Bangladesh: Empathy Training

March 17, 2019
Challenge Bureaucratic delays in delivering public services are prevalent. The typical top-down management system within the government usually hinders an optimal service delivery process. Decisions tend to be made at the top level, and officers at mid- and field levels rarely have an opportunity to offer innovative ideas to improve services and their delivery systems. Civil servants who are in a position to overhaul processes and institutionalize improvements in service delivery are far removed from the grassroots level, where citizens come in contact with the system and are often unable to identify ‘pain points’ from the citizen’s perspective. The Government of Bangladesh has faced major challenges posed by the lack of innovative culture and restrictions on experimental approaches to improve public services. ”Empathy training” tackles institutionalized inefficiency, with the aim of reducing time, cost and visits (TCV) required by citizens to receive public services, while working to stimulate the culture of innovation within branches of the Government. Towards a Solution To address the above challenge, the Government of Bangladesh introduced empathy training, an innovative intervention by the Access to Information programme (a2i), inspired by Nesta’s design thinking model of innovation. The five-day training model was customized to align with the country’s socio-cultural and institutional identity, thereby ensuring that it can be a sustainable initiative with long-term impact. Through the training, public servants are encouraged to design ways to improve service delivery and reduce TCV involved in accessing services. By using features from design thinking, experimental learning and the concept of the ‘secret shopper’, trainees are better able to relate to a citizen’s perspective and feel empathy. The training is the initial phase of the empathy-triggered innovation journey, through which a2i helps to create an innovation-based culture for public servants to develop creative solutions for citizens. Following the training, those with ideas for possible interventions participate in a five-day project design and documentation workshop. Innovators are also assigned individual mentors, who help them develop their idea further. Additionally, a2i has over 1,000 Innovation Teams from all levels of government to support the innovators at all stages. Once the pilot is complete, a2i holds innovation showcases around the ministries, highlighting the innovator’s work and progress and evaluating whether it can be replicated on a larger scale, eventually leading to a national-level initiative. To date, a2i has trained 5,392 civil servants, which has led to 1,137 empathy intervention pilot projects: 555 have been completed and 582 are still ongoing. Of the total 1,137 pilot projects, 57 have been replicated in other subdistricts. Eighteen have been scaled up nationally, reaching over 18 million citizens. Linking a culture of innovation to economic development, the project directly addresses SDG 9 by enabling civil servants to provide more efficient services and establish more open platforms to achieve improved collaborative dialogues. In conjunction with private sector partnerships, the innovation has grown into a powerful tool to catalyse long-term changes. The impact of the training goes beyond the SDG 9 to affect other SDGs because the innovations intervene in multiple sectors, including health care, education, crop farming, fisheries, and land and human rights. The project’s sustainability and replicability are closely aligned and depend on the public service culture’s adaptability to the changes resulting from the innovation. In terms of sustainability, the Government of Bangladesh has already approved a separate budget code for innovation-related funding across all ministries, supporting various innovation pilots, training and other activities, with almost USD 12 million in funding. Empathy training has become the tool for exploration among civil servants in Bangladesh, providing a compass that guides the search for innovation. Each ministry has established its own innovation team. During monthly cabinet meetings, discussions on innovation are mandatory and progress towards innovation within ministries is reviewed. A ‘Public Service Innovation’ Facebook group enables public servants from all hierarchical levels across Bangladesh to come together to share their challenges and ideas, making it a constructive platform that facilitates a new, open dialogue within the community about innovation, further emphasizing the significance of shifting their institutional behaviour. To date, a2i has partnered with more than 50 government training institutes in Bangladesh, the Singapore e-Government Leadership Centre (eGL) under the aegis of the National University of Singapore, and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) to share experiences and learning to ensure sustainability of this best practice. Successful replicability depends on building a culture that supports innovation, which demands multidimensional support. It starts with selecting the right participants for the empathy training – that is, entrepreneurial civil servants who are eager to improve the current environment and who have the interpersonal skills to catalyse changes – and encouraging and including others in larger-scale, innovation-driven problem-solving. Official memoranda of understanding (MOUs) have been signed with the Royal Kingdom of Bhutan and the Republic of Maldives, where a2i will provide technical assistance in several areas, including implementing the empathy training model. Furthermore, a2i is currently in discussions with countries that have shown interest in adopting this model. Sustainable Development Goal target(s): 9.5, 9.b, 9.c Contact:
  • Mr. Mohammed Sakhwat Hosain, Policy Expert, a2i Programme, Bangladesh,
  • Mr. Md. Shaheenur Rahman, Senior Assistant Chief, Economic Relations Division, Ministry of Finance, Bangladesh, or sas-un5@
Supported by: Government of Bangladesh, UNDP, USAID Implementing entities: Access to Information (a2i) Programme, ICT Division, Bangladesh Project period: 2012 -2018 URL of the practice: