July 15, 2011

Why Services?

At Reboot, we like theory — sociopolitical, socioeconomic, you name it — as much as the next social enterprise. But we are also practitioners, working hand-in-hand with governments, international organizations, non-profits, and the private sector on realizing social change. We understand and support the role of advocacy and policy — some of us still bear battle scars from past lives in these arenas — but as an organization, we are more concerned with the moments where the rubber meets the road. With those tangible points where outcomes are made.

Hence our fixation on creating better services.

We focus on services because we believe the moments when people successfully interact with the institutions that shape their lives are those moments when social progress is achieved. For the majority of people, these interactions do not happen at the polling station or through a letter to a political representative. Rather, they happen at the social services office, the bank, or the health clinic. At these points of direct and indirect service delivery — whether from government, private sector, or civil society — citizens are tangibly experiencing ‘governance’. For it’s in the everyday transactions, small and large, between people and institutions where human rights are realized in practical ways. Things work, or they don’t. People’s lives are improved, or frustrated. Faith in society is encouraged, or eroded.

Does a Pakistani farmer have affordable insurance so his family can still eat come a bad season? Can a mother in a rural Kenyan village get healthcare for her sick child despite the nearest clinic being 70km away? How can a high school teacher in the Bronx motivate his struggling low-income students and their families? These interactions — human, and facilitated by service systems in the noblest sense of the term — are complex but ultimately understandable, and therefore improvable. And solving hard problems in the areas of financial inclusion, health, and education through transactional rather than political means avoids a lot of baggage and makes progress more immediately achievable. Inevitably, our focus on services touches on politics, but policy is then a means to an end rather than the end itself.

There’s a growing demand for our approach as the nature of citizen-institution transactions continues to change rapidly. In the same way that our consumer habits in reading, travel, or communications are all radically transforming, so too are our expectations for interacting with institutions that serve the public interest. Citizens now expect a certain standard of efficiency, feedback, accountability, and accessibility from those that purport to serve them, and they aren’t necessarily willing to wait for them to come around. Such expectations are spreading from the private sector into the public, from the developed world into the developing. As expectations evolve, so too will Reboot’s work and those of our partners, to ensure citizens’ faith in their governance systems strengthens, not erodes.

Recently, we were delighted to earn the respect of an international human rights lawyer, who upon learning about our business, articulated our belief in the primacy of services beautifully: “Human rights is more than just ‘all people deserve this, all people must have that,” she said. “Getting people what they need most — that is human rights realized, human rights that we can provide despite a complex, nuanced, imperfect world.”

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