A career in public policy

A career in  public policy

Understanding complex public problems and designing effective solutions for them are challenging tasks. However, there is no single social-science or management subject which addresses this. A public problem may be something as basic as garbage crisis in the neighbourhood, potholes on the roads or the dominance of money power in elections.

But finding solutions to problems like these  is neither simple nor straightforward as experience shows us. A number of subjects like political science and public administration do deal with public affairs in general but their central focus is not solving these public problems or analysing how public institutions go about solving such problems. It is this gap which Public Policy as a subject of inquiry seeks to fill.

Although it is relatively new in India, public policy courses are now becoming popular. Earlier, only mid-career civil servants used to enroll in public policy courses. Now, fresh graduates and professionals from a variety of backgrounds seek a master’s in public policy.

Solutions to public problems are no longer worked out only in the power corridors of Delhi and state capitals or only in offices of Panchayats and Municipalities. Governments are increasingly seeking professional assistance from consultancy firms, non-governmental organisations and individual experts. Private and voluntary sector agencies often supplement the government in several tasks in public affairs as well. These developments have created the need for trained public policy experts who could navigate the complex terrain of public institutions and policies. As a senior civil servant with the Government of India put it in a recent consultation on public policy education, “the government is recruiting a large number of professionals outside the civil service these days and these opportunities are only going to increase.”

Governance experts

However, it is not just the executive branch of the government which is looking out for public policy professionals. Challenging opportunities beckon them in politics. Just as civil service is not for civil servants, politics is not just for politicians. The ways in which politics is practiced and elections are fought are changing fundamentally. Both fighting elections and staying in power requires the assistance of professionals. Political consultancy is an emerging business in India. Political parties and even individual politicians seek professional assistance in policy matters as part of their larger strategy to build a brand image among the electorate.

Branding strategies in politics needs policy and governance experts, not just MBAs and marketing gurus. In addition, a large number of welfare functions where the state used to be the sole player once are now being performed by a new class of investors called social entrepreneurs. From creating gainful employment for skilled and semi-skilled workers to providing the poor with affordable housing, a large number of privately-funded innovations are dotting the social sector today. According to media reports as of 2015 more than 100 companies have invested a total of $ 1.6 billion in 220 for-profit social enterprise ventures in India.

New programmes

A good public policy programme today therefore combines quantitative skill building courses such as policy analysis, programme evaluation and the like with courses on politics and political economy, governance and institutional analysis, public administration and ethics and anthropology to gain insights into the lived experience of people with the state on the ground. The World Development Report 2015 draws on findings from even disciplines such as neurosciences, cognitive sciences, psychology and behavioral economics to argue that public policy should be integrated with insights from behavioural sciences to understand what kind of policies work, what do not and why.

A post-graduate degree in public policy thus provides students with a well-balanced and in-depth synthesis of social science, humanities, management, research methods and quantitative skills. With such a holistic approach to the curriculum, public policy graduates will also be better suited to handle jobs which are generally available to social science graduates such as those in sectors like the media, government and non-governmental organisations. In India, public policy courses were offered mainly by the Indian Institutes of Management. Prominent institutions offering public policy include TERI University, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Azim Premji University, National Law School of India University and Jindal School of Public Policy. Master’s programmes in Public Policy are generally open to graduates from all disciplines.

(the author is a faculty member, Azim Premji University)

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