Everyone a Changemaker

The citizen sector's path to a better world.

To make the world a better place, many people for many years saw government as the employer of choice. Government remains the most powerful instrument of change. But another sector, run by ordinary and extraordinary citizens, is proving far more innovative-and more attractive to bright young changemakers. Two speakers at Government Executive's July 15 Excellence in Government conference explored the dichotomy. Both are leaders in the pursuit of a better society and more responsive government and both held appointive federal positions before deciding they could be more effective working from the outside. Patricia McGinnis has spent the past 14 years as president of the Council for Excellence in Government. Its focus has been to improve the operations of the federal executive branch, with an emphasis on deepening the knowledge of career officials, promoting a better understanding between them and their political bosses, and boosting public appreciation of the challenges and achievements of the public service.

As McGinnis steps down this year, the good government community loses one of its guiding lights. But perhaps she's had enough. When I asked her if she believes government has been improving, she noted long-term advances in fields including public health and environmental and consumer protection, but observed that "lack of leadership, bipartisanship and political will on the part of our elected [especially] and appointed officials have stymied progress on many tough, complicated challenges."

Bill Drayton long ago gave up counting on government for social change. In 1981, he founded Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, named after a long-ago Indian emperor who was a social innovator, and began promoting the importance of "social entrepreneurs." Now operating as a kind of social venture capital organization, Ashoka is investing in hundreds of people and their ideas around the world. Their inspiring stories are told in Ashoka's book series, Leading Social Entrepreneurs and in How to Change the World (Penguin Books, 2005) by journalist David Bornstein.

Most of the work has been abroad, where technologically simple but organizationally difficult changes can bring electricity or clean water or better health practices to impoverished populations. New ways of providing drip irrigation, a huge productivity-enhancer for farmers, have achieved sufficient scale to attract capital from private sector players with a social conscience, encouraging Drayton to believe that business will get behind the increasingly sophisticated entrepreneurs of the fast-growing "citizen sector."

Drayton now is focusing on the next generation. An American Ashoka fellow, J.B. Schramm, was chosen for his College Summit idea, which brings together hundreds of low-income high school seniors for four-day workshops to complete college applications. Most end up in college, laying the foundation for pulling their families into the middle class. For younger kids, Drayton is promoting systematic teaching of empathy. And Youth Venture, another organization he founded, finds sources of support for middle and high school students who have ideas for initiating social change. Drayton believes that the impulse for doing good must be unleashed among lower income children whose parents and schools don't provide as much support as is found in higher income communities. And he reasons that a taste of success early will encourage young people to continue seeking change when they become adults.

Thus Drayton, who has won many awards for his work, restlessly keeps looking for new paths to social betterment. His central goal now is to achieve a world in which "everyone is a changemaker." Government, he says, should both embrace such people and help create the conditions in which changemaking can succeed in society at large. This year's change-talking presidential candidates, and others devoted to public service, would do well to listen to his iconoclastic ideas.

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