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Supporting innovation in public services: Empathy Training in Bangladesh

10th Apr 2018

In partnership with the Access to Information programme (a2i) from the Prime Minister’s Office of Bangladesh, the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) have been working to develop behavioural insights capacity within the Government of Bangladesh. In the first of several posts about our work together, we highlight one of the ways we are collaborating: the addition of a behavioural insights session, newly developed by BIT, to a2i’s innovative public sector training programme.

This work is supported by the Global Innovation Fund.

Building empathy to develop public service innovations

BIT has seen many examples around the world of public services that do not fully serve the needs of frontline service providers or citizens – from opt-in pensions that make saving for retirement less likely to prescription forms that are difficult for busy nurses and doctors to use. In such cases, large scale training of public sector workers can go some way to ensuring services meet their full potential. For example, BIT has been running Policy School in the UK for some years now – an intensive three-day programme, run regularly with central government departments, that gives public servants the opportunity to think differently about the policy problems they face.

Another good example of how this style of training can be effective can be found in Bangladesh, where a2i is using an innovative programme called Empathy Training – which is inspired by Nesta’s design thinking model of innovation. Over five-days, public servants are encouraged to step into the shoes of the people they serve, and in the process come up with powerful new ideas to deliver more effective public services. In particular, they aim to reduce the time, costs and number of visits involved in accessing a service.

At the end of the program, many participants go on to pilot their ideas with a2i’s technical and administrative support. To date over 5,400 public sector officials have received Empathy Training, and have in turn shared their experiences and ideas with over 14,500 colleagues in knowledge sharing workshops; over 1,000 innovations have been piloted; and 50 innovations have been scaled up, benefiting over 20 million citizens. Fish farming advice is one example of this innovation in action.

An example of how Empathy Training can spark innovation: Fish farming advice 

Bangladesh has 2.5% of the world’s population, yet it is responsible for 7% of the world’s inland fish production making fish farming integral to food security and the economy. Many people involved in the fish farming industry lack both awareness of, and access to, government fisheries offices. This makes it difficult for these people to get expert advice on issues like disease management, which can impact their fish production.

L-R: Feed-seller showing a fish farmer feed related information using the app; screenshot of the app

Sadhan Chandra Sarker, Senior Sub-district Fisheries Officer, attended an Empathy Training session in 2014, where he spent time looking at these issues from the perspective of fish farmers. Based on the lessons learned, he developed Fish Advice, a mobile app, to equip fish farmers with easy access to expert information.

In 2015, following early support from a2i, the application was piloted with 1,200 fish farmers. The pilot showed great promise: as a result of this, a2i and the Department of Fisheries provided additional training, funding and technical support, enabling the project to be scaled up.

Fish Advice has now been downloaded over 25,000 times. A survey, run by a2i in 2017, analysed the app’s effect across nine of the sixty-four districts of Bangladesh. This found high levels of satisfaction with the new service, and most importantly, that around 85% of users reported an increase in annual fish production. Of this group who saw an increase, 66% of the farmers increased their catch by 50 kg, and 34% had an increase of between 51 and 150 kg, compared to the previous year.

Behavioural approaches applied to Empathy Training

Empathy Training is transforming public services in Bangladesh, and we believe it could be made even more powerful when combined with behavioural insights. That’s why BIT and a2i have designed an introduction to BI session for Empathy Training participants, based on BIT’s EAST Framework. It means their interventions will be designed with real human behaviour in mind, and go on to have even greater social impact.

This session has now been translated into Bangla and will support hundreds of Bangladeshi public servants who participate in the training every year.

Mohammad Mahbubur Rahman (a2i’s Capacity Development team) presenting an example from BIT’s EAST framework in Bangla at an Empathy Training workshop

What’s next for a2i and BIT?

At BIT, we believe strongly in using evidence to inform and improve policy. BIT has been supporting a2i to conduct randomised controlled trials of public sector interventions, and in doing so, helping a2i develop its own rigorous evaluative skills using a ‘learning-by-doing’ approach.

Soon we will report on the results of the first of several upcoming trials in Bangladesh. We expect that in the future, the skills being built by a2i will be used to evaluate many public service innovations, including those coming out of Empathy Training.

a2i is a special programme of the Prime Minister’s Office of Bangladesh that develops and implements citizen-focused innovations to make public services easier to use, more affordable and more reliable.

BIT is a social purpose company, headquartered in the UK, which applies ideas from behavioural science, and uses rigorous evaluation, to address public policy problems around the world.


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Lewis Carmody (BIT)

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Lamia Shams (a2i)

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Mohammed Sakhwat Hosain (a2i)