Nitin Pai is the co-founder of the Takshashila Institution, a Bangalore-based think tank that has just launched its post-graduate programme in public policy. Here talks about new career paths for policy professionals as well as how these opportunities are reshaping India’s policy-scape
There are other public policy courses in India and abroad, what did Takshashila focus on while designing its new post-graduate programme?
Unlike other professional disciplines like engineering, medicine and to an extent management, public policy is highly contextual. In other words, the case studies you work on at the world's best public policy schools abroad do not automatically translate to the situation in India. At the same time, we have precious few home-grown curriculum material and case studies.
Taking these into account, Takshashila has focused on developing India-oriented but globally relevant curriculum, case studies and teaching techniques. We straddle both the academic world and the world of practicing professionals – the idea is create practitioners with the latest conceptual knowledge and skills.
What changes, in terms of opportunities, do you notice in the career-scape for public policy practitioners today from say a decade ago?
Public policy is a sunrise industry worldwide, and not least in India. We are emerging as a two trillion dollar economy, a middle-income, urbanised society. We have 19th century laws and a 21st century society – so we are already in the process of modernising and updating our laws, regulations and system of governance. This means we need public policy professionals across the Union, state and local governments and in corporations, media and civil society. There is only so much you can do with passionate amateurs and intelligent generalists. For the tide to lift all boats, we need large numbers of skilled public policy professionals.
Political leaders are realising this – the Modi Government has a number of professionals working in important policy-influencing positions. It's now a job in the Government. It is a matter of time – ten years on the outside – before this becomes a career stream in Government sector. Almost every Chief Minister realises this, every mayor realises this. Administrative reforms will occur, but gradually, given our governmental processes.
The change is happening way faster in the private sector. Many businesses now realise that thanks to RTI, social media and global competitive exposure, they need to engage Government in a transparent and above-board professional manner. Business executives and consultants who must engage with national and foreign regulators need public policy competence beyond what lawyers and accountants can provide.
Similarly, the "Government intermediary" industry is also getting sanitised and professionalised.
In the non-profit area, a number of grant-making foundations have told me that they need good project managers to ensure their philanthropic money is more effective in delivering outcomes. They too have expressed a need for trained public policy professionals.
Besides Government servants, do you feel policy professionals are playing a greater role in Government today? Whether by way of lateral entries or as consultants on contract?
Yes. Over the last decade, outside experts have found “jobs” in the Government, especially at higher levels. These are political appointments and usually co-terminus with the Government that appointed them. This is a start, but not quite a career stream that will attract talent at all levels.
For a career stream, there has to be lateral entry (and exit). The civil services need reform, but given the complexities of the relationships between the services, structural reform will be hard.
One way to meet India's governance needs while being sensitive to the interests of the civil services is to set up Short Service Commissions, like they have in the armed forces. Get good officers at the entry level with, say, a 10-year career track, after which they should leave. This will ensure that the talent is available to the Government first, and later to the other sectors.
Besides those working directly with the Government or with political parties and politicians, what impact are those working in other areas -- think tanks, NGOs and the corporate sector -- able to have on Central or State policies?
Every state needs think tanks. We have too few of them. There is almost no study of State budgets, State laws and regulations on a systematic basis. Yet, there are organisations like the Bangalore Political Action Committee (BPAC) in the states that are concerned about State and city governance. They find it hard to recruit good policy analysts with local contextual knowledge because there are so few of them. So clearly there is a demand in many of the states that have a modern economy and greater urbanisation.
I've already mentioned how many corporations are interested in hiring executives who can deal with local and foreign governments.
Does the aforementioned scenario point to larger trends in the manner in which policies are being formulated?
Well, policymaking in India is still largely carried out in the "same-old" manner. However, there are changes at the margin. Governments are conducting public consultations and putting draft bills up for discussion. This is a positive trend. It needs skill to respond effectively to a public consultation, where there are technical matters, correct phrasing, and calculation of economic and social effects to be considered. The recent debate over Net Neutrality for instance is a good example where we had a national debate with mass participation. Even in states, we have bills put up for public consultation now. Karnataka recently did it for its taxi aggregator policy.
These are the green shoots of the way policymaking is changing. But the direction is clear.
Lobbying is regulated in other countries but here it operates under the guise of 'PR' or 'Corporate Communications'. Do you think it needs to be legalised and regularised in India as well?
Absolutely. Lobbying serves an important economic purpose, and banning it only drives the industry underground. India's interests will be better served by a well-governed framework where lobbying takes place professionally and transparently.
Lobbying is useful in a democracy because it allows various interest groups to consolidate their demands and influence policy. It is not always a bad thing; conceptually a lobby is no different from a trade union that engages in collective bargaining. What is important, whether it is a lobby group or a trade union, is to ensure that it does not hijack policy, works with transparency, and there is no corruption and conflict of interests. If we are okay with trade unions, we should be okay with lobby groups too.
According to the Global Go to Think Tank Index Report by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Programme at the University of Pennsylvania, Indian think tanks are being ranked better but there's some more way to go. What do you make of the survey and what are new ideas and areas for Indian think tanks to consider?
It is important to have a survey and a ranking. It is also important to not take the rankings too seriously. A ranking tells us what other institutions in the world are doing, how they do it and so on. This helps us all to improve by learning from others. At the same time, we should keep in mind that we exist for a purpose – in Takshashila's case, to transform India through better public policies – and not merely to appear on those league tables. If we are ranked well because of the work we do, then that's great. But rankings should not be an end in itself.
As I said, India needs lot more think-tanks in its states and cities, focused on issues in their remit. The Constitution puts a whole lot of issues and power in the hands of the states. The Finance Commission has put a whole lot of money in their hands. Yet, we have very little sunlight on the policy processes and budgets of the states and local bodies. It makes little sense for all of us to focus on nuclear weapons and poverty alleviation. Running our cities well, delivering primary education and so on are issues that need to be worked on at State and local levels. We need hundreds more think tanks!