Innovation begins at home

Published in Bangladesh Brand Forum Anniversary issue:

At 1.30 AM the night before the PM was going to launch the Digital Innovation Fair, an email reached my inbox:

‘I just came back from Novo theatre, the venue for the Fair. Even at midnight, it was buzzing with people from many ministries setting up their stalls for the 4th. I cannot recall a more energetic group of government people up and down the hierarchy all single-mindedly focused on showcasing multi-dimensional service deliveries. Each stall has become a pride and joy of a government agency. The energy was unmistakable, infectious really. ‘

On the opening day, I reached the fair an hour early partially to check out the atmosphere.   The email from the fellow organizer sounded a tad exaggerated.  These are government bureaucrats after all – can this really be true?   I ran into Dr. Ananya Raihan, who has been working on popularizing the use of technology in the development sector for years.  His eyes were glowing.  ‘These are dream come true for us.  For so many years we hosted such fairs from the private sector and wondered aloud if the government will ever come with us and here we have almost all the ministries showcasing their innovation in e-service delivery’.  As I walked by the stalls amid hundreds of visitors I had to pinch myself as well – is that really the Joint Secretary who is calling the young student and excitedly explaining their ministry’s project?  Is that really the Bangladesh Bank Governor proudly talking to his junior staff about the funky interior of their stall?  How was all this possible?

Even two months ago, this seemed like a distant reality.  At one of the organizing meetings for the fair the urgency of the top secretaries were evident.  The rallying cry in the meeting was – “Every one must participate”.  Clear instructions were given that showing a static website for the ministry was not good enough.  All the ministries had to show case a service that they have introduced to reduce the hassles people face in their every day life in Bangladesh.  To introduce a healthy competition, Access to Information team at the Prime Minister’s Office announced that the top innovative ministries will be rewarded by public voting and a jury board at the fair.  The last two months saw a spirited sprint at the finish by all the participating ministries.  Days before the show the focal point of Home Ministry called with excitement to say that they had received the machines for developing machine-readable passports, and they wanted to prepare a passport for the Hon’ble PM as she walked by the stall. Communications Ministry wanted to utilize the venue to inaugurate railway ticket purchase using mobile phones. Expat Welfare wanted to prepare smart cards for five migrant workers in front of the PM.  In the last seven days before the opening, the number of entries in the Fair escalated beyond belief.

Although the last minute entries escalated to brink of mismanagement, we, the organizers, breathed a sigh of relief.   The first mission for the fair had been accomplished.  The public sector had been energized to go beyond the call of their duty to be innovative in providing service at the doorsteps of people.  The second part of the challenge was to get citizens to come to the fair and see it – this was after all a government sponsored fair.  Unlike the cash rich private sector, we hardly had money for promotion. To add to the crisis, an abstract ad created by an agency did not fly with the seniors.  Two days before the show, a self taught rookie designer was brought in to the office in the afternoon.  ‘You have four hours to prepare the promo and this is the brief’, he was told.  By 9 PM, the promo was ready.  After the necessary approval, the BTV DG waited while our media men ran with the CD to hand deliver.   The ad started to air from 11 PM that night.   Opinion pieces were out in the paper and the talk shows went all ‘Digital’.   To our pleasant surprise, on Friday, March 5th, the first full day of the fair, people came to the fair in droves.  There were students, professionals, people — young to middle aged — who came to see what the government offered for them.

Indeed, it was refreshing to visit from stall to stall and to watch officers share their success stories with the citizens — story of Shahjalal University registering students via sms application at Ministry of education, a story of ‘Digital Purjee’ using which the life of the average sugar cane farmers was simplified at the ministry of industry, the video conferencing of health specialists at the health ministry, buying rail ticket via SMS at the ministry of communication,  the disaster warning through mobile at the ministry of disaster recovery, special agricultural information centre by the ministry of agriculture and lastly the custom house which has been automated lately  – there were over 200 stories like this.  It was an extra ordinary day for any technology and development enthusiasts who simultaneously got to ask high officials direct questions at seminars at a side room.  I bumped into Prof Zafar Iqbal who was visibly elated at the end of the fair –‘the body language of government officers has changed’, he said. The last seminar of the fair was on branding Bangladesh abroad where the opinion was unanimous that there was a perception problem.   Branding comes with a promise of quality and Bangladesh will need to deliver if it wants to build a brand.

Even though Digital Bangladesh will mean different things to different people,  one thing that will be common is that it will not only need to deliver on its promise abroad but it will also need to deliver meaningful services for the common citizens to make their lives easier, less expensive and more productive. Lessons for us from the fair:  healthy competition works, the right combination of carrots and sticks can work wonder to mobilize government officers, innovation can come from places least expected and lastly a lot of people will move mountains if the catalyst relinquishes credit.

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