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Improving Lives Through Innovative Government

Anir Chowdhury, Policy Advisor to the “a2i” (Access to Information) Program of the Prime Minister’s Office of Bangladesh, spoke at Social Impact Lab at Evans Hall on September 28, 2016. Throughout his talk, Mr. Chowdhury described the ways in which a2i works to bring about a paradigm shift in the Bangladeshi Civil Service – away from its rigid, rule-based roots primarily designed to control, towards a modern, citizen-centric and flexible service delivery system.

When Mr. Chowdhury first transitioned from the private sector in the U.S. to the public sector in his native Bangladesh, he decided to stay in his new role for two years. Ten years later, Mr. Chowdhury manages an initiative that designs and scales innovation to improve the livelihoods of Bangladeshi citizens throughout the country.

While many people consider “government” and “innovation” to be an oxymoron, Mr. Chowdhury presented the case that governmental structures can actually be ideal for developing and scaling innovation. Mr. Chowdhury noted that engendering empathy among civil servants – by rotating them through other governmental offices, for example – helps to shift bureaucrats away from their traditional ways of thinking. Another approach is to re-align the incentives of civil servants by rewarding innovation – through, for example, a competition that tracks which government office receives the best ratings from its constituents and rewarding the top performers.

Many of the a2i initiatives that Mr. Chowdhury described are comprised of simple, but effective, interventions. For example, high school students faced obstacles in submitting applications to university because they were required to do so in-person to complete forms and make application payments, often incurring significant expenditures of time and money in traveling to public university offices. a2i realized that universities already had access to standard forms and exams issued through the public school system and didn’t, in fact, need students to fill out additional forms in-person. In response, a2i identified a simple solution: an SMS-based payment system that would eliminate the need for students to travel to universities to submit applications. The program eased the university application process for an estimated three million students.

a2i has employed SMS technology to address other common challenges of delivery of public services in Bangladesh.  New mothers in Bangladesh often lack access to information about how to best take care of themselves and their babies throughout pregnancy and after giving birth. a2i developed SMS alerts that delivered accurate information about what to do while pregnant and directly afterwards, improving maternal care for mothers throughout Bangladesh.

At the conclusion of his presentation, Mr. Chowdhury presented a list of ‘lessons learned’ through his work with a2i. Among the most compelling was the concept of ‘nudge and nurture,’ the idea that small interventions can have an outsized effect when properly designed. Moreover, Mr. Chowdhury emphasized the need to accept failure as part of the innovation process, particularly when striving to achieve ‘breakthrough thinking.’ Several student attendees were curious about how failure is perceived at a2i, as it is executed through the Prime Minister’s Office and government is typically risk- (and failure-) averse. Mr. Chowdhury responded that he – along with the Prime Minister – have worked hard to foster a learning environment within the department wherein failures are internalized as learning opportunities. This culture embraces failure as a byproduct of innovation, and draws on lessons-learned to inspire powerful, and often simple, solutions that alleviate challenges faced by millions of people every day.

  • Tory Grieves, MBA/MEM ‘18