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Driving Social Change at Scale with (and from within) the Government

How to leverage the scale of government and mobilize the power of grassroots organizations to drive change
July 18, 2019


Alex loved the days he got to visit his father's classroom. He would button up his cleanest polo, slide into his sandals, and run the entire way. It was just a small room in a simple schoolhouse in a rural town of Tamil Nadu, India, but he knew how much it meant to his dad.

When he arrived, breathless and sweaty, five-year old Alex would run his thumb along the worn spines of the books stacked against the wall. His dad would help him write his name in chalk on the blackboard. And every time, his dad would remind him how lucky they both were to get an education. Alex's father had grown up in the same town, but when he was Alex's age, there was no schoolhouse. This changed with the arrival of a new district magistrate, who launched an education scheme that provided freeschooling for the children in his rural district. 

"I'm here because of this district magistrate," his father would tell him. As a young kid from a family of ‘untouchables’ - one of the lowest castes in India - Alex idolized the district magistrate. He would dream of holding that same government position, building programs to empower kids like him.

The demands being made on governments are deepening, overlapping, and quickening.

With the rise of technology and the accelerated rate of globalization, government can feel stagnant and ineffective. It’s tempting to cast it as the villain — red tape impeding change — and discount its processes in favor of private sector speed and innovation or grassroots momentum and passion. But despite all of its challenges, government maintains crucial change-making resources and capabilities at a scale not available elsewhere.
As Alex recognized at a young age, government can create positive, long-term impact in a community. Although each government operates differently — from India to Canada, Colombia to the United States — every governing entity has funds, functions, and functionaries committed to serving the public good.
Alex Paul Menon, who went on to become a district magistrate himself as well as an Acumen India Fellow, explains why he decided to operate as a ‘rebel within the system.’

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Recently, we’ve seen a new model of collaboration emerge where leaders within the government are integrating practices and engaging stakeholders from other sectors to keep up with the speed and complexity of today’s world. 
In this piece, we examine some of the methods that allow innovators to leverage the scale of government, the decision-making speed of private businesses, and the mobilizing power of grassroots organizations to drive change.
We’ll also share insights from Acumen Fellows and Acumen Academy course takers on how to set strategies to collaborate for maximum impact, whether you’re working within or partnering with government.

Adopting a Lean Mindset

Innovation is disruptive by nature. This is celebrated in the world of technology startups; Facebook’s mantra for the first eight years was ‘Move fast and break things.’ 
When it comes to policy-making, however, disruption is not traditionally embraced. Since government policies and programs are intended to serve the public good of all citizens, government usually takes a consensus-building approach. However, the series of checkpoints and approvals to coordinate wide-reaching policies can impede progress, and lack of momentum is felt acutely in today’s fast-paced world.
The behemoths of the for-profit sector experienced similar pain — building services that fell flat and drained valuable resources in the process. The pursuit of a more efficient way to build products and services that people really wanted inspired a new approach to building business: Lean Startup.
The Lean Startup concept has taken the private sector by storm, championed by successful, rapidly scaled companies coming out of Silicon Valley in the last decade. Innovators within government are recognizing the power of the ‘Lean’ mindset and methods to speed up learning and eliminate wasted resources.


According to Steve Blank, one of the pioneers of the Lean Startup movement, a Lean approach has three distinct characteristics:

1. It favors experimentation over elaborate planning.

2. It prioritizes customer feedback over intuition.

3. It emphasizes iterative design over traditional “big design upfront” elements.

Eric Ries, another Lean Startup forefather, popularized these concepts in the Build-Measure-Learn loop:
Figure from Acumen Academy's free course on Lean Startup Principles for the Social Sector.
Quick learning and iteration flies in the face of traditional government policy-making. The current systems require intensive financial forecasting, reporting, and program management. The need for oversight evolved as a means for protecting the public good, but it also created a vicious cycle. With these rigorous demands, there is little room for testing in small batches or iterating as one goes along. 
Nearly 50 employees of Alberta Health Services, a Canadian provincial health authority, have taken Acumen Academy's Human-Centered Design course. Marlies van Dijk, head of the small but mighty Design Lab at Alberta Health Services (AHS), says it’s just the beginning — she wants to spread design thinking even wider in the 100,000+ employee organization.
While an advocate for more innovative approaches in healthcare, Marlies recognizes it’s a delicate conversation: “People are scared of the language ‘fail fast’ so we have to continue to make it clear, we’re not failing on patients. Failure happens in tests, in design, in the process, so that the final patient solution is optimal."
All of the innovators we spoke to agreed that the best place to begin is finding others who think creatively and have a similar mindset as you. This does not mean people tied to the same solution or outcome, actually, the opposite — you want people tied to no specific solution. The mindset you’re looking for has to do with a desire to approach the problem differently, a desire to see change and keep things moving, and a willingness to take a risk.
Once you’ve found your people, you need to advocate for a lean approach to your project. Marlies noted that it’s equally important to find a manager or leader who can provide cover. “We need to protect the work so that it can evolve and be ushered accordingly.” Acumen India Fellow Alex also confirmed this, noting that as one of the most senior officials in his district, he tries to play this role for the younger, passionate, and optimistic members of his team. 

Getting Closer to the Customer

So, what does a ‘lean’ approach look like in government? 
One core principle of the lean startup methodology is prioritizing customer feedback. And while it seems intuitive that policies and government services should start with citizens’ needs, individuals can easily get lost amidst the paperwork.
In the past few years, we’ve seen government innovators and impact-focused designers alike challenge the whitepapers and databases of the traditional expert model, advocating instead for a process that involves the community every step of the way.  


Human-centered design is a creative approach to problem-solving pioneered by our good friends over at IDEO. It’s a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs.

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With nearly two decades of government service on her resume, Virginia Hamilton knows how to navigate the public system. As the Regional Administrator in the US Department of Labor, she learned about human-centered design and immediately saw the potential to bring it into the context of policy-making. “My commitment was to make government work better for the people who need it. I’ve become passionate about understanding and implementing strategies for innovation and improvement in government.”
In order for a redesign of a government service to be effective, it needs to be considered from end-to-end; from how it’s messaged to how it’s delivered. This begins with building a deep understanding of the people it will be serving - not only what they need and desire but what limitations they face, what motivates them, and what’s important to them. 
As Virginia and other innovators have noted, one benefit of driving change from within the government is that there are usually a handful of attempted interventions or existing services that address specific issues. The benefit is that government service design nearly never has to start from scratch; there’s data to review for clues, but more importantly, there are existing users to speak with. 
Not only does this human-centered approach result in more impactful policies and programs, but it also connects government innovators more closely with their work. 
As one Acumen Fellow shared with us, “The more I’ve interacted with communities, the more I’ve seen how my work — or lack of my work — has an impact on people. That’s what really inspires me to not only imagine a world that could be, but also become aware of current realities. It’s a good feedback loop that comes into play and helps you with policy-making initiatives.”

Prototyping New Ideas Inside Government

Building a stronger dialogue with customers is only the first step; what really counts is how conversations and learnings are used.
Marlies explains, “The ultimate goal, obviously, is to completely change how people work, but in the interim, we need to ensure that smaller teams employing new thinking aren’t shut down.” 
The best way to do this? Create results. Marlies makes it clear that no government official or stakeholder will deny results. 
Marlies shared this example of a successful design sprint that empowered a team to prototype new solutions quickly and created larger buy-in for a lean approach.

How might we provide support for seniors who come into the emergency room, but don’t actually need to be admitted? 

Marlies and her team began their sprint with empathy - a task made much easier by bringing patients into the room. Doing this changed the mood instantly, re-prioritizing the conversation around the user. After speaking with a handful of elderly people to hear their needs as well as their concerns, the team listened to expert ‘lightning talks’ on various topics, such as emergency room protocol, elderly cognitive ability, and social services available for senior citizens. 
Throughout this phase of trying to understand the problem, her team mapped out user pain points to understand where existing services were failing seniors. After a lunch break, the team reconvened to synthesize their learnings and bring them into context with existing data. After all, the issue of supporting the frail and elderly has been around for hundreds of years! From there, the team decided on priority areas to focus their solutions. 

The following day, the team began building prototypes, or models for how their service should look and feel. This formed the basis for getting quick feedback to improve - or even abandon - each idea.

"We keep moving, we make decisions."

When you prototype an idea, you’re learning early on in the process rather than spending years drafting proposals and negotiating politics. Marlies points out that government innovators participating in design sprints typically enjoy prototyping because they are “trying something and doing something, the sense of motion and action is attractive.” 
Finally, the team spent the second half of day two getting user feedback by meeting with volunteer seniors at the nearby A&W restaurant for coffee. With this feedback, the team spent a week refining three  prototypes and planning steps for action. The most promising prototype resulting from the sprint was a 24-hour home care response team. This 24-hour response team would take calls from the emergency department and ensure seniors receive proper support in the community instead of the hospital, where they are more likely to experience decline.
Interestingly, Marlies notes that design thinking as a tool for policy creation works best on polarizing issues. It can be impossible to make headway on divisive issues using traditional approaches because consensus is essentially impossible. Marlies has found that a lean approach is actually quite appealing to government employees because “it’s inclusive without requiring consensus-building. We keep moving, we make decisions.”

Collaborative Leadership

We’ve seen how government innovators are:

1. bringing different internal perspectives together 

2. getting closer to the user 

3. co-designing services with the community

Collaboration is happening on an even larger scale; governments are seeking out partnerships with leaders and organizations in different sectors. This stems from a recognition of the complexity of current issues and the desire to take a systemic approach to problem solving.
Acumen Colombia Fellow Andrés Ucrós Maldonado has more than a decade of experience in both the private and public sector. He’s worked as a researcher and advisor on the peace process in Colombia, and is currently the Director of Peace, Security and Justice of the Chamber of Commerce of Bogotá. In his role, he connects and aligns the government and private sector to create conditions for sustainable development and peace-building. Most of the work has to do with looking at social entrepreneurs as peace builders at the local level.
With this depth of experience on both sides of the table, Andrés believes that having diverse perspectives present in the decision-making process results in accountable, sustainable and – above all – effective policy. The better the inputs and the more inclusive the process, the better the outputs and their implementation.
However, the coordination of a multi-stakeholder approach is no easy feat. Think about how hard it can be to agree on dinner plans with a group of friends...Who to invite? What’s on the menu? How much money do you want to spend? What time should you eat?
For Andrés, it starts with getting the right people on board. He explains, “We identify the key stakeholders in the ecosystem in which we want to intervene, so that even if a certain person is no longer in public office, the project is still sustainable.” 
From there, it’s about clearly showing how different values and timelines line up to create the conditions that allow markets to evolve and social entrepreneurship to thrive. This requires an ability to think systemically, communicate effectively, and lead adaptively. 
Andrés explains that a large part of his role as a bridge between the public and private sector entails providing a clear perspective in the midst of action and uncertainty, making sense of complex, often conflicting, signs and data. He enjoys the intellectual challenge of sifting through what’s most important, understanding what’s at stake, and identifying who will support or resist change.  
The good news is that everyone can learn to think systemically and lead people through adaptive change. Here’s one simple practice that Eric Martin of Adaptive Change Advisors, partner in Acumen Academy's Adaptive Leadership course, uses:

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When it comes to government, trying something new has unpredictable consequences that can lead to a sense of loss for some of the parties or stakeholders in power. For Andrés and other government innovators, this means recognizing that what might seem dysfunctional for one person might work well for others in the system.It’s helpful to shift focus away from convincing them of the rightness of a specific cause, instead mobilizing them through the risks at hand.
As your focus becomes less about the “problem” and more about other people’s relationship to the problem, new — and often overlooked — strategies emerge for how to engage stakeholders. New strategies  require more than just a clear value proposition and a shared purpose. It means moving forward amidst these competing and sometimes irreconcilable motivations.

Recently, Andrés has been working to bring the private sector into the peacebuilding process. Four years ago, Colombia signed one of the most comprehensive peace agreements in the history of the world, but success was contingent on all sectors engaging in the process in a productive way, including the private sector. Andrés helped to facilitate investment strategies in affected regions and ensure that leaders at the local and national level are advocating for peace.

Everyone can learn to think systemically and lead people through adaptive change.

One of Andrés’ successful initiatives was the 2017 World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Bogota. The event followed on the heels of a plebiscite -- the direct vote of all the members of the electorate on an important public question -- in which the country voted to reject the agreement. Clearly, times were tense and the government was in need of support. Andrés and his team brought 28 Nobel Peace Prize winners to Colombia for a week of talks, discussions, and presentations on the importance of peacebuilding and national development. 
He explains that the most important part of this initiative was not actually the event itself, but the concept behind the event: bringing together stakeholders from all sectors and regions within the country to learn together.
When nongovernmental institutions partner with public agencies, together, they can accomplish what has proved difficult for government to do alone. 
Alex wiped his sweaty palms on the sides of his slacks and brushed his hair off his forehead. He was about to start the third and final stage of exams to become part of the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), the premier civil service in India. The months he spent poring over textbooks helped him through the first two stages of the highly competitive process, but this final stage was different - it was a personality test.
He wasn’t sure how his low caste status would affect the interviewer’s impression, but he was sure that he had the passion for justice and commitment to his community to make an excellent District Magistrate.
The interviewer recognized these traits. Alex is now the deputy CEO in Chhattisgarh, where he has been a driving force behind schemes that have lifted rural, tribal communities out of poverty.
The stories of these government innovators, and their desire to approach problem-solving at scale in a new, collaborative way, brings us confidence and renewed optimism. 
As one Acumen Fellow reminded us, “You’re working at such a large scale, and you’re in it for the long haul. One setback does not mean everything is derailed. Even if it’s gone to the bin, you’ve planted a seed somewhere, and slowly, slowly, slowly, you build up support.” 
Kimmy Bettinger Headshot

Kimmy Bettinger

Kimmy Bettinger was the former Community Marketing Associate at Acumen Academy where she helps to amplify the inspiring work being done by Acumen’s global community of change-makers. She holds a BA in English & Comparative Literature from Columbia University and is based in Acumen’s San Francisco office.