Public Innovation for Good Governance

The vision of an academic-turned-politician has brought a stream of creativity to local public administration in Colombia. It is said that disruptive innovation occurs at the edge of disciplines.[i] And Sergio Fajardo, mathematician and former journalist, has managed to leverage such cross-discipline dialogues and energize communities to engage with public planning objectives. As mayor of Medellín in Colombia from 2004 to 2007, he “introduced transparency fairs, broke clientelistic political networks, raised tax receipts, improved public services, established civic pacts and restored citizens’ sense of hope,” and the Inter-American Development Bank recognized the city as an exemplary case of good public administration in Latin America.[ii] Furthermore, Medellín was recently named the world’s most innovative city in a competition organized by the non-profit Urban Land Institute.[iii] In the following interview with Ania Calderón of the Journal, Dr. Fajardo highlights the importance of building trust in society to face the public management challenges of developing countries in Latin America and explains how, as governor of the state of Antioquia, the scale of impact he now faces at a regional versus local level can be tackled with the same mission, but carried under a different leadership role.

Ania Calderón
Sergio Fajardo
April 17, 2013

Journal of International Affairs: You have talked about the importance of sequential planning to deliver goals set in the public agenda. For developing regions in Latin America struggling to “catch-up,” do you see a general lack of planning as a common characteristic? If so, what are the obstacles that prevent improvisation, and how were you able to sustain strategic planning as a base for city politics?

Sergio Fajardo: Politicians make the most important decisions in a society. In particular, planning is a natural result that is based on political decisions. In the political movement under my administration, we plan our work following a “simple” path that respects some mandatory steps. The first one is to clearly state our dreams, ideals, and vision of how society should work. This then settles and shows the direction where we want to commit all our efforts. Then we make the principles that support our approach explicit to society. Afterwards, we identify precisely the problems we want to solve. This implies having a very good understanding and analysis of these problems and how they should be solved. It also requires tracing a strategy with a very rigorous follow-up procedure to the proposed solution, without ever violating the principles outlined in the original vision.

It is appropriate to explain this procedure with a particular example. In Medellín, we started by stating that education, understood in a broad sense, should be the center of the social transformation that the city needed. We then specified three problems that we wanted to solve: social inequality, violence, and the culture of illegality, which has corruption as its main component. And our strategy, the solutions we designed accordingly with our ideals and principles, became the platform known as “Medellín la más educada” (Medellín, the most educated). Now, we are building a natural extension; “Antioquia la más educada” (Antioquia, the most educated).

When you do all these things, your work becomes credible. Citizens start to see the advances, to understand the government’s objectives, and to realize that politicians’ promises were true. This translates into the most important political asset: trust. Otherwise, improvisation prevails and situations arise where smart people with good ideas are trapped in bureaucracy, which results in key decisions being taken mostly under political interests. Policy and urban planners thus lose faith, and we know the result: a stagnated public sector.

Journal: What would you say are key principles that allowed you to innovate in public governance and create change that was able to solve endemic problems?

Fajardo: In my particular case, I have followed a nonstandard path. The first thing is to recall that the way you get into power defines the way you govern. This is a crucial issue, and again it has to do with politics. How do you campaign? We did it in a very different way, by running as independents and departing from the entrance door to corruption: clientelism. Roughly speaking, we campaign by walking door to door and not by buying a leader or a vote. Rather, we establish a direct relationship with citizens. Once in power, we don’t have to pay back. We are free to govern with our method. When we won the election in Medellín in 2003, most of my team had no previous experience in the public world. But, and these are key elements, we had studied the city rigorously, we knew it corner by corner, we knew what we wanted, and we had the support of a huge majority that voted for us. In addition, we had something very powerful: the power of ingenuity. That means we were there to carry out our dreams, we worked together intensely, and managed to create a real team. We did not stop in front of obstacles; we faced them and worked them out, and so, by following the path I just described, we moved Medellín from fear to hope.

Journal: You have been an advocate of establishing creative mechanisms on how society and government associate with each other, for example, under the motives of “let’s work together” in Medellín and now “Antioquia, the most educated.” How do political and social rhetoric become tangible outcomes?

Fajardo: Again, a basic point has to be clear from the beginning. As political leaders, we led. We have built a program and came to power to carry it out, not to negotiate it. We work for the public good, not for private interests. Once people know exactly what our political vision is, how we work, and what the rules are, we earn the key element of trust. And once you establish such a relationship, you can work together. This is what we have done. And of course, the value of such a relationship is clearly visible and produces something remarkable. Many people and companies now realize that working for the public good makes them much better off in their private world.

For example, in Medellín, vital portions of the private sector supported programs we designed, and I am sure society as a whole embraced education as the essence of social transformation. But in a society usually divided by violence, social inequality, and other factors, having a common goal is crucial. It heals wounds. Having public spaces such as libraries, parks, and a functional public transportation system was a fundamental part of this healing process.

Journal: Your term as mayor of Medellín from 2004 to 2007 earned the city international recognition as an exemplary case of good public administration across Latin America. Today, as governor of Antioquia, are the challenges and scale of impact at a regional level different from a local level? Has your approach to planning changed?

Fajardo: This is quite an interesting experience. The formula is the same, but the context changes. How can our state administration extend, in a natural way, our work from “Medellín the most educated” to “Antioquia the most educated?” The challenge is going from being the mayor of the capital of the state, to working with 125 mayors from all political parties; going from Medellín with 2.5 million inhabitants, to Antioquia with 6.5 million inhabitants and hundreds of towns, some of them with 2,000 inhabitants. The leadership role is very different. Every mayor has a development plan for the municipality where they solve their particular problems. As governor I have one for the state and have to move in two different dimensions, regionally and by municipality. The key issue is the relationship that we establish with each mayor, and how we manage to work with them on a regional basis, taking them out of the narrow view of their places. It has been a real challenge and again, it has to do with politics, planning, and trust. This is a chapter we are currently writing, since we are at the beginning of our second year of a four-year period.

Journal: Several Latin American countries confront challenges that are rooted in inequality. But, as a region, they have also produced progressive alternatives that tackle development in creative ways, such as your approach to make planning “visible” and building trust in society through investments in public spaces. In your experience, do you think we are seeing new types of regional practices in Latin America that respond to development in ways that deviate from the international guidelines dictated by the Washington Consensus, and which have commonly prevailed as models of development in Latin America?

Fajardo: If we pay attention to the current debates in the United States and Europe, a new word has appeared: inequality. In Latin America, however, we have known it for decades. The Washington Consensus never mentioned it or took it into account. There is something coming out of the global economic crisis: The traditional power centers have no new formulas. I am deeply convinced that Latin America is now a center of innovation, and many new ideas and alternatives are coming from our region. As usual, we Latin Americans have not taken time to seriously think, study, and work together to discover some key points and factors that underline what we are doing. But if you want to look for fresh and creative alternatives, look around here and, in particular, to Medellín and Antioquia.

Sergio Fajardo is an academic and politician from Colombia. He holds a PhD in mathematics with a minor in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was a full-time professor at the University of Los Andes in Bogotá and member of the National Council of Basic Science, National Committee of Masters and Doctorates, Board of Directors of the Antioquia University Support Foundation, and Director of the Center for Science and Technology of Antioquia. After campaigning as an independent, he was elected and served as mayor of Medellín in Colombia and served in office from 2004 to 2007. His tenure granted the city of Medellín international recognition by the Inter-American Development Bank as an exemplary case of good public administration. Fajardo has worked as a political commentator for several Colombian news outlets, has participated in peacekeeping processes as a founding member of the Commission for Facilitating Peace for Antioquia, and has led conferences about armed conflict in Colombia. Fajardo ran for vice president in the 2010 election under Antanas Mockus’ presidential ticket and is currently governor of Antioquia, Colombia, for the 2012-2015 term.



[i] Richard K. Lester and Michael J. Piore, Innovation—The Missing Dimension (USA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 14.

[ii] Matthew Devlin and Sebastian Chaskel, “From Fear to Hope in Colombia: Sergio Fajardo and Medellín, 2004-2007” (online report, Innovations for Succesful Societies, Princeton University: December 2010),

[iii] “Medellín, Colombia Named ‘Innovative City Of The Year’ In WSJ And Citi Global Competition,” Huffington Post, 2 March 2013,