• Governments can be slow to adapt to the latest developments in tech.
  • It is in governments’ interests to digitalise services because it offers benefits ranging from cost-cutting to creating more accountability for sprawling bureaucracies.
  • Bangladesh’s successful e-government rollout, as part of the Digital Bangladesh agenda, took a citizen-centric approach.

As more services are delivered online by the private sector, governments must follow suit and give users a comparably fast, convenient and transparent experience. This is increasingly essential to strengthen democratic processes and build confidence in state institutions.

Often, governments can be slow to adapt to the latest developments in tech. The bigger the ship, the slower it can be to change direction. And there is often no bigger ship than the state. But the most important services are delivered by it: healthcare, welfare, identity documents. The very things that make life possible.

This is why digitisation is important for growing economies, as part of their development drives. Without the right infrastructure, any progress is likely to be a palace built on sand.

The drive to create that infrastructure can only happen with leadership from the top, because it is impossible to simplify complex bureaucracies without some sort of disruption along the way.

If democratic infrastructure does not develop, it will lead to disengagement, at best, and at worst, alienation. But if governments can modernise, they will create a trusting, convenience-based relationship between themselves and their citizens.

If all this is important in developed democracies, it is absolutely key in fast-growing economies with similarly fast-growing populations like Bangladesh.

If governments can modernise, they will create a trusting, convenience-based relationship between themselves and their citizens.

—Anir Chowdhury

From pension applications to national ID cards

Bangladesh has asked why it is not delivering essential services online and looked for solutions.

A third of Bangladeshis are aged between 10 and 24. This is a generation used to e-commerce with immediate processing and real-time order tracking. They are less likely to be happy with long queues outside polling stations or government offices.

Projects like Bangladesh’s a2i (a shared programme between the Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet Office and ICT Ministry) streamline and re-engineer government processes, and have seen huge progress in a few short years.

Bangladesh’s e-government rollout as part of the Digital Bangladesh agenda has led to reduced in-person visits to access government services, a drop in waiting times per visit and boosted user satisfaction.

Thousands of public servants have been re-trained in digital delivery across hundreds of public services, with good results. For example, applying for a pension now takes 8 days instead of 28.

A citizen-centric approach was taken by focusing on the key metrics of reducing time, cost and number of visits (TCV) required to access a service. ‘Foundational’ services were rolled out first, with additional services layered on top of them.

The national ID card scheme is one prerequisite for many e-governance solutions. The starting point is knowing who someone is. To extend the e-commerce analogy, it is the equivalent of a user account login.

But some Western nations — notably the US and UK — do not have ID card systems and indeed have significant domestic opposition to them. This leaves two of the world’s leading democracies without a ‘login’ for their customers, limiting the efficiency with which services can be delivered.

But perhaps even in those situations the growth of tech in other areas will help the uptake of e-governance. Citizens are rapidly finding themselves in the absurd situation of sometimes handing more personal data to Big Tech than to their government. But ultimately it is the government that provides them with the most essential services.

Digitisation is an unstoppable trend in both the developing and developed world. It is in governments’ interests because it cuts costs, allows more accountability for sprawling bureaucracies, and creates a happier citizenry.

a2i, a Government of Bangladesh innovation unit spanning the Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet Office and ICT Ministry, is working hard to create a generation who will have known nothing other than efficient and transparent government services. This breaks the cycle of archaic rules-driven bureaucracy leading to a lack of transparency and, consequently, rent-seeking opportunities.

Digitising government services allows for a centralised storing and analysis of data; an invaluable resource for further improving services. Indeed, it is an investment that can bring compound returns — particularly during crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.