Why COVID has made government Agile (for now)

The Innovation Dividend explores how innovation in society and government are paying off. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring how ‘policy frontliners’ are innovating in real time in the COVID-19 pandemic and asking which of these changes and “raw learnings” might become part of our new normal. You can see the backstory by Kal Joffres here, Podcast EP 1, Podcast EP2, Podcast EP3, Podcast EP4, Podcast EP5, Podcast EP6, Podcast EP7, Podcast EP8, Podcast EP9, Podcast EP10, and Podcast EP11.

In this conversation with Anir Chowdhury, we hear about how court hearings in Bangladesh are being digitized and how that happened in less than two weeks. We also get into where those gains in speed and agility of government are coming from — and it turns out they don’t just come from longer work hours. Lastly, we hear about what the policy frontliner experience feels like in the midst of the COVID response. Anir is part of the Prime Minister’s National Digital Task Force and for the last 13 years, he has been leading the formation of an innovation ecosystem in Bangladesh and institutional reform. This interview was recorded on May 16th, 2020 in the early stages of the COVID-19 response.

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Anir Chowdhury: [00:00:00] It is an Agile development process, but I am surprised because I never felt that we were this agile. Work is getting done at least at four or five times the speed that it did in 2019. We were maturing over the years, we were becoming better and speedier over the years, but suddenly we are four or five times faster than last year. What kind of agile process we are actually utilizing here? I have no idea because it’s the passion driving the work. It’s that deep, I think, intention to solve problems that we are facing.

Kal Joffres: [00:00:38] Hi, I’m Kal Joffres.

Milica Begovic: [00:00:40] And my name is Millie Begovic.

Kal Joffres: [00:00:42] Welcome to The Innovation Dividends, the podcast that explores how innovation in society and government is unleashing new solutions and approaches to stubborn development challenges.

This conversation is with Anir Chowdhury, who you might recognize from some of our earlier episodes as someone who’s been on the front lines of the digital response to COVID-19 with the Government of Bangladesh. Anir is part of the Prime Minister’s National Digital Taskforce and, for the last 13 years, he’s been leading the formation of an innovation ecosystem in Bangladesh, institutional reform, and a service innovation fund.

This is a bit of a retrospective interview. It was recorded on May 16th in the early stages of the Coronavirus crisis. We hear about how court hearings are being digitized and how that happened in less than two weeks, where the huge increase in the speed of delivery in government is coming from — and most of it doesn’t come from longer work hours — and what it feels like as a team to be in the midst of this response.

Anir, it’s great to have you back on the podcast. The courts have started hearing bail hearings online. That’s very interesting because the judicial system is traditionally one that’s been very careful when it comes to innovation. Could you tell us about how that change came together?

Anir Chowdhury: [00:01:56] We started doing in 2016 what we call “service process simplification.” So simplification of the writ process, the bail hearing process, and so on and so forth. And we made some progress and then it all got halted. It got halted because the Ministry of Law and ICT minister, the Supreme Court decided that it was sort of a piecemeal approach, which I agree with, and it would create a very large project about, I think, a $300 million project was conceived that would provide hardware to all the courts — or 1200 or so courts — would provide connectivity, would do training, and would do this mega digitization project.

So that was the big vision in 2016 but it took so much time and so much back and forth to develop that $300 million project that it’s still on hold. Now, the end of April, a landmark meeting happened within the Supreme Court. It was on the 30th of April, Chief Justice and a few justices of the Supreme Court felt that we needed to hold court hearings specifically for bail because bail applications have been mounting up. And there have been a lot of people in jail who could go out on bail and they’re not. And the jail is not the safest place in Bangladesh. And during the COVID situation, if there is an infection in jail, it would be very, very difficult to manage that. So bail became a very important issue for the government to discuss.

So we were called on the 1st of May the following day that, “Okay, can we resurrect that effort four years ago to actually see if we could start doing virtual bail hearings?” So that’s the first discussion that happened. And, in the current philosophy of things, repurposing — we looked at what could be repurposed because speed is of the essence. So we looked at the judicial portal that we had developed that still exists, developed four years ago. And then we have this e-filing system. It’s called filing within the government. It’s only used by the civil service. So for the last four or five years, it’s been gaining in popularity and it’s being used by about 9,000 offices within civil service. The target is to put about 19,000 offices — that’s almost all civil service office within the government. So it’s passport and land records and birth registration and loans and disability allowances — everything. So all departments — about 400 departments — having about 19,000 offices. So that will be covered. So that e-filing system was then considered as a backbone of the virtual court, potentially.

Then we have a citizen-facing application platform called “MyGov”, MyGovernment. So that was launched by the honorable Prime Minister in January of this year, 2020. And then we needed video conferencing, which we never really used extensively within the government other than the very expensive, high end, expensive video conferencing equipment by Cisco and a few other hardware vendors — well, we and a few others. So the combination of a citizen facing platform called MyGov, then the e-filing, which is used within civil service, and a video conference — so these three were combined. So they came together.

I would say that there are three problems: one is the technology problem, and the legal problem, and third is the capacity problem.

So the second problem we faced was the legal problem, that the law does not support doing court hearings in a virtual fashion because it requires everybody to be in the same space at the same time. So we started negotiating with the Supreme Court Justices that, “Okay, if you lift one of the two restrictions that it’s the same time, but it may not be in the same space.” So you’re able to interact real time. It’s not like somebody is sending an email and then it’s asynchronous, it’s going there, somebody is looking at it… So it’s actually all together. So the courtroom drama will actually happen in real time using video conference.

And then they said, “Okay, that’s possible,” because they’ve been doing some of their own meetings through Zoom and WebEx and all of that, and Microsoft teams. So they said, “Okay, that’s possible. But it has to be at the same time.” You cannot actually say that, “Okay, one person will do witness, another person will do documenting of the hearing at different times — it cannot happen. It has to be at the same time.” So we agreed. And there was a lot of acceptance. There was also a lot of doubt, a lot of fear, I’ll admit, but this got done in the cabinet, so I think that was a huge step forward.

The third was the capacity of the lawyers. They said that, “We can’t deal with this technology. Things will come to MyGov and it’ll end up in the filing system and I’ll have to log into the filing system. This is too complicated. I can’t deal with that.” So they made an alternative proposal that, okay, that we should use email. So the lawyers would send you an email with the bail petition, and this email would be seen and the bail hearing would happen on video conferencing in real time, and documents should be produced, and again, those documents will be sent back over email. So where we were proposing that email was going to be too cumbersome, and that’s where we proposed using the MyGov interface to get the bail hearing. Video conferencing was fine. And we also propose that we would use the e-filing system for processing of the bail and sending the results back to MyGovernment.

So that’s how we conceived of it. That’s how we were sort of repurposing and integrating these technologies.

Kal Joffres: [00:08:01] And just to clarify, so the way this works if I’m a user is I go to the website, and then I can pull out the file. But then when the bail hearing actually happens, then that’s through video conference.

Anir Chowdhury: [00:08:16] That’s correct. So a user will be a lawyer in this case because, typically, a citizen or the family of the accused in jail will not go to a portal or will not do a bail petition directly. They would hire a lawyer and the lawyer would file the bail petition on behalf of the family. That lawyer would go to this website and use the MyGov application to file the bail petition, MyGov application would connect to e-filing, which is an internal mechanism, and the e-filing would allow a video conferencing to happen, and the processing of that video conferencing documents — new documents created, the bail decision — would be processed through the e-filing system and then would be returned back to the MyGov system.

So they’re three different systems at play that we have to cobble together. So we had no time to create a new coherent monolithic system. We actually had to cobble together three systems, which is the MyGov system on the citizen-facing, the e-file system, which is internal to the civil service and we’ve made it code-friendly, and the video conferencing system, which is where the bail hearing happens.

Kal Joffres: [00:09:31] What have been some of the challenges that you’ve run into as you’ve gone through this?

Anir Chowdhury: [00:09:35] So basically, the capacity challenge, that the lawyers would not want to use the technical system, the electronic system. They said that they could go as far as email, so they would send in the bail petition using email but they wouldn’t do anything else. And they would get the reply from the court over email again. So a large number of lawyers opted for that option. It was obviously not the best because it’s difficult to keep track of emails, right? We’re not able to generate tracking numbers. We’re not able to actually stack up information properly and it’s completely insecure as well. So you’re getting in various confidential information to an insecurity email system.

So what happened was, after the decision on May 7 of the cabinet that, okay, this could go forward, we launched it in 87 courts on the 12th of May. And many of the lawyers still opted for email and they did not want to use the system. They said that they would use video conferencing, but not the MyGov system.

On the first day, so May 12th, we had about 74 bail petition applications that came into the system. On the second day, it became around 350. And on the third day, which was on Thursday, the last day of the week, it became 4,000+. So altogether, 4,506 bail petition applications came in. So if you look at the progression — 74, 350, and 4,000 in those three days — there was a huge uptake of the system across the entire country. So 87 courts are started using this bail petition. So the fear and doubt and uncertainty — about whether they would use the system, email is better because they’re more familiar with it — just sort of melted away.

So that was just incredible. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that kind of quick uptake in that small a timeframe. So this is again a lesson that things can happen in incredibly fast pace. If the right things are presented in front of people and the right conditions persist, right? Conditions occur for them to adopt it.

Kal Joffres: [00:11:56] Are we getting any feedback about how things are going with this?

Anir Chowdhury: [00:12:00] Yeah. So the feedback has been really positive. So we created a closed social media group with the lawyers and the judges who are actually using the system. And lots of feedback is actually coming in and the technologists, and the help desk persons, and the judges on the Supreme Court side who are now manning the help desk, they are providing the answers very quickly. So it’s overwhelmingly positive. There are a lot of queries in terms of how to use the system and they are being addressed in a rapid manner. So by and large it’s actually really, really positive.

Kal Joffres: [00:12:36] What’s next for this initiative? Are we going to see court cases being adjudicated online? What do you see as the roadmap for this?

Anir Chowdhury: [00:12:44] So it remains to be seen what the roadmap would look like, but we have already talked to the chief justice. We are meeting this coming week to flesh this out in more detail, but we had an online conference with him, and he already wants this to cover 250 courts by June because he thinks that this is an incredible advancement for the courts, which have been sort of lagging behind in terms of digitization. In this whole digital Bangladesh journey of the last 11+ years, the court system has been the most behind.

So he’s very excited that finally there is context and there is acceptance and there is adoption of digital systems. And, by the end of the year, it will be about 1200 courts. So that covers most of the courts across the country. It requires a lot of hardware deployment, connectivity deployment. The 87 courts that we have deployed these two so far, they already had the requisite hardware connectivity, but the 1200 courts across the country, they will need new hardware and connectivity and probably a lot of training of the lawyers and the judges in those remote areas. So that’s going to be a big challenge.

But the next big challenge that will be is that we will go out of just doing bail. So it could be all sorts of court cases that the Chief Justice wants us to accelerate and accommodate in the system. But each type of case actually has a different type of case management process. If you have witnesses from a remote location, how do we get the witnesses to come in in a secure way? Again, the criminal that needs to be appearing in court, if they don’t appear in a court because it’s all virtual, they may have to provide their remarks from the jail.

So it’s going to not only look at the court system, it will have to bring in the jail system, it’ll have to bring in the law and order, the police. It’s a very, very ambitious look at how digitization will have to be done by bringing in many ministries, different branches of the government, the judiciary, and the executive, and potentially the parliament as well because a bunch of new laws will have to be passed to get all these things done,

Kal Joffres: [00:14:55] In this whole process, what would you say has surprised you?

Anir Chowdhury: [00:14:59] Maybe two or three major things. One is that that mountain that I talked about, the judiciary, that actually does not move. Because it’s very rule-bound for obvious reasons. I mean, you can’t be seen as being innovative and disrupt a legal system. So it’s difficult to be innovative there. In a matter of 10 days — so if you look at it, April 30th was when the justices sat with the chief justice and said that something needs to be done, we got involved and things started moving.

So it is possible that something that seems insurmountable, something that seems impossible, actually came together because there was intent. There was political intent, there was intent from the institution, and all the different obstacles that came in the way — major ones. How do we get technology created in a matter of days? Legal — how do you get the legal barriers? Because who would actually pass these laws without the parliament? Capacity — which is where the biggest resistance came from in a sense because people just don’t want to adopt new things. All those things melted away in a matter of less than two weeks. So that was a big learning that it is possible to make things happen, but it required a lot of teamwork. There was a lot of continuous discussion happening between the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Law, UNDP, network program — all these happen almost on a daily basis to get to the point where we did.

The second thing I would say is this teamwork, that people came together where this discussion never happened before and they made things work. They had a goal that a bail hearing is an important citizens issue, important institutional issue, and that needed to be addressed immediately. So that, I think, that singular goal that we set for everybody — technologists, justices, judges, lawyers, administrators — I think that singular goal really made the teamwork function. Otherwise we would not have been able to do it, I think. So that was very interesting.

And the third thing that I think also that we see is that this has really created the foundation for a massive change, that if this foundation sticks, if this foundation actually goes forward, which I feel that it will because there is such quick adoption within a matter of days by the lawyers who basically first said, “No, no, no, we’re not going to be able to use this and this is too difficult for us and I don’t understand anything.” And when they came on board, I feel that this will continue and the big change that we need to have happen. Because we have millions of cases pending in the system and using digitization may actually ease the burden. This is a sharing of some very, very positive outlook and very positive space for innovation. I think we’ll see a lot of innovations come into the judiciary space in the next few months and possibly next year as well.

Learning from fatigue, maximising expertise

Kal Joffres: [00:18:09] Now with your team delivering on such a wide variety of projects and, it sounds, very quickly, what does the schedule look like for you and your team?

Anir Chowdhury: [00:18:18] So for the last two months, it’s been on a consistent basis, 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, regardless of the Ramadan period. It’s been completely crazy and it’s probably not sustainable. It’s probably not sustainable. Fatigue is setting in the teams. I can see in my team, I can see in many other teams across the government and the private sector that we very closely work with.

Kal Joffres: [00:18:45] Obviously we’re in the midst of a crisis, but could you tell me a little more about what has made it so necessary to work on weekends as well?

Anir Chowdhury: [00:18:54] The health ministry, education ministries, food and disaster management, cabinet — all these ministers are leaning on us to provide very quick solutions. And we seem to be able to repurpose quite quickly and concoct solutions within a matter of days based on the experience of building all these foundational technologies — the building blocks — and basically putting them together into viable solutions like Lego blocks. And the other reason is that we are able to convene the right partners very quickly because that’s how we have functioned for the last a decade, 12 years or so. The team members, the colleagues that I have feel that this is their time to contribute, their time to join that struggle, and make a huge difference happen. So I think that that missionary zeal is driving every member of the team and they’re bringing in other members from the private sector, academia, non-government organizations who work like them, who think like them, and can actually make miracles happen over a very short period of time.

Kal Joffres: [00:20:02] In a sense, this is a technology crisis and there’s a limited amount of technology expertise available so your services are in very high demand.

Anir Chowdhury: [00:20:11] I think expertise is available, but technology expertise that can create solutions very, very quickly without having to go through, maybe, long requirements-gathering process, understanding the nature of the problem, and understanding the user experience, I think, is in short supply.

Kal Joffres: [00:20:32] It sounds like you’re describing an agile kind of approach that you don’t have to do a long requirements-gathering sort of phase — how is this work conducted in your team or how is it different from how it might be traditionally done?

Anir Chowdhury: [00:20:49] Yeah. So it is an agile development process, but I am surprised because I never felt that we were this agile. I always felt that we do things pretty fast, maybe faster than many technology development organizations or technology planning organization, because we don’t develop much. We actually plan and execute and bring in the right partners to develop. But I was very surprised, comparing to the last few years and comparing to the last few months, if I look back in the last few years, I think we became better at architecture. So we can imagine very, very large systems, we can build very large systems, we can integrate different types of things into one coherent whole.

So that’s the expertise that has been growing over the years. But in terms of the development cycle, I would say that it’s been maturing, but it’s not been super fast. So we would still go through a period of requirements gathering and then there’d be the agile process, but it was a combination of agile and waterfall, I mean, if I may use those terms. So basically, waterfall is you do things in discrete steps and there is hardly much feedback loop and agile is where you do things and the feedback is continuous. So you’re doing very quick steps. So it was a blend of the two and I just felt in the last two months it became super agile. So teams are getting together over Zoom.

So again, the other interesting thing is that these are people who are not even physically sitting, who are not even sitting next to each other or across from the table. They are in their homes during the time of lockdown, they’re using virtual whiteboards, they’re using a zoom or WebEx or Microsoft teams to do video conferencing, and they’re getting work done. They’re actually doing design, they’re doing planning, they’re setting targets, they’re bringing in a very large number of vendors, which we have never done to this extent, and we were talking about vendors because we are not doing a form of procurement right now; we’re just doing this in a sort of collaborative manner with many vendors.

So it’s people sitting in different parts of the country. Actually, some of my team members have gone back to their village homes because that’s where they felt safe. They didn’t feel safe in Dhaka, which is where 80% of the cases are from Dhaka right now, or the high risk cases are from Dhaka, the COVID-positive patients are from Dhaka. So they went back to the village homes. So some don’t even have the most reliable internet there, but work is getting done at least at four or five times the speed that it did in 2019, and potentially six or seven times the speed that it did in 2018. So we were maturing over the years, we are becoming better and speedier over the years, but suddenly we are four or five times faster than last year. So it’s just mind boggling how this is happening.

So what is the process that we’re following? What kind of agile process we are actually utilizing here? I have no idea because I think it’s the passion driving the work. It’s the intense desire to create something massive for millions of people. It’s that deep, I think, intention to solve problems that we are facing. Exactly what happened in 1971. I mean, we had no guns, we had no training, and we were fighting an enemy who had one of the best training, the best military support, the best, I guess, equipment, guns and cannons and tanks and everything. And we still won the war because we just wanted to. So I think that’s what’s driving, I mean, I can’t, I mean, I don’t know. I may sound very confusing right now and I can’t quite document how we are doing this. But it is that human desire to just move mountains, just break down any obstacles that come your way. I think that’s driving the effort, and obviously, the experience of agile, the experience of putting things together very quickly in the large architecture, the assets that we have built over the time that can be repurposed quickly — those all have helped, but it’s that one singular desire — the passion — that that is really driving the speed of execution.

Kal Joffres: [00:25:32] Where does the improvement in performance come from? Is it efficiency? Is it that people are working longer hours? Is it that there’s a clear sense of purpose?

Anir Chowdhury: [00:25:41] Right, so the longer hours definitely is a factor, but that would give us perhaps, maybe, I mean, if you’re working twice as many hours, which the team has, maybe 2.5 times and he would get a 2.5 times acceleration, 2.5 times the speed or execution, right? 2.5 times the delivery. But it seems to be many times more — four or five times more. So that extra thing that we’re seeing is really tied to that sense of purpose. And without that sense of purpose, I don’t think we would have seen much acceleration at all. No matter how many hours you’re working, it’s really that sense of purpose that is driving.

There is a very popular Ted Talk by Dan Pink, which is focused on human motivation. And he talks about three things that motivate white collar workers: first is purpose, second is autonomy, and the third is mastery. So I think these three things are at play. So there is intense purpose, there is absolute autonomy. There is no regular management at play here, so hierarchy has melted away. Every team is just finding out what they need to do and they’re just getting it done. And then there is mastery, which I’m seeing at full execution. So the mastery of building things, mastery of integrating things, mastery of serving the customer, understanding their problems. This purpose, autonomy, and mastery, they’re coming together to create the best results.

Kal Joffres: [00:27:19] How does the end user, the citizens, play a role in all of this, especially now that it’s much harder to reach them because of COVID-19?

Anir Chowdhury: [00:27:27] Understanding the users — that’s been a focus since the beginning of our program, over the last 12+ years. We have tried to really understand who we are serving. So it could be a villager needing a copy of a certified land record, and how he or she will need to access that. So what is the current process? So going to a remote location, making a paper application, and then coming back multiple times, trying to find that application sometimes that it has been lost. So going from there to the digital system where that person doesn’t have to go to the district headquarters can go to the local digital center, which is two to four kilometers away, and make an electronic application. So understanding the process, changing that process that also makes sense to this customer has been our request from the very beginning. So we intensely focus on that.

So this small team of three people are now going to every other team that is building a piece of technology and then having an intense conversation, auditing the user interface, auditing the user experience, and giving really deep feedback. And we’ve done that with a number of our products that existed before that needed to be repurposed and the new products, the new solution that came up by having an intense conversation, auditing the user interface, auditing the user experience, and giving really deep feedback. And we’ve done that with a number of our products that existed before that needed to be repurposed and the new products, the new solution that came up by integrating those building blocks. So this empathy team, internal empathy team, actually has been bringing such clarity, to that purpose. So there’s that. So I may add clarity to that list of three that I mentioned before. So it’s purpose, autonomy, mastery, and maybe clarity that is really driving our execution right now.

Kal Joffres: [00:29:36] Anir, thank you again so much for spending the time with us and helping us learn from your experiences. Best of luck with your initiatives going forward.

Anir Chowdhury: [00:29:45] Thank you so much, Kal. I hope this interaction has been as meaningful to you as it has been for me.

Kal Joffres: [00:29:50] That was Anir Chowdhury. He’s a policy advisor with UNDP Bangladesh, and the Government of Bangladesh, as well as a member of the Prime Minister’s National Digital Taskforce.

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