Opinion | Let’s step up efforts to get professionals in governance

The question is whether the country has an ecosystem in place to ensure a steady supply of public policy professionals

Over the last few years, the landscape of governance in India has been undergoing several interesting changes. One such change is the increasing number of professionals, apart from career bureaucrats, working with the central or state governments. This openness of governments to leverage external talent has coincided with a greater interest among professionals—who did not take the civil services route—to engage with public policy and governance. The motivation among them to create an impact has meant that not only are recent graduates looking at public policy as a career choice, even working professionals are switching over from other sectors to this space.

But even as the idea of a career in public policy gains credence, there is much about this territory that is uncharted and needs to be understood.

We try to understand where the demand for public policy professionals stems from and whether there is adequate supply of such talent within the country. Let us first look at the different ways in which professionals are engaging with public policy and governance in India.

A small fraction of professionals are joining the bureaucracy as lateral entrants in fairly senior roles. However, if we were to focus on relatively younger professionals, several of them are engaged as advisers, consultants or officers on special duty (OSDs) in various ministries or government institutions such as the NITI Aayog, National Skill Development Corporation and Quality Council of India, among others.

Several others are engaged as fellows with central or state governments. States such as Haryana, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh have experimented with recruiting chief minister’s fellows to work closely with the main administration, help deliver tangible outcomes and act as catalysts for change.

At the Centre, similar examples include the recruitment of Swachh Bharat preraks (inspirers) by the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, and young professionals by the NITI Aayog. The success of these fellowship programmes vary, based on how well they are structured, empowered, managed and embedded in the system.

A third category of professionals are working with private organizations focused on improving governance, such as Samagra, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy and PRS Legislative Research, or think tanks such as the Centre for Civil Society, Centre for Policy Research and Observer Research Foundation.

But what exactly is fuelling this demand among professionals to be a part of, or work with, the governance system?

To begin with, a combination of hard skills and an approach focused on achieving outcomes. Their willingness to think out of the box and bring in a fresh perspective helps in solution design, especially as governance becomes more and more complex. The low capacity of the system, especially at the junior and middle levels, further makes professionals attractive. That they are largely free of vested interests also helps.

Over the coming years, the acceptance of and need for professionals in governance is only expected to increase. The question therefore is: Does India have an ecosystem in place to meet this demand for public policy professionals?

Further, while it may be easy to attribute the low number of professionals in direct decision-making roles in government, as opposed to advisory roles, to a pushback from career bureaucrats against “outsiders", there is merit in asking if there is a pool of professionals who have adequate training and understanding of governance to take on more responsibilities in government.

Currently, most professionals learn on the job. They don’t have any prior experience or training in public policy. Many of them have worked in other sectors or are graduates from other disciplines and have decided to change their career path, often driven by a desire to help the country.

If they do have degrees in public policy, they are usually from foreign universities. As such, the education and training they have acquired is not contextualized in the complexities of Indian politics, administration or development challenges. While some Indian colleges do offer public policy courses, their rigour and depth cannot be said to be at par with their counterparts abroad.

Given these challenges, there is a need for a premier Indian public policy training institution to emerge that can attract the best talents and equip people with the necessary skills and knowledge that can be applied in the Indian context.

Just as India can boast of having some of the best engineering and management training institutions, the time has come to establish a public policy school that can meet the demand for quality professionals in the domain. Whether the professionals who gain admission to such an institute work in the government or elsewhere, they need to be provided a combination of theoretical and experiential training to understand and engage with the realities of policymaking and implementation in India.

As the public policy landscape in the country opens itself to external talent, the time is ripe to take stock, evaluate and channelize the nascent interest in policy and governance among professionals into viable career tracks. India would eventually gain much from such an exercise.

Parth J. Shah and Gaurav Goel are, respectively, director of Indian School of Public Policy and founder & CEO of Samagra

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