Imbuing the Public Service with Entrepreneurialism

Cross-posted from The Subaltern Studies (An interdisciplinary studies in media and communications). Pardon me if it sounds a little off-topic. I was just keen to explore the commercial realm of public policy, civil administration, professional advocacy and political lobbying in India.

A recent spat between the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) couldn’t have happened at a better time (Ref 1). Leaving aside the usual fact that the event was grossly underreported, I think it aptly highlights a peculiar systemic anomaly in the underlying structure of our Public Service. Possessing decent-enough knowledge so as to play the part of a concerned citizen, I feel that the realm and scope of public policy and administration in India suffers from a great schism which makes it very unmeritocratic. Nonetheless, with all the rapid development, burgeoning economy, rising and vocal bourgeoisie, more accountability, savvy politicians and independent media, there’s great commercial potential for public policy, civil administration, professional advocacy and political lobbying in India.

Unlike the US, which provides enough freedom and scope to their citizens to pursue public service as a career at any stage of their lives, irrespective of their professional background, the public services in India are under the total hegemony of babus who are completely cut-off from the ever-changing aspirations and priorities of the nation, adhere to a monstrosity of outdated bureaucratic protocols decayed by redtapism, and are forcibly desensitized from possessing any partisaned ideology. While the former system may lead to blatant favoritism and (what Jon Stewart has termed as) ‘partisan hackery’, the lndian counterpart hasn’t proved any better. With the constant shuffling and transfers, the babus fail to acquire the depth and specialized expertise required to take-on one problem at a time and fix it – due exception to a couple of areas like economy and finance. Moreover, entering the Indian Civil Service is a one-time decision in the life of a public servant. If you feel like giving your dues to the nation once you have acquired success or fulfilled your liabilities, without venturing into the dirty game of electoral politics, then the best thing you can do is watch patriotic movies or argue your ass off in ‘The Big Fight’. Moreover, it is difficult to make predictions on the future potential of a person and his ability to understand the problems of a nation fifteen years down the line, with a slew of competitive exams taken in his 20s, which are solely aimed to test his theoretical knowledge. I know many people with an intense nationalistic fervor who have an instinctive aversion to herd-like competition but have great empathy for people and highly developed social skills.

Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly...

“Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly…”

Having a great deal of interest in American neoconservatism, I have realized an amazing synergy between academic institutions, think tanks, media, political parties and public service institutions in this realm. Not only does the academic and research backing helps the political parties in closely following the pulse of the nation, but this partnership also yields fresh talent with cutting-edge ideas ready to be inducted in various public service institutions solely based on merit. And what’s so blasphemous about public servants having a political ideology? I think passionate idealism can give that much-required emotional impetus for just and righteous actions. I find it funny that we cry out loud every time an IAS officer is accused of being partial to a party or a leader. I mean, isn’t this like the unwritten rule; don’t we see a major administrative shuffle after every regime change? Then why not make it acceptable with certain rigid impositions so that they don’t cross the line. Reminds me what the professor of political science at Columbia University, Dr. Philip Oldenburg had to say (roughly) – India is a nation of mind-bogglingly diverse (and perverse) political ideologies, whose politicians can go to any lengths and are very enterprising as compared to their American counterparts.

Let’s focus on what’s needed to be done. America houses the finest academic programs for public policy and political science, concentrating a lot on practical exposure and active involvement in public-political domains. These institutions have frequently shaped and changed the direction of national debates and public priorities. Colleges like the Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, Columbia, Georgetown, Tufts, MIT, Syracuse, Chicago, Michigan and Duke have produced some of the finest bureaucrats in the world. Compared to that, India is still lying in the cradle and playing with saliva bubbles. Only recently, IIM-B and IIM-A have realized the scope of public policy in India and have started postgraduate courses strictly limited to mid-career public servants and social workers (Ref 2, Ref 3). What about the rest of us? Institutions like ICFAI, MDI and TERI have also taken some initiatives; however, my interaction with the ex-students reveals that they have some crippling problems to overcome and also lack the extremely important political backing.

Coming down to the career scope, I think the possibilities are unlimited. Till now, the only places where public policy experts could get a job were academic institutions, NGOs or think tanks like the Centre for Policy Research (CPR). Your contribution towards nation building was limited to some obscure conferences, dull policy briefs which are rarely read, cautiously-provocative newspaper columns, TV interviews, and being a slavish member of governmental commissions and inquiries. Something like what Dr. Brahma Chellaney does, though he’s exceptionally daring and free-minded at that. With a gradual influx of young and savvy politicians, I think political campaigning in India will get very professional (witness some progress at democracyconnect.org). The populist media of India lauds itself for being innocently non-partisaned — load of bullshit. They still don’t have the candor and tenacity to be independent and impartial. Look at incidents like the ‘cash for votes’ scam where CNN-IBN pushed the envelope of mendacity by refusing to telecast the tapes. Or how the NDTV constantly flaunts its CPI backing. It’s high time that we move over from programs with a misdirected nationalistic fervor, like ‘We The People’ where Alyque Padamsee or Suhel Seth seem to have the ability to solve every problem of our country. Instead of cribbing about journalistic integrity all the time, we need to take a completely opposite approach. We need partisaned media outlets which have the freedom to pitch their political ideologies with respect. We need our very own, desi Rush Limbaughs. This will create a competitive but level playing field. The inability of the Indian government to regulate the Internet as of now, should be exploited to the fullest to create new portals and independent think tanks that can have great commercial viability too (desi Drudge Report, AEI, Brookings, Cato etc).

While visiting an online political forum to gather perspectives on the ‘cash for votes’ scandal, I was amazed at the sense of obviousness with which some American members reacted to the incident. Upon expressing my surprise, they shrugged how these are just the minor teething problems of a young democracy. American political parties, with almost three centuries of experience to their credit, have legalized the system of ‘donation for favors’ by setting up a complex and an almost untraceable network of lobbying groups which tweak the system. India needs to learn from that and clean up their act, they said. Minus all the ills, I think this is bound to happen sooner or later, which means all those vacant seats of highly paid policy gurus and campaign managers are up for the taking. Lastly, the powerful Indian middle-class will be very receptive about the electoral candidates with such professional experience and depth in public administration.  Go, build a nation!

4 Responses to “Imbuing the Public Service with Entrepreneurialism”

  1. Also wouldn’t the word entrepreneurship make more sense? the -ialism makes it fiendishly difficult to pronounce.

  2. In my experience the set of people that vote, or even impact those who vote, are almost completely distinct from those that have access to the Internet. Ask how many of the people here voted last, or have registered to vote in the next elections.

    But yes, something niche set up now could perhaps scale to it in say 10-20 years.

  3. Manohar,

    By entrepreneurialism, I mean making the public policy discourse, research and administration more professional and competitive. However, it is not necessary that I am putting forth a capitalistic idea, though there’s a good chance of accomplishing that too.

    Thanks,
    Pukhraj

  4. R Manohar says:

    pukhraj
    what do you mean by Entrepreneurialism here in your writeup?

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