Positive Deviant: Aura Cifuentes
Company: Public Innovation Team, National Planning Department
Location: Bogotá D.C.

We had the opportunity to speak with Aura Cifuentes, an enterprising woman, determined and passionate about what she does, and committed to the future of our Colombia. Aura, who currently serves as coordinator of the Public Innovation Team at the National Planning Department of Colombia, told us about her experience in the public sector, her challenges and her dreams.

Equipo de Innovación Pública del Departamento Nacional de Planeación.jpeg

Quántica: Who is Aura Cifuentes?

Aura Cifuentes: First of all, I am a woman. I like to live (as much as possible) in alignment with my values. I believe that changes of worldview are possible and for that reason for the last 10 years I have dedicated my time, professional and personal, to that belief.

I am a graduate of the Universidad Externado de Colombia where I studied Government and International Relations. Then I went to France to do my Masters in Public Affairs at Sciences Po Paris (and there I stayed a few more years).

As I am interested in changes in worldview, I have worked on issues that involve changes in behavior. I have been working for more than 4 years on issues related to public innovation, open government, the fight against corruption and the use of tech for decision making.

Q: What are your passions and your dreams?

AC: I love to understand why we behave how we behave and why we believe in what we believe. On an individual and collective level. As human beings, in general, we do not like to practice introspection, and it is extremely necessary! The collective unconscious is ruling the world and that is dangerous.

So I dream of a society aware of its biases. Not sporadically, but, ALL the time. It is the only way for us to evolve as a society.

Q: What do you do now?

AC: Oops! To many things. On the job, I currently coordinate the Public Innovation Team of the National Planning Department. We are a public entity in charge of preparing, monitoring and evaluating public policies in Colombia. And, within our department - also called the "center of thought" of the government - there is a team of 6 people looking for more public servants and public entities to be inspired by agile and experimental methodologies of entrepreneurship. That is, we understand that there are traditional ways of doing things that cannot continue. First, because the world is not the same as it was 40 years ago and second, because we have messed up in a lot of ways and it is time to recognize that. We have designed policies or implemented projects that do not respond to the needs of citizens or that did not generate the expected impact.

Well, in addition to my professional life, I love academics so I am currently directing two theses of the Master of Government and Public Policy of the Externado de Colombia University and personally, trying to discover what is called "work-life balance" (laughs). So in my free time I’m prioritizing activities that I love and make me deeply happy. I respect and take great care of my personal life.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge in life?

AC: So far, because surely others will come, to return to Colombia following my instinct (I lived outside of Colombia for four years). Something inside told me it was the path to take in that moment of my life. But it was difficult. All the advice and possible scenarios of my life pointed to the fact that I was making the worst decision, that I was wrong.

In the eyes of the world, I had the perfect life: 26 years old, consultant in a multinational company, living in Paris, traveling all over the world. And yes, the truth is that was a dream life. I enjoyed it deeply. Some of the best years of my life for sure! But something kept brewing inside me: "What about Colombia? When?" Living the Colombian peace process in 2016 from abroad was very powerful for me.

And well ... I consider it a challenge because I had never questioned myself so much. I had never felt like a foreigner in the city where I had lived more than half of my life.

Q: How is Colombia doing on the innovation front?

AC: It’s barely crawling! Well, it depends on what kind of innovation we speak.

I believe that there are entrepreneurs and companies (of all sizes) that are hitting home runs. Very little is said about this, but we are exporting technology. That has to be applauded! And even more because we are in a country where STEM careers remain weak.

In the public sector, I believe that we are still learning how to walk. We’ve gone past the birth stage because many public entities have been innovating for several years, but we need to start taking firm steps so that this materializes even more. In 4 years, we have to rigorously evaluate these steps. Because one thing is to walk and another to run.

Q: Many flee to the public sector...why do you think this happens?

AC: I think it’s because there are many stereotypes plaguing the public sector. And some are true but others are not. A general perception is that nobody works, that there is corruption in every office, that the problems are so complex that what one does does not generate much impact, and so on, and so on.

I have worked in academia, the private sector and the public sector. The three are wonderful. In all three you can contribute. In all three there are dreams and challenges. I have loved the three of them. And in all three I learned new things.

But, without a doubt, the most resourceful and generous people I have met are in the public sector. The projects that have made me feel the most alive have been in the public sector. A grain of sand in the public sector has positive consequences that one can’t even begin to imagine. So yes, there are public servants who have given us a very bad reputation and deserve to be in jail, but others, the vast majority, deserve all the recognition in the world.

In the public sector, public resources are very thin and are to be used for social problems so big that often you just want to sit down and cry, even though that will not change anything. There are very harsh realities that are the day-to-day of many public servants. And yet, the vast majority of them give it there all. They work overtime, reading the fine print of every document to make sure it is perfect, staying up late until everything is in order. All this to help others, driven by the desire to create the best outcomes for beneficiary communities. The list of efforts is endless. The public sector is a great learning ground. There is no reason to run away.

Q: You have been in the public sector for many years, what motivates you to work with that sector?

AC: It motivates me to think that the subjects that I am passionate about, and in which I have been working for several years, are allowing Colombia to have a more open, innovative and transparent government. And I’m not just talking at a national level but regional as well. It motivates me to see that and affirm that. Although it takes time (and a lot of effort) to change paradigms, it is possible. I myself have seen it happen in the jobs I’ve had.

Public entities in Colombia are increasingly aware of the importance of strengthening the relationship with the citizen, of strengthening capacities so that human talent has a more innovative mentality, a mentality of breaking down barriers, of using data and optimizing transparency to make better decisions. Public entities increasingly ask themselves better questions and have the ability to answer them. We are better than before, there is no doubt about that.

I feel that from what I have been able to do in my work I have contributed to that and it is very satisfying because it has been done by a group of people who are also betting on this.

When one sees that constant cycle of discourse about innovation, experimentation, transparency, accountability -- the discussions eventually start to move towards how to do it, with what tools to do so, with whom we can learn from, etc. One realizes that with perseverance and a lot of discipline it is possible to create sustainable change.

Q: What has been one thing that has given you the “perrenque” to keep going?

AC: I love that word! Of my favorites without a doubt. I think I listen to my inner voice. That one in the background that always knows. FOREVER. And although it seems obvious, most people do not listen. And if they do, first they listen to half of humanity and then to their instinct.

The difficulty lies in not confusing that voice with the ego. That’s another little voice that whispers to us throughout the day. It has to be silenced. It is not a good counselor. You always need to silence it.

That's why you have to work on understanding your biases, on what you love and what you are. This strengthens the inner voice more and more. It makes her wiser. I really believe in that.

Q: What does your future hold?

AC: May life surprise me! The future creates anxiety. For now, in my present, I will continue doing what I like and what makes me feel alive.

Q: Is there someone indispensable in your life?

AC: Nobody is indispensable.

Q: Person you admire?

AC: Sheryl Sandberg. So far I have not been disappointed (laughs). I really like what she has written and the causes she defends. I feel that she is someone who is aligned in what she thinks and how she acts.

Q: Favorite book or text?

AC: It’s very difficult to choose one. I have many favorites that I have read more than once. But, Candide de Molière is a philosophical tale that I always remember fondly. Fine satire. A very well done critique of the world.

Q: A film you would recommend?

AC: Amélie.

Q: Favorite phrase?

AC: "Our decisions are the only bridge between the place we find ourselves and the place we want to be. What we choose to do is the only path between the civilization we have inherited and the civilization we aspire to create. Choose wisely. " - Chris Lowney.