Square pegs, round holes, and the importance of asking the right questions

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A third of Bangladesh’s population is below the age of 25, and yet we know little about their expectations from elected representatives. Photo: UNDP in Bangladesh

Of course, I know what the word innovation means but, as a relatively new recruit to UNDP, I am curious about what it means for the organization. For the past year, I’ve been leading a project seeking to strengthen parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh and  wondered: Which innovation could we possibly devise that would redefine how effective parliaments are in a country?

Just a few hours into an innovation workshop in Bangladesh, I realized I had been coming at this all wrong.

The innovation our work with the parliament needs isn’t about tweaking existing programmes or devising new ones -it is about how we are defining the problem!

The way we have been designing solutions to problems we perceived the citizens of Bangladesh were experiencing was flawed because we weren’t really asking them what the problem was in the first place.

Instead of doing what we’ve been doing last year and the year before that eg. counting the amount of people being trained, of male/female participants and of public hearings held, we need to go back to the drawing board.

Sure, we’ll do all the counting needed,  but we will also organize ‘itch workshops’  to find out what matters to citizens including excluded groups and to collect micro-narratives to amplify the voices of ordinary Bangladeshis and help us understand how local governance affects their lives, from access to education to access to justice. A third of Bangladesh’s population is below the age of 25, and, in absolute terms, girls outnumber boys in the schools system, yet we know little about their expectations from elected representatives.

Our first step as we start to design a social cohesion project in Bangladesh will be to hold a “pre itch” workshop in a safe environment to test out our initial thinking.  We will also reach out to universities to see how we might partner up for this, and will be briefing our donor partners so they are part of the journey.

The essence of innovation isn’t about developing an app to solve the problem. No app can drive square pegs into round holes. The technology is just a means – and innovation is a way of thinking and rethinking the way we work. And most importantly – finding new words to ask that same question again and again: Forget what we have, what do the citizens need?

About the author
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Donna Bugby-Smith hails from the UK and is a parliamentary strengthening expert currently working in UNDP Bangladesh. 

 

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