Wednesday, May 29, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Learning to listen

What the government gained from Covid-19

Update : 22 Oct 2023, 09:18 AM

The injunction to “never let a good crisis go to waste” almost has the status of a policy directive in Bangladesh. Was there ever a country so adept at learning from its disasters? Cyclones, floods, and famine have helped the state figure out its priorities (protecting Bangladeshis), and strategies for delivering on them (building systems that prevent rather than react to crises). Now new research suggests that Covid-19 has been a moment for learning and institutional re-orientation, this time about the value of systematic citizen feedback and response. 

A mixed-methods study conducted under the UK Aid-funded Covid-19 Learning, Evidence and Research program examined how the Bangladeshi government listened and responded to its citizens during the pandemic. Based on a national survey and in-depth research into policy innovations and the experiences of citizens and policymakers, “The Feedback State” project found that the pandemic had been a time of innovation and change. It brought new channels through which citizens could make themselves heard by government, but also more openness within government to listening to citizens’ concerns and complaints. 

When the pandemic struck in 2020, the foundations for citizen feedback had already been laid and were to some extent working. The Right to Information and Local Government Acts, both in 2009, along with the Citizens’ Charter, institutionalized practices for giving citizens a platform to express their concerns and needs. The Grievance Redressal Service, which lets people register complaints about public services, was up and running, although user numbers were low or variable. But the fear and confusion sowed by the pandemic meant there were new and more urgent reasons to not only broadcast information to citizens, but also to listen and respond to their concerns. 

In this atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty, the government authorized and resourced a host of hotlines and other platforms to hear what people needed. The most successful may have been the health system complaints platform, which gathered people’s problems with accessing Covid-19 vaccines, and which one international aid official described as spectacularly successful. People also sought information about coronavirus or food or cash support during lockdown; registered their concerns about domestic violence; and complained when they perceived corruption in the distribution of benefits. Not only did citizens make themselves heard by government officials, the government also got more effective at circulating information it gathered from citizens. Virtual meetings and online work became the norm in government offices formerly known for their towers of dusty files and arcane cultural norms.

A nationally representative sample of citizens were asked their views about these feedback systems. Their responses suggested most liked the idea of feedback systems in principle, and clearly believed that the aim of mechanisms for gathering citizens’ views was to improve public services. However, in practice, a majority did not use complaints mechanisms, even when they had a problem. Reasons varied, but by far the most common was that they did not believe it would make a difference. Most people were more inclined to go directly to people in charge of health centres or Union Parishad members when they had a problem, instead of phoning a hotline or registering an online complaint. 

Feedback systems are not only about resolving individual people’s problems with public services: They are supposed to help governments fix recurrent or chronic problems, so that those complaints don’t arise in the first instance. But to do that, it is necessary for people with the power to take policy decisions to have an overview of citizen feedback of how problems are being resolved. At present, the systems are highly fragmented, a mix of offline and digital, spread across different directorates, ministries, projects and levels of government. To “close the feedback loop” it is also necessary for information to be transparent and available for monitoring by third-party actors. Without such external watchdogs monitoring the nature of complaints in public services, it is unlikely feedback will translate into improved public services. Instead, they risk becoming unused portals that people do not trust to work and do not take seriously. 

The best form of citizen feedback may be elections, but those offer broad mandates rather than the more specific and targeted information needed to improve public services. There remains resistance within parts of government to the kinds of transparency and accountability needed to ensure that the right people get government allowances, or that health centres are stocked and staffed appropriately. Yet one of the more surprising features of the “feedback state” that may have started to emerge out of the pandemic is the change in the way officials perceive and enact their roles: As there to serve, rather than to rule, the people. There is a long way to go before educated urban elite officials listen and respond to the rural people in ways that make a material difference to their lives. But Covid-19 put a break on the old culture of top-down governance, and carved out new channels for listening and responding. It is now up to the government to invest in keeping those channels open, and making sure they work. 

The Covid-19 pandemic catalyzed Bangladesh's embrace of systematic citizen feedback, marking a transformative moment in governance. Hotlines and platforms became vital conduits, addressing a range of concerns, from vaccine access to domestic violence. However, a divide persists between theoretical support for feedback systems and actual utilization. Direct engagement with local authorities remains the default approach. To fully leverage feedback's potential, a unified, transparent system is essential. The pandemic also instigated a shift in the official mindset, prioritizing service over authority. Although progress is evident, bridging urban-rural disparities is an ongoing endeavour. Bangladesh must now prioritize sustaining and optimizing these channels, ensuring accessibility and efficacy. The crisis underscores the need for enduring lessons in responsive, accountable governance.

Professor Naomi Hossain works at the Accountability Research Center at American University and SOAS, University of London. The research team behind The Feedback State: Listening and Responding to Bangladeshi Citizens During Covid-19 project comprised Dr Mirza Hassan, Syeda Salina Aziz, and Rafsanul Hoque from BRAC Institute of Governance and Development at BRAC University; Professor Pranab Kumar Panday and Professor Shuvra Chowdhury from the University of Rajshahi; Professor Zahir Ahmed from Jahangirnagar University; and Marium Ul-Mutahara from Manusher Jonno Foundation.

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