Beating the Odds: Lessons Learned from Social Innovators in Government

Tarun Varma

Current Pershing Square 1+1 Scholar and Oxford MBA student Tarun Varma gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Beating the Odds: Lessons Learned from Social Innovators in Government’.

Innovators in government deal with issues that have an extended sphere of influence. When three innovators spoke about their challenges, I saw a thread in how they drew upon their internal locus of control. The context and their actions hold lessons that could work across contexts.

Dr Guerrero in his second term as Mayor was tasked with bringing down the homicide rate of Cali, Colombia, from 83/100,000 a year (three times the Latin American average). It was a rate of incidence likened to a pandemic. Dr Guerrero turned to his training as an epidemiologist dealing with an unknown disease. The mayor’s team analysed the cause of homicide (loose firearms and alcohol policy), occurrence (weekends) and patterns (poor neighbourhoods with 50% of cases intoxicated) to obtain data. To garner support they quantified data into economic impact these homicides had. This resulted in the IDB releasing the first ever loan to a city to solve a pandemic. The process of data analysis helped the city of Bogota also identify causes and reduce homicides.

Diana Good as an independent commissioner with ICAI, is tasked with scrutinising the DFID spend for impact. The international development agency has a reputation for making a difference. It uses its 11 billion pound annual budget to operate across 28 nations to end poverty. Measuring it for impact requires Diana to turn to 30 years of experience as a litigator and a trusted advisor to some of the most high profile CEOs and leaders in the world. In these three decades she had learnt to be herself in a male-dominated industry. Whilst many advised and pressured her follow the masses, she realised that to work with people in power, only the boldest dared to articulate messages the inner circle would not enunciate. Today this ensures the parliament has confidence in her when she measures DFID and is asked to showcase its impact on a simple RAG (Red Amber Green) status instrument.

Sabri Sadam, a former telecom’s minister in Palestine, was told by a twelve year old that the Middle East needed to look within. The United States runs NASA with 17 billion dollars, he said, and yet the Middle East spent half a trillion annually on cigarettes.  The former minister sensed hope in his people. To turn this call for hope into a louder crescendo than the negativity that underlies a strife torn nation, Netketabi was born. The minister went to the well of education; relying on digital games to put learning into the hands of children. In a country tuned to negative news, games were an addiction the parents and children loved.

In all these stories the architects turned to their inherent skills to carve change that could be replicated. In all of them, culture – that of drinking and owning guns in Colombia, male domination in litigation and addiction of bad news in Palestine –  were large players. For Sabri to have his pulse on what people felt, for Diana to rise through mid-career knocks to not make waves and the Mayor to promise data driven change meant being able to identify inherent strengths.

In turning within they lead by example. This leadership span ensures they can balance the tensions between government, the private sector and the needs of their people. These are strengths that can stand scrutiny and turn a trickle into a flood. Strengths that might cause us to look within too.

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