Election war rooms in India have become “hypermarkets” offering careers in public policy— but just interest is not enough
- The process of creating election manifestos and guiding public policy has become more formal and a dynamic process.
- An increasing number of youngsters are taking part but not all of them are fully ready for the grind.
- Public policy schools in India should aim to produce practitioners and not just focus on theories.
- To have a successful career in public policy, one must account for many factors ranging from domain expertise and on-ground experience to personality traits.
There has been an exponential growth in the involvement of young graduates and professionals in election campaigns. If war rooms of the 2009 election campaign resembled “petty shops”, those in 2019 were “hypermarkets”. Also what was hitherto an unorganised set-up saw “formalisation” with many election management agencies coming to the fore, employing youngsters in private company-like set-ups.
The government is keen to rope in young professionals with interest in public policy
Not only that, the first term of Modi can be considered a watershed in offering opportunities to young professionals in government. In the ministries, or through agencies such as NITI Aayog, Invest India, the government opened up spaces for youngsters to play a part in nation-building. Concurrent developments in state governments should also not be forgotten.
Apart from election campaigns and government, students wishing to pursue careers in media, think tanks, non-profits, international agencies, social sector consulting firms, communication firms etc. are seeking insights into the policy world. Some people sign up for these courses just to make sense of the conversations on social media.
But there seems to be general vagueness about the KSAs (Knowledge, Skills and Abilities) demanded for performing these roles. The lack of clarity is quite understandable as there is a great diversity of roles within the policy space. For instance, in political campaigns, the KSAs required for preparation of manifestos are quite different from that for creating media campaigns or on-ground coordination. In the government too, media management is different from policy research or programme management.
Given this width of the policy spectrum and the fact that generalised knowledge in today’s world available for free, it is imperative to mould public policy institutions as schools of practice. Policy schools should sensitise students to the “arts and crafts” of policy making than teaching the “hard knowledge” of drafting policies.
Public policy formation needs domain expertise
A fundamental flaw in designing curriculums of policy schools will be to see them as extended economics or political science departments. Recently, Harvard professor Ricardo Hausmann articulated this with quite a flair on the differences between the “science” of economics and “practice” of policy (“Don’t Blame Economics, Blame Public Policy”, Project Syndicate). Public policy programmes should, in many ways, be thought of as generalist finishing schools for students that bring with them domain knowledge and ambition to contribute.
It is important for policy schools to focus on understanding of Indian political systems and bureaucracy and on how to deliver within those frameworks. Answering a simple question such as, “How to build a ring road around a city?” would necessitate knowing the ecosystem beyond just the technical and financial feasibility studies of the proposed project.
The understanding of various bureaucratic and political actors, fund flow, motivations, organisational structure, political economy of the day etc. is required to even completely comprehend the challenge.
Train, train — it never goes in vain
Looked that way, it is obvious that most policy jobs are apprenticeships. Like an aspiring Bollywood actor or a carpenter, the skills are learned on the job over a period of time. Internships can provide a much-required orientation to such roles.
Also success in such a whimsical field of work, with so many uncontrollable factors, calls for deep and constant self-inquiry. Whether philosophical and psychological resilience could be taught in schools through leadership curses has always been the stuff of debates. But mentoring can definitely help.
Find the right fit for you — even if it is through trial and error
Students should be guided to figure out their place in the policy world based on their affinities and personality traits. At the risk of stereotyping, someone who can handle sharp elbows can find politics amenable, while some who is happy leading niche causes can find smaller non-profit organisations attractive. Exposure to newsrooms, non-profit fieldwork or think-tanks or communication firms will help students find where they fit best.
Above all of these, policy practitioners should understand the society they want to serve better. No amount of training will help if there is no immersive experience of working in a village or with the urban poor for a reasonably long period of time.
Since policy education itself is a burgeoning field, entrepreneurs will keep fine-tuning offerings. Some schools may endeavour to produce policy wonks, some may focus on soft-skills, while others on field work, etc. A bouquet of programme offerings perhaps might help cater to diversity of demand from students.
Basic understanding of working of our politics, government and society will have to compliment strong domain knowledge to be effective in the policy world. Policy schools should coach our compassionate and idealistic youngsters to be psychologically resilient so that they are able to withstand the storms and serve the society over long periods.
Banuchandar Nagarajan is a public policy Adviser.
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