On the Takshashila journey and the emergence of public policy as a rewarding career in India
Manisha Kadagathur invited me on her podcast to discuss careers in public policy.
This is a static outline of the conversation. You should listen to the podcast. It’s more interesting.
How did you find yourself in public policy — first in Singapore and now in India?
A lot of people who want to change the world think of starting NGOs and activist groups. But having worked in the Singapore government I realised that the State is best placed to do it - it has the authority, legitimacy, resources and the mandate to change society. Yet very few “normal” people consider this avenue.
There are three broad ways to get the state to change: get into government, either in politics or the civil service; work in public policy; or engage the government as an active citizen.
In 2010, there were very few institutions working on public policy in India. We had a lot of NGOs, activists and political parties — but very few institutions bringing new talent and new ideas into the governance space.
As a pioneer, Takshashila is happy to have triggered an interest in think tanks and schools of public policy…we are seeing more of them come up in recent years; we need many more; each state in India needs a few good ones.
What is the mandate of the Takshashila Institution and how does it operate?
Takshashila creates change by connecting good people to good ideas to good networks.
Takshashila’s public policy courses are all online and designed for busy working adults.
Our policy school works with talented individuals — from the private sector, but also from government, defence, health and so on, and equips them with knowledge and skills to analyse and formulate better public policies; and we connects them to resources that can make the difference.
So we have three faces: a school of public policy; a think tank and a policy media organisation.
Please elaborate on how you engage with various stakeholders — government, think tanks, intellectuals, donors, civic society?
As an independent think tank we think change comes when the elites of society develop broad consensus on the best way forward — to a lot of our work is directed at informing and educating the elite.
We work with politicians and governments in contributing ideas on what we think is important, but also on solutions to problems that they want help on. For instance we submit an annual report on China policy to Parliament; our scholars have appeared before parliamentary committees; have given inputs to public consultations and sit on a few panels.
Yet the primary form of engagement is to contribute to the public discourse — to put ideas out in public and encourage debate on them.
Democracy is only as good as its public discourse.
What are the challenges you face in India? How does this compare with other Asian countries?
As an organisation, “doing business” is certainly harder in India than in Singapore.
But that is more than compensated by the talent base; here in Bangalore among my colleagues is a person who designed semiconductor chips, a PhD in cell biology, a person who ran a bar in the UK, a person who has run a business in China, a person who aspired for a career in Bollywood, a retired spymaster people from humanities, social work and IT background and a man who was in the inner loop on India’s nuclear weapons.
Bangalore has always enjoyed the reputation of being civic minded with active participation from citizens. Is this true of other cities? What dynamics are at play?
The Bangalore Model of Civic Engagement is unique. In four ways:
First, in general, Bangalore-born civil society groups tend to work with the government
Second, the Bangalore public policy eco-system prefers to remain non-partisan, and to a large extent non-ideological too.
Third, most civil society initiatives are driven by professionals who might not have education/previous domain expertise in the field
Fourth, the new knowledge institutions and social enterprises have been funded by private philanthropists with high levels of integrity, rectitude and professionalism.
How do you measure success in your work as a think tank?
This is the hardest question: we can measure outputs but outcomes are hard. Success has many fathers, and as a think tank we think it is important for the decision-makers, political or bureaucratic, to take the credit as it they who are taking the risk and the public accountability.
I think the surest sign that we are offering value to society lies in the fact that Takshashila is being emulated, and a number of think tanks and schools of public policy are emerging at traditional universities and colleges.
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