitisation of a service every year and this promises to go a long way in creating an SPS environment throughout the public service.

 

The civil servants have already started to come up with innovative ideas as to SPS more vigorously and their innovations are being recognised in the regularly held innovation fairs. In fact, bureaucracy stands for a system of rules. In general, however, it is still used in a pejorative sense. a2i, the flagship of the ICT-led activity hub of Bangladesh government, however, features a human face of bureaucracy which kindles the heart of every Bangladeshi who wants a bureaucracy to their liking.

 

That Bangladesh bureaucracy is thinking out of the box in the form of becoming empathetic rather than sympathetic sounds really wholesome and soothing. It is difficult to say whether each member of the civil service means it and is ready to uphold the maxims preached by a2i. However, the very acceptance of the lofty and cherished terminologies is good enough to open up new vistas for the general people by which they can expect dramatic changes in the near future.

 

The civil servants tend to feel flattered by the way they are treated in the society. They may feel special for their prized positions acquired through perseverance of highest order. They can, however, make their presence felt more intensely with better performance in behaviour which they are capable of. By doing so, they will hardly make themselves facile; they would rather turn themselves more valuable in the eyes of the commoners whose admiration, not allegiance, would matter in the final analysis.

 

The ideology that is being propagated by a2i might well become the guiding principles of Bangladesh bureaucracy so that it can make the grade in the world stage resulting in such an ambience in which the people will not fear but admire the bureaucrats and feel and find their interests and dignity safe in the hands of the mandarins. The nation is raring to boast a bureaucracy which is not only capable but also caring and such a very attainable goal is indeed worth aiming at.