This is an archived blog post from The Acorn on Medium.
My essay in PAC’s Samuel Paul commemorative volume
The story of the rise of the IT and biotech industries in Bangalore in the 1990s is well-known and well-documented. Yet the decade saw the rise of another knowledge industry in Bangalore that has received relatively little attention. If city is — arguably — the birthplace of modern public policy and knowledge-based civic engagement, Dr Samuel Paul and the Public Affairs Center are, without doubt, among its foremost pioneers.
What is interesting about the development of the public policy space in Bangalore has been the innovation and experimentation in various types of models of engagement with the government.
In the Citizen Report Card initiative, PAC worked independent of the government, collecting and publishing user feedback with the aim of nudging the public authorities to improve. A few years later, the Bangalore Action Task Force (BATF) adopted a public-private partnership model and brought domain knowledge, managerial expertise and financing from industry and civil society to government; specifically in infrastructure development and public service delivery. This was followed by the setting up of new knowledge institutions like Janaagraha that engaged both in both policy research and public engagement, straddling the space from thought leadership to policy advisory to public advocacy. Next came specialist academic institutions such as the Indian Institute of Human Settlements and the Azim Premji University, that invested in creating a supply of skilled human resources required for improving governance. More recently a number of social enterprises have started up, using technology-driven business models to address urban transport, solid waste management, environmental issues and so on. The city is also where Bangalore Political Action Committee (B.PAC), the first of its kind, was set up — to transparently fund candidates who commit to a declared agenda for governance. The experimentation has extended into the domain of electoral politics, with Lok Satta Party and Aam Aadmi Party finding traction — albeit very limited — in city politics.
Of course, these innovations in civil society organisation sit alongside more traditional non-governmental organisations, resident welfare associations and charities many of which are exemplary. All in all, Bangalore in the past three decades has become India’s innovation hub for civil society and social enterprises. Not all these models have scaled, not every organisation has been durable and it is hard to estimate where they have been emulated in the rest of the country. Even so, it is nothing short of remarkable that the multi-disciplinary, multi-generational talent that the city attracts and nurtures, finds itself attracted to social causes, despite the high opportunity costs. When a retired IIM professor moved to Bangalore after a stint at the World Bank, it is unlikely that he expected things to take off the way they did.
What have been the common factors in all these initiatives? The first thing that struck me was that in general, Bangalore-born civil society groups tend to work with the government — mostly with the civil service but also with elected representatives — to strengthen the state’s capacity. This is rather different from the stereotypical NGO that is ideologically driven and works against the government, whether through street protests or through recourse to the judicial system. Each have their role, but in my opinion more organisations of the Bangalore model are necessary across India, because of the acute capacity deficits that our governments have (and will continue to have).
Second, by and large, the Bangalore public policy eco-system prefers to remain non-partisan, and to a large extent non-ideological too. Non-partisanship allows a degree of continuity and engagement in a federal setup where the Union and State governments are run by different political parties, and also where fractured mandates create frequent changes in the chief ministership. That said, to the extent that it leads to a lack of ownership among the political leadership, policy recommendations might end up unimplemented. Similarly, the absence of a strong ideological bent allows civil society & social enterprises to work with the government of the day, whichever the political party that forms it. Again, to the extent that solutions are seen as technocratic, they can be dismissed as being elitist and disconnected with socio-political realities.
Third, most civil society initiatives are driven by professionals who might not have previous domain expertise in the field.Dr Paul — a business school professor who engaged in public policy work — exemplifies this. Software industry executives, investment bankers, management consultants, lawyers, engineers and even astrophysicists have been among those who built the intellectual foundations of public policy in the city. Few of these pioneers had an education in public policy, or social sciences, and had to literally learn on the job. It speaks of their intellectual capacity that they could quickly gain expertise in a wide range of areas, for instance, ranging from public finance to infrastructure design. The pioneers would fit Dr Paul’s description of “a thoughtful minority…that is uncomfortable with this state of affairs…They are in search of new approaches and methods to demand greater accountability from the governments and its institutions. Though they realize that it is an uphill task to reform the governance system as a whole, they are willing to experiment with new ideas. Rather than wait for a grand revolution, they would prefer to settle for incremental improvements that could make the lives of ordinary people a little more bearable. Bangalore bears testimony to this fact.”
In the past few years, the city has attracted specialist public policy talent, who have advanced academic qualifications in a variety of social sciences. It is perhaps the talent base — where you can easily assemble a group that consists of economists, engineers & scientists of various kinds, managers, artists and social scientists — that gives the Bangalore social enterprise its competitive advantage.
Most importantly, the new knowledge institutions and social enterprises have been funded by private philanthropists with high levels of integrity, rectitude and professionalism.It would have been impossible for the city to sustain high quality social organisations without the right sources of funding.
A striking shortcoming of the Bangalore model is the overwhelming concentration of resources on urban problems and governance.Perhaps this is because it is impossible to ignore the Bangalore reality where city governance and public services are massively behind its economy and its society. This leads almost every public-minded individual to decide to “fix” the city’s problems — whether it is traffic, corruption or solid waste management. This might be good in terms of there being a wide range of experiments and possible solutions, but it also leads to initiatives being spread too thin, being too uncoordinated and sometimes working at cross purposes.
Furthermore, the focus on urban governance means that there are fewer people to work on larger national and international issues.As Dr Paul writes in his autobiography, “what we had accomplished (at PAC) was a mere drop in the ocean, considering the complexity and vastness of the country and its problems.“ Bangalore is not a provincial town, but one of India’s global cities, with deep connections to the world economy. I think it is necessary for a fraction of the city’s immense talent to be invested in addressing India’s policy challenges, offering a different perspective in the broader policy discourse. For there is a state, a country and the world outside the city.
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