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Custo-Zen: A new way of doing inclusive innovation, a new way of doing government

by Ishtiaque Hussain

This week, the global Covid death toll passed the tragic total of one million, with some speculating that the true figure could be higher due to lack of reporting in many parts of the world. The World Health Organization predicted that the doubling of that figure is ‘very likely’. But it is not unavoidable. Both the direct loss of lives caused by the virus, and the indirect loss of lives and livelihoods brought about by indiscriminate policies in response to it, can be limited with smart, data driven policies and transparent models of government action that not only serve citizens better, but empower them to participate and influence the decisions that affect them.

Cultivating empathy and effecting a mindset change in how civil servants perceive their role vis-à-vis citizens has never been more important. Fear of death and (amongst the poorest) fear of starvation due to Covid restrictions on working life, can only be calmed when authorities fundamentally change how they interact with citizens, how often they interact with them and how they empower them to participate in the process of innovating solutions to the unprecedented challenges thrown up by the pandemic.

The private sector has a long record of truly engaging their customers to power amazing and successful innovations. Customers in the private sector have the opportunity to participate in the design, pricing and distribution of products and services — albeit indirectly, through “the invisible hand” of market forces and their wallets.

On the other hand, governments around the world, particularly in developing countries like Bangladesh are still stuck on the idea of citizens as merely service seekers or beneficiaries. The large-scale finance mechanisms of taxes, bonds, and other government financing that support social goods at scale and through which citizens are supposed to have a say are dysfunctional. Unlike customers in the private sector, citizens have no way to vote with their dollars — this works when there is competition, but many public utilities and services operate as a monopoly.

Drawing inspiration from Public Service Division (PSD) Singapore’s experience, It brings customer-citizens (often partnering with grassroots NGOs), public sector service providers and experts from the private sector and academia together at the point of service access/delivery and conducts KYCs (know your customer; a quintessentially Bangladeshi twist to the well-established concept) — which pulls together principles from Design Thinking, Systems Thinking, Business Process Re-engineering, Behavioural Insights, Agent-based Modelling and Futures Thinking.

The KYC project teams move rapidly from user research to idea testing to implementation. There is greater ownership and buy-in by the participating service delivery agencies for the citizen-centric solutions.

Above all else, it facilitates, more than ever before, listening to citizens, to understand what they require during this crisis for both life and livelihood.

It is the reason why the Bangladesh government could transform the national information hotline 333 — which was already useful as a platform for citizens, particularly those in less developed, rural areas who could just dial 333 to receive critical information regarding public services and also inform the government to take immediate action to address social ills like child marriage — into a multi-faceted platform that evolved to a self-reporting triage system, then went onto enable telemedicine services, an Uber Pool-like system with close to 4,000 doctors, then function as a means to identify the beneficiaries for urgent food relief, as a means to deliver audio lessons to millions of students, and even p-commerce — all of this free of charge. To date, over 4 million calls have come in, with crucial data generated to fight the virus.

credit: a2i

It is the reason why, when the pandemic threatened to end all forms of education for 50 million students in the country, there was immediate response. While plenty of internet-based solutions existed, reliable internet for education purposes was only available to 5% of the country, which meant that 95% would be deprived. This is when the idea of repurposing Parliament TV came. What was once a TV station that was largely under-utilized by airing parliament sessions every few months transformed into delivering thousands of daily lessons — a transformation that took 6 days.

The pandemic also saw millions of people falling back into poverty and extreme poverty, as their livelihoods were taken away. This is where previous work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to build a system for citizens to receive social welfare payments acted as the foundation upon which 5 million people, who were never previously identified as poor, were included in this new corona-induced social safety net and receive government subsidies.

But in all honesty, Custo-Zen is still very much an experiment. One that was perhaps only made possible, by deeply entrenched aspects of government and society suddenly — though momentarily — becoming unfrozen due to the pandemic. When we started out back in February, when Bangladesh recorded its first fatality from COVID-19, we thought we would most likely fail! Not least because of government sensitivity around using the term ‘customers’. Unsurprising, especially when you think we weren’t even able to sell the government on ‘business process re-engineering’ (cause of course, the government cannot do “business” and cares little about “engineering”!) and so had to rename it ‘service process simplification’.

The last six months has been a steep learning curve for us all. By valuing citizens ideas, their feedback and creating ways for them to participate in a new, more inclusive way of doing government, we can stop one million deaths becoming two — with or without a vaccine.

We will keep you posted on our finding and in the meantime, should you be interested you can share your thoughts with us on Twitter @Ishtiaque_IH

In the Asia-Pacific region, we are interpreting the renewed mandate for innovation as an opportunity to reframe: follow us and contribute as we explore