It was a humid summer afternoon in Surakarta, Indonesia. I was to meet the mayor of Solo, another name for Surakarta. Joko Widodo was a rising star, and his reforms had caught our eye at our research centre at Princeton University.
I met the mayor at his residence — he in a casual Javanese shirt and I about to faint from the heat in my formal suit. The interview was a blur but I remember his warm, affable style. I spent two weeks in Solo before returning to write a case study on his reforms and unconventional governance style. The next time we met was when he was governor of Jakarta – he remembered me well – and gave me a tour of the city while sharing his plans for reforms. Later, he was elected President of Indonesia. Unfortunately I could not meet him then but wrote about his rise and the challenges he faced.
Jokowi was among the more famous public servants I interviewed during my time at the research centre. In less than four years, I interviewed people in government in places as diverse as Brazil and the Philippines. They spoke of their reforms and the decisions they took in difficult circumstances.
I came to admire their achievements and appreciate the tremendous pressure on public servants. Those able to push for change did so with bold visions, dedicated teams and an eye on political openings and timing. Those did not succeed learnt lessons and set the stage for others.
The ones I met left an indelible impression. Like Juan Miguel Luz in the Phillippines. His reforms did not sustain fully beyond his tenure but his focus on the country’s 40,000 public schools offered lessons for reformers everywhere. When I met him in Manila, his mild manner did not at first reveal the speed and tenacity with which he worked to take on vested interests and build a coalition that benefited 5 lakh teachers and 1.8 crore children in public schools. He spent several afternoons patiently explaining to me his decisions, actions and the consequences.
I carried these experiences into my next job and the one after. Even today, I benefit from the insights shared by those in the highest levels of government and carry an appreciation of their commitment to change from within.