Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Can governance be influenced by young professionals?

A one-word answer to this question is—depends. Depends on how programmes are designed and executed

The chief minister of Haryana recently launched the Chief Minister’s Good Governance Associates (CMGGA) programme with the objective of leveraging young professional talent for strengthening governance in the state.

As part of the programme, 21 young professionals will be posted in 21 districts of the state as full-time associates. These associates will work closely with the corresponding deputy commissioners (administrative heads of the districts) to push the envelope on governance based on the priorities of the chief minister.

This is not the first time that a political executive has sought to leverage young professionals from outside the system to facilitate the process of governance from within the system. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, had appointed CM Fellows with a similar mandate.

Subsequently, Jairam Ramesh sought to improve governance in about 150 naxalite-affected districts across the country through the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows (PMRDF), appointed by the central government. This programme was later extended to the North East and Jammu and Kashmir as well.

Very recently, almost simultaneously with CMGGA, Chandrababu Naidu is appointing CM Fellows for the Vision Monitoring Unit of the Andhra Pradesh government.

All of the above programmes have created and will continue to create a cadre of professionals well versed with the functioning of the government. The real question is whether young professionals from outside the system can actually make an impact on governance through such programmes?

Can their professional skills, energy, absence of any baggage, and a low-risk environment compensate for their inexperience, relatively insufficient understanding of government’s functioning, and the tag of being “outsiders"?

A one-word answer to these questions is—depends. Depends on how such a programme is designed and executed. Appropriately setting up the programme with all stakeholders, relevant and practical training, structured work-pieces, as well as constant mentoring of young professionals can potentially do the trick. Let us talk about each of these drivers of success one by one.

Often different stakeholders view the Associates differently. While a chief minister may wish to drive implementation of his flagship initiatives through these associates, the districts collectors may view them as their executive assistants, talented resources in the otherwise mediocre district administrative machinery.

It is, therefore, important that before the start of such a programme, and continuously throughout is tenure, all stakeholders are kept on the same page with regards to the purpose of the programme and the role of the associates. This responsibility primarily lies with the leader occupying the constitutional post associated with the programme—the chief minister or the prime minister in the above examples.

Training, both initial as well as on a continuous basis, plays a key role in getting the associates up to speed with functioning of the government and constantly adapting thereafter. Often this responsibility is given to a reputed educational institute—Ashoka University in the case of CMGGA, Tata Institute of Social Sciences in case of PMRDF, etc.

While this may be the most natural thing to do, it is important to recognize that associates face real scenarios during their tenures, making it supremely important to supplement theoretical concepts with practical knowledge from practitioners during their training. Structuring work for the associates is a key dimension on which some of the past attempts in this domain have been found wanting, especially since associates have been decentralized across multiple districts.

While there are practical constraints to standardizing work at a micro level for all associates, most programmes have been guilty of swaying to the other extreme of completely leaving the associates at the discretion of the district collectors, and in the process making the success of the programme person-dependent as opposed to structure-dependent.

Therefore, while designing such programmes, there is need and scope to maintain a fine balance between well-defined work-pieces and flexibility to adapt according to local requirements.

The last and the most important factor for success is constant mentoring and handholding of the associates. While they are young, bright professionals with a lot of energy, most of them have limited past experience of interfacing with the government.

The programme is their first tryst with the “system" and having a mentor to help manoeuvre through the same could prove to be very helpful. The mentor needs to be someone who the associates can relate to, and at the same time someone experienced enough to be able to suggest ways of working through the officialdom.

If the above four dimensions can be appropriately addressed in design and execution, such a programme has the potential to create disproportionate impact. It remains to be seen if CMGGA will be able to do so. CMGGA has received an overwhelming interest from young professionals, with over 1,400 registrations from across 26 states within five weeks of its launch.

Now it is up to the chief minister and his team to make it a success. All such programmes in the past have been discontinued for one reason or the other, however if CMGGA can show the way, several other states are likely to replicate the model.

A word of caution! We all have read that story of a king who would go around in his kingdom at night disguised as a common man to hear what his people had to say about him. While it may be a legitimate thing to do for a king in earlier times and for a political leader today, one needs to be extra cautious in choosing the right means to do so.

It is very easy for programmes like the ones discussed in this article to be seen in such light by some stakeholders. It is therefore important to have clear messaging around such programmes to avoid any misinterpretation.

Gaurav Goel is a co-founder and managing director at FourthLion, a political and governance consulting start-up. Disclosure: FourthLion is involved in designing the CMGGA programme in Haryana.

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