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At the summit: A talk with a human services teacher, storyteller and champion

Leadership for a Networked World’s Antonio Oftelie shares his passion for human services change.

What’s unique about Leadership for a Networked World’s executive summits for public service leaders?
These summits create a place for leaders to develop a vision and strategy for the future. So often, they’re working tirelessly to get their day-to-day job done, and they rarely have the time to reflect on the needs of tomorrow.

In the summit environment, we take the best ideas from Harvard faculty, practitioners working on the frontlines, and industry experts to create a formula for dialogue that helps leaders discover not only novel ideas, but practical ones too.

What is your most memorable Human Services Summit moment?
Without a doubt, it happened with the late Jerry Friedman. Jerry was a pioneer in human services, and a thought leader at Accenture later in his career.

We had a tradition that he would always close out the Human Services Summit. One year, he shared the story of his stepson Christopher who struggled with cystic fibrosis.

Jerry told us about all of the love and energy that he and his wife had devoted to giving Christopher a chance at a healthy life—and they did some amazing things for him.

He asked us to imagine what the world would be like if all children experienced such devotion. It was such a powerful moment. Jerry crystallized the importance of looking at clients like real people who deserve that immense dedication, fairness and equity.

"I’ve always been aware of the power of people, organizations and government to come together to do great things."

What inspires your passion for public service—and for human services in particular?
I’ve always been very curious about how people, organizations and systems respond to a changing world.

What’s fascinating is that public service organizations face the toughest problems. From an economic standpoint, human services organizations are solving market failures—issues that can’t be solved by supply and demand economics or basic market forces.

Responding takes continual innovation—trying to create new methods to solve tough human challenges. Making progress means adopting those new methods and forming them into practical, accessible solutions.

You played a key role in developing the Human Services Value Curve. Why is it such a powerful tool for human services leaders?
The human services environment is full of complexity and crisis, which leaves little time for leaders to improve their organization. They are so focused on managing near-term complexity and it becomes difficult to take the long view.

The Human Services Value Curve is a framework that helps leaders cut through this complexity and chart a path to being more effective, efficient and outcome-focused.

It’s fantastic to see leaders around the world embracing the Human Services Value Curve as their guiding framework—their North Star—for citizen-focused organizational transformation.

What human services trends are you tracking?
I’m interested in the movement to leverage data and analytics to get better insight into how to create outcomes for people and communities.

With analytics, we can look across organizations and deep within them to understand which interventions are working, which are not, and then make continuous improvements on the mix of services that lead to better outcomes.

In some ways, data and analytics will be a forcing mechanism, in that the insights will break down organizational inertia. People won’t be able to rely on hunches anymore. They’ll need to act on what the data says really works.

What is your vision of human services delivery in 2020?
I see it becoming truly citizen centric. This is something we have talked about as a community, and I believe we will get there.

We understand now more than ever what drives outcomes for people. It’s not about silos or programs, but about creating and bundling services in ways that best fit with individuals’ and families’ needs.

Delivering these kinds of services will mean redesigning much of the status quo—across government levels and across sectors to eliminate organizational boundaries. Digital strategies will not only be tools for this progress, but also drivers of transformation.

How did your personal and professional background prepare you for your current role?
I’ve always been aware of the power of people, organizations and government to come together to do great things. When I was a teenager and my family hit on some hard times, we benefitted from the social safety network. I’ll never forget that.

Early in my career, I worked in government and saw the power of what we can accomplish together. I also saw the many ways government needs to transform for the future.

This interest drove me to go to graduate school and focus my studies at Harvard Kennedy School and later in my doctoral program around the issue of innovation and change in government.

You are a charismatic public speaker. Have you always been so comfortable in front of an audience?
Believe me, I’m as nervous as anyone! What I’ve learned through the years, though, is that the people who come to the summits are there to learn the leadership and management skills that will help them build a better world, and that gives me endless fuel and inspiration.

And one of the best ways to learn about new ideas is through stories. So when I’m talking about an innovation or business model, I always try to tie it to a story from that past that everyone can relate to. This engages people and makes a connection to what they can do in their own lives.

I am a history buff, and I love exploring those moments in history that are inflection points—times when big change happens and leaders must come together to realize new outcomes.

What is your favorite part of your job?
Everywhere I turn at Harvard, there are people way smarter than me working on some of the biggest challenges that the world is facing.

When I feel weighed down by the seemingly endless problems we face, I walk through the hallways at Harvard, see these people grinding day and night on solutions, and I am so hopeful for the future.

What’s your best piece of Harvard trivia?
The John Harvard statue in the middle of Harvard Yard is full of mystique. The inscription reads, “John Harvard, Founder, 1638.” But it’s actually the statue of three lies.

First, the truth is that there was no known portrait of John Harvard, so a student sat for the carving as a stand-in for John Harvard.

Second, John Harvard was not the founder of the university. It was actually founded by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. And third, the school was founded in 1636, not 1638.

But what is true, is that if you come to campus, you must remember to rub John Harvard’s foot and good luck will come your way. Just be sure to bring some hand sanitizer with you!

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