The world's first ever winner of Integrity Idol has spoken to Apolitical about his victory - and how he raised the pass rate of school pupils in his district from 14% to more than 60% in a single year.
Modelled on TV talent shows like Pop Idol, Integrity Idol celebrates public servants who have displayed outstanding dedication to the common good. Now spreading to several countries, it started in Nepal in 2014, where the inaugural winner was District Education Officer Gyan Mani Nepal.
Schools in his district and throughout the country have been hobbled by very poor rates of teacher attendance. Many teachers have illegal side jobs in local politics or with NGOs, and partly in consequence of that, more than 67% of pupils in government schools nationwide fail the School Leaving Certificate after ten grades of education.
When he was appointed in mid-2013, Mr Nepal visited every school in the district and gave pupils his personal phone number, asking them to text him if their teachers failed to appear for work. In conjunction with that, he also created a daily log of teacher attendance that is maintained by pupils and submitted by them to him.
'I went to the people and convinced the people to help me because they want to better their kids,' Mr Nepal told Apolitical. To win the community onto his side, Mr Nepal reduced his own budget and began to publish how it was being spent. He said, 'When people saw I was working hard and not corrupt, they supported me. If we work fairly and transparently to be accountable to the people, then we will never fear any obstacle. Like that, we can change society.'
In a country ranked 130th in the world for corruption, on a par with Iran and Ukraine, and still divided after the decade of civil war that ended in 2006, Mr Nepal faced opposition from local political parties that habitually interfere with the running of schools and use them to stage rallies.
If we work transparently, we will never fear any obstacle
With the community backing reform, however, local parties were at least in part persuaded to accept that schools are apolitical 'zones of peace' - a designation put forward by the Ministry of Education in 2011.
In addition to these systemic reforms, Mr Nepal, himself a former teacher, deployed the classic carrot and stick to his own profession. The most recalcitrant teachers were sacked and some 200 more have been put on a warning since the pupil reports were started. Those keen to improve were given extra training, guidance and advice.
The result of these efforts has been a staggering jump in the number of pupils passing the School Leaving Certificate - from 14% to above 60% in a single year. And a byproduct was his nomination as the first ever Integrity Idol.
The competition, which aims to foster a culture of integrity in public life, received 303 nominees, including teachers and health workers. Mr Nepal was chosen from a group of panel-selected finalists, winning the largest proportion of around 10,000 public votes.
'Integrity Idol is all about building a positive narrative,' Narayan Adhikari, one of the creators of the competition, which is run by the non-profit Accountability Lab with government support, told Apolitical. 'Instead of putting wrongdoers behind bars, it's about highlighting the good people. We really want to change the system through individuals, and inspire the younger generation to join government with the mindset of integrity and personal accountability, rather than for a pension and social security.'
There are people within the system doing extraordinary work
Mr Nepal has now moved to another school district, where he is working to develop a model school run to international standards, with modern educational techniques as well as computers, a library and facilities for sport and music. He said, 'The ultimate aim of this role model school is to create a hub for learning for all teachers, students and other stakeholders as well as other schools to learn and adapt similar concepts.'
Meanwhile, Integrity Idol - which Mr Nepal said had helped him continue to push through his reforms - has grown both within Nepal and elsewhere. The second round was won by Chief District Officer Pradip Raj Kanel, who has worked on lifting travel restrictions in politically sensitive areas and whose office announces by loudspeaker every morning, 'We are your helpers, if you are facing any problems you can directly contact the Chief District Officer.' It attracted some 50,000 votes, and the competition has spread to half a dozen other countries, including Liberia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Nor is Integrity Idol the only prize in this field. As part of a wider trend, another organisation, the Open Government Partnership, which works with 69 countries across all inhabited continents, has started running awards for transparency in government. Focussing on projects rather than individuals, the award last year was given to a Uruguayan scheme giving citizens unprecedentedly detailed information about the performance of the health service. Nominations are presently open for this year's prize.
Mr Adhikari said, 'Despite the system being corrupt and society being corrupt, there are people within it who believe in working with honesty, are doing extraordinary work and are dedicated to fulfilling the duties in their mandate. To change society, government officials with integrity are the key.'