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Hasten slowly: Using design to guide Bhutan’s transition to a paperless government

A government going paperless isn’t a foreign concept in our overwhelmingly digital world. But for a country with a young parliament like Bhutan, it wasn't as simple as finding a solution ‘off the shelf’.
Bhutan emblem

Getting back to basics

The Bhutanese Government approached ThinkPlace to help with a transition to a paperless ‘eParliament’ system. While they were open to implementing an ‘off the shelf’ solution, we quickly discovered that there were fundamental digital literacy issues that had to be addressed first.

Unique discoveries for a young government

ThinkPlace began kicked off the project by running a rapid design sprint on the ground in Bhutan. Our first priority was to understand exactly what the staff and parliamentary capabilities were when it came to IT. From an operational standpoint, there was plenty for us to learn. The Bhutanese government as it stands has existed for less than a decade. MPs are still settling into their roles, and citizens are still learning how to effectively interact with their government. Citizen literacy levels aren’t high. And translating from Dzongkha, the national language, into English is time consuming, meaning government transcripts sometimes aren’t available for up to a year after a parliamentary session.

Start small, invest locally

On the back of these insights, it was important to go back to basics and begin by helping educate and empower the Bhutanese parliamentarians. This is why an ‘off the shelf’ digital solution – as tempting as it would be – was not the right answer. We started small, the first step to begin training staff and ensure an easy transition into any new systems that we may eventually decide to use. We agreed that ICT capabilities should remain local where possible, contributing to helping support and grow this sector sustainably. As a part of small early prototype and test, we gave paid access to Google apps to all MPs and civil servants. The feedback about their new-found ability to collaborate online was overwhelmingly positive in such a short time.  

Final delivery
Our goal was to help clarify the purpose of an eParliament in the context of user needs and ICT capability. It was essential to avoid what often happens in developing countries: outsourcing to international organisations that import expensive systems which aren’t necessarily appropriate for the context or local needs.

We gave key stakeholders the tools to develop and test new concepts locally and at very little cost by using agile and design thinking methods. This was a paradigm shift in the way the Bhutanese government has approached procurement in the past.

After consulting with the Bhutanese government and the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) we ultimately agreed that the broader vision for this process was to build a growing set of useful, usable tools that empower MPs, staff, and citizens alike to better engage with Parliament.

An eParliament for a country with unique challenges can’t happen overnight. But with training, access to modern applications, and the tools to develop and test on a local scale, the Bhutanese government is now one step closer to their vision for a digital future.

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