Similar to the situation in many developing countries, Bangladeshi government offices at the district and sub-district levels provide an extensive range of public services that are time-consuming and labour-intensive for both service providers and recipients. This creates frequent delays and has had an adverse impact on the livelihoods of the poor. Most citizens reside and work in rural areas, so they must typically travel long distances to access the nearest government facility, usually located in urban or semi-urban areas. In addition to long commutes, service recipients have also faced difficulties in completing applications to access public and private services. They have furthermore confronted barriers to accessing banking, financial and some private services. Due to a lack of IT literacy and Internet connectivity, they cannot enjoy the benefits of e-commerce. And due to the lack of access to information regarding the processes and the lengthy timelines involved, citizens have had to forego income-generating activities and incur additional costs to access services including transportation, accommodation and food. For women, the elderly and people with disabilities, the challenges have been even greater.
Towards a Solution
To address these challenges, Access to Information (a2i), a special programme of the Government of Bangladesh, in partnership with the Local Government Division, set up digital centres. Located in the lowest tier of government administration offices such as Union Parishad, Pourashava and at the City Corporations’ Ward councillors’ office, these centres are one-stop access points for obtaining private and public services. They are operated by entrepreneurs who are selected jointly by the Upazila Nirbahi Officer (head of the Upazila administration) and the Union/Pourashava chairman/city corporation ward counsellors. The Government does not bear the cost of the entrepreneurs’ salaries as these entrepreneurs, both male and female, manage the business model by taking minimum service charges from service recipients. Their activities are in turn monitored by Upazila Nirbahi officers. Because the centres employ females, rural women have been encouraged to seek services.
An online service platform, Ek sheba, has been developed for the entrepreneurs. To date, over 136 public and private e-services and the rural e-commerce platform ekShop have been integrated into this platform. This platform currently provides over 136 public and private services, agent banking services and assisted rural model e-commerce support through Ekshop to rural citizens. a2i is liaising with different government offices and private organizations for service expansion through the Ek sheba platform.
The digital centres ensure that underserved populations, such as rural women, people with disabilities and the elderly, can access vital information and services, regardless of their general and specific Information and Communications Technology (ICT) level of literacy. A typical digital centre is about 4 km from the average rural citizen’s home, compared to a government subdistrict office, which is about 20 km away, and a district office, over 35 km away. Access to these centres enables citizens to receive efficient and customized public and private services. To date, 5,286 digital centres have been set up, delivering over 150 types of services – both public and private – to an average of 6 million underserved citizens every month at much lower time, cost and number of visits (TCV). On average, the time needed to obtain services has been reduced by 85 per cent, cost by 63 per cent and the number of visits by 40 per cent. Already 323 million services have been provided from digital centres to 76.8 million citizens, including approximately 2.1 million prospective migrant workers who have been registered online and 4 million citizens who have received m-banking services. In the process, the digital centre entrepreneurs have earned over USD million.
Collectively, digital centres represent an important nexus for decentralizing service delivery, strengthening local government and also empowering communities. These one-stop centres are essentially micro-enterprises run by ‘citizen entrepreneurs’ in tandem with elected local government representatives. They leverage modern technology to provide citizens both free and fee-based access to more than 150 public and private services. Public services include land records, birth registration, telemedicine, passport and overseas job applications as well as applications to various other government services. Private services include mobile financial services, rural e-commerce services (through ekShop), insurance and various types of computer and vocational training. This initiative won the WSIS Prize from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2014.
a2i is working with interested public and private agencies to design policies to make more in-demand services available for citizens through these digital centres. Local government divisions have already established the policy frameworks needed to set up digital centres and establish the terms and conditions. District administration and upazila (i.e. subdistrict) administrations have been assigned to monitor these centres and evaluate the entrepreneurs who run them. In addition, as part of service process simplification, the Cabinet Division strongly encourages scores of government agencies to use the digital centres as last-mile delivery points for hundreds of public services. Private sector companies are also starting to make their services available through these centres, which may be the most cost-effective way to achieve nationwide reach quickly. Digital centres are also providing agent banking facilities, enabling citizens to withdraw allowances, deposit savings and conduct other financial transactions through these centres.
The network of centres across the country, together with thousands of post offices and innovative digital payment options, has emerged as a viable platform for e-commerce transactions, including the movement of goods in rural areas.
The increasing trust of citizens in digital centres as a decentralized government desk has been a key factor driving the acceptance and popularity that they have gained over time, and thereby facilitating their replication. Such replication requires that the centres become financially sustainable, maintaining a careful balance between their commercial aspects and social mission. Quality entrepreneurs must be recruited, while considering the centres’ social and financial aspects, and their capacities must be developed. The inclusion of female entrepreneurs must be ensured by effectively addressing their current social situation.
Government and non-government agencies from the Maldives, Bhutan and Fiji have already entered into partnerships with a2i to replicate some of its successful initiatives, including the digital centre initiative. Discussions are underway with government agencies and development agencies in other countries to replicate the model, especially developing countries, facilitated by the South-South Network for Public Service Innovation (SSN4PSI). To replicate these models effectively, certain conditions must be met, such as: setting up offices in the lowest-tier government administration offices; building online service delivery platforms; selecting entrepreneurs properly; establishing policy by local government divisions; conducting rigorous monitoring by local administrations; recruiting both female and male entrepreneurs; and, delivering both private and public services.