Lesson 4: Engage government
Social entrepreneurship developed, to a certain degree, from a lack of faith in the public sector to solve social problems. In the last 10 years, however, governments have become increasingly interested in applying the concepts of social innovation to the delivery of social services.1 For social entrepreneurs, government has emerged as a key partner in achieving large-scale systemic change. It is telling that every single organization interviewed for this report is working with national and/or local governments in some way. The question now for many social entrepreneurs is not whether to work with government, but how.
While many social entrepreneurs work as partners with government, government engagement has a specific role to play in systems change. The systems entrepreneurs in this report work with government in different capacities, as contractors (delivering services for a fee), consultants (improving the capacity of government to deliver services) or advisers (providing advice for policy development or reform), or even work with government employees themselves by seconding key staff to government departments or serving in political office. In each of these cases, government engagement offers an opportunity to reform public services for entire populations, often with a sustainable funding source and constituting a shift in the way systems work for everyone.
Ashifi Gogo, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Sproxil, has experienced both opportunities and challenges in working with national governments. A for-profit company, Sproxil was founded with the simple idea of allowing pharmaceutical customers to identify fake, potentially life-threatening drugs at the point of purchase. Sproxil enables customers to send a unique identifying code from a drug package by text message on any type of mobile phone. Through its mobile verification technology, Sproxil checks the number against its database and sends back an immediate reply message, labelling the drug as legitimate or fake. This collective information gathering allows for dynamic intelligence, as companies and law enforcement agencies are able to zero in on hot spots of counterfeiting activity, and reduce the market for counterfeit goods.
Sproxil’s primary clients are pharmaceutical companies that, in some cases, have few or negative incentives to enable Sproxil’s technology, due to concerns that the first-mover brand may be deemed the solely counterfeited brand among consumers. Following a promising pilot with BIOFEM, Merck’s distributor in Nigeria, Gogo realized he needed stronger incentives for companies to take up his technology. In 2009, the Nigerian government was coming to grips with an onslaught of pharmaceutical counterfeiting, which by some estimates had affected up to 70% of the drugs sold in the country.2 The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Nigeria’s food and drug regulator, was looking for solutions to its counterfeiting problem.
Based on the successful pilot, NAFDAC, Sproxil and BIOFEM launched the NAFDAC Mobile Authentication Service (MAS) in 2010, the world’s first government-led roll-out of a mobile verification technology that positioned the Sproxil service as a national standard. Since the launch, Sproxil has expanded globally to four more African countries and two Asian countries, and responded to 55 million verification requests from just under 20 million unique phone numbers. Sproxil’s contractual relationship with NAFDAC shows how social entrepreneurs and government bodies can work together to enact swift, system-wide change.
Sproxil’s experience in Nigeria, however, has been difficult to copy in countries with decentralized governments. While NAFDAC gave Sproxil a running start in Nigeria, not all countries where Sproxil has launched its products and services have been willing or able to regulate so widely. In countries such as India, where the central government is far less powerful, Sproxil has faced slower traction due to high fragmentation of industry bodies, lower influence from government and a reluctant private sector. In these countries, Sproxil has learned to rely less on government engagement for systemic scale, and has instead taken a far more traditional approach by developing new products that engage with companies and industries without government mandate.
Perhaps the most dramatic means of engaging the public sector is to build a social enterprise within government. One example is Escuela Nueva Foundation (FEN), an organization based in Colombia that has been working to improve education in under-resourced communities globally since the 1980s. The Escuela Nueva model rests on a set of values and principles about how children learn, and trains teachers as facilitators in the classroom so that children can work independently, in pairs and in groups, to progress their studies at their own pace. Parents and families are actively engaged in the school’s daily activities, and family histories and experiences are integrated into the curriculum. The rural schools in Colombia, particularly those affiliated with Escuela Nueva, often outperform their urban counterparts.3
In the 1970s, Vicky Colbert, the driving force behind the model, was appointed as National Coordinator and later as Vice-Minister of Education in the Colombian Ministry of Education. To develop the model, Colbert worked closely with rural teachers from across the country, building consensus to integrate and modify several models for rural education that existed in Colombia at the time. She then recruited many of these rural teachers to work alongside her in the National Ministry to roll out the model, a seemingly practical idea that proved radical. With a series of successful pilot programmes and funding from the World Bank, the Escuela Nueva model became a prominent government programme for the country’s rural schools in the 1980s, and ultimately spread to 20,000 schools.
The story of FEN, however, shows how political change can stymie even the most successful government engagement. During the 1990s, due to a change in political leadership and decentralization, government support and funding for Escuela Nueva in Colombia waned and the spread of the model lost momentum. Teachers were moved to different schools around the country, and funding for training in the Escuela Nueva model was eliminated. For many programmes, this loss of funding and support would have meant certain defeat and decline; however, for Escuela Nueva, the political change resulted in a new strategy and the creation of a new organization.
To ensure that the Escuela Nueva model would continue to have impact on education both in Colombia and worldwide, Colbert had set up FEN in 1987 as a non-profit organization committed to evolving and growing the model. Today, FEN works closely with governments around the world to implement Escuela Nueva and support programme quality; it works on a project basis with country education ministries, delivering its curriculum and teacher training as part of a technical assistance model. The organization is also beginning to work in teachers’ colleges in Colombia, believing that introducing the model to teachers will create an internal influence that can support government initiatives. FEN has now spread its philosophy of education to nearly 20 countries worldwide.
As demonstrated with Sproxil and FEN, work with government is iterative, and often entrepreneurs must step back, regroup and move forward with new approaches and strategies. In fact, all interviews showed a conflicting attitude towards engaging government to achieve systems change. While the entrepreneurs acknowledged the importance of partnering with government, most had reservations and concerns about the ability of governments to implement and sustain innovations independently. Issues such as political upheaval, policy implementation, lack of budgetary support and centralized versus decentralized control, among others, arose repeatedly in the conversations.
Despite the challenges, each of these organizations remained positive about the potential for government to create systems change. Some of the strategies they are exploring are working from within (“seconding” staff to key positions or even being appointed into office), securing resources (budget line items reserved for critical projects or creating new cadres that ensure critical human resources) and exerting pressure from the outside to sustain quality and impact (such as securing funding that enables an organization to fill a role in capacity building and technical assistance over a sustained period). Given social innovation’s enormous potential in the public sector, not surprisingly this is an area where the research raised as many questions as answers.