Amanat Boprai, an Indian delegate recalls her takeaways from the first World Governance Expedition
2300 miles, 10 US states, 15 days, 40 meetings, 25 people – sounds intense, doesn’t it?
Sometimes the most intriguing of experiences come in the most grueling of packages. They say that “those who live with passion start out with an especially intense desire to complete themselves”. As far as the World Governance Expedition (WGE) delegates are concerned, this passion was the need to understand and complete not just themselves but also their nation.
We wanted to understand all the best practices so that somehow, anyhow we could come up with policies relevant to India. Below are some of the best policy practices in the US that can be adopted:
1. Research and Policy Making
Quality of Research
It is believed that Indian quality of research is subpar as compared to our American counterparts. The WGE delegates met Professors at Harvard, Duke and Georgetown to understand the issue and what makes the work coming out of these institutions a benchmark for excellence. Two aspects came to the forefront – First, the prestige associated with academic research along with the high societal status of professors and researchers warrants that the best and brightest are drawn towards this field in the US. Second is the outright autonomy given to academia to perform research on issues of their choice. This gives researchers the creative freedom as well as the liberty to push conventional boundaries of thought. This right was beautifully elaborated by a researcher we met at the Brookings Institute who said that anyone can buy a paper that says what you want it to, but real value can be added to strategic planning only through independent analysis. In contrast, in India, there are multiple forces which prevent our academics from putting their best held and researched views forward, for fear of backlash. There is a need to create a more receptive atmosphere for all opinions in our society with the final decision still resting with the policy makers.
Evidence & Impact Oriented Policy
Improving quality must go hand in hand with evidence based policy making and not on the “gut feeling” of the policy maker. This can happen only if the government has in its network, experts who could offer an in-depth perspective in policy making. This will be critical as we enter a networked world where the linear thinking of Indian ministers and bureaucrats will no longer be sufficient to solve major policy problems. This sentiment can be institutionalized in three separate ways. First, knowledge centers like JPAL MIT or the Beeck Centre at Georgetown, could be established. They conduct evidence based analysis using tools such as Randomized Control Trials, etc. to design optimal policy interventions. Second, just like SEZs have been established to promote business, separate zones in the city have been devoted to research institutions and we could follow suit. The Research Triangle Park in North Carolina is one such eg. where major local universities, govt. and private think tanks have established their base and can play an important role in providing a boost to the local economy as well as creating a common platform to exchange ideas. Third, serious thought can be given to establishment of academic institutions like the UNC School of Government where professors not only perform research but also have a huge advisory role, which sometimes takes up almost half of their time. Bureaucrats and other policy practitioners from the North Carolina area can get in touch with respective experts at UNC to solve their everyday work issues.
Such mechanisms will not only make sure that the policy created is based on evidence and research but also provide for measurement of impact by experts to design better interventions in the future. This measurement of impact is a major vertical along which severe behavioral change is required. This is because from the government’s perspective, the impact of policy programs is generally measured in terms of the number of people who went through the program without considering other important factors such as the number of people who actually benefitted as a result of the intervention or the degree to which the problem was actually solved. Impact measurement is also critical from the point of view of NGOs as we believe there are far too many NGO’s in the country working on similar or overlapping issues and that too with very little impact. There are two possible explanations for this: either the impact measurement techniques employed by the NGO’s aren’t up to the mark or there is a need to scale up the impact. In either case, there is need to predict and understand the impact of policies in a better manner to have custom-made, well-suited programs for various policy problems that India is confronted with.
2. Engagement of civil society with Government
Another lesson that the world’s largest democracy can take from the world’s oldest is in respect of the robust participation of the civil society in policies made by the government. Innovative new models like citizen cabinets and participatory budgeting as happens at the Federal level in the United States or at the state level like in Iowa (2009-2010) could be looked into for inspiration. Moreover, the potential in India’s demographic dividend has been in talks in all aspects of economic growth, then why should policy be left behind? The WGE delegates met with a lot of talented young professionals interning in the Boston City Council, the Mayor’s offices, etc. This idea can be customized for emulation in India to create fellowships in three different categories. First, youngsters can be brought in as Innovation fellows to look into age old bureaucratic and policy problems with fresh eyes and come up with creative new solutions. Secondly, technology fellows could be brought in to analyze the areas where technology would not be just a prop or a political gimmick but would create true value and work towards implementation of the same. Finally, digital fellowships could be offered to bring in youth to tap into the mass of ‘youth generated content’ out there on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Change.org, etc. This information could then be used to figure out the needs of the youth and also implement innovative programs, for eg. if 1,00,000 people sign up for a question online, then the Prime Minister has to answer it.
3. Internalization of Incentives
The final step remaining after understanding the needs and developing a custom made policy is its implementation. This requires a deep rooted behavioral change in our bureaucracy which suffers from a “false sense of entitlement in India”, as was pointed out by a distinguished Harvard alumni. The mindset needs to be changed from bureaucrats and politicians thinking of themselves as rulers to administrators just in line with the concept of “Pradhan Sewak” as espoused by PM Modi. To quote an example, the delegates were pleasantly surprised to see how even elected state representatives and senators were cleaning up after themselves, giving personal tours to the WGE delegation as well as asking our feedback on their policies; thereby showing a much decentralized and inclusive form of everyday functioning of the ‘elites’. Finally, some short term practical solutions such as the ‘Bad judges list’ which names judges whose cases aren’t finished on time etc. can be adopted in India to create accountability in the system for public servants for eg. judges, bureaucrats and politicians. Basically, the idea is – for implementing policy within institutions, internalization of incentives is required to get people excited to do their jobs and to do them well!
Amanat Boparai is a Delhi-based policy researcher. She was a delegate at Vision India Foundation’s World Governance Expedition 2016.