Nudge top talent to change systems in India


“Through this year, as India bravely fought the global pandemic, it charted its own unique trajectory—showing remarkable resilience, be it fighting the virus or ensuring economic recovery. This resilience is driven by the strength of our systems that enforced the graded public health measures, ramped up the health response, ensured free food grains to 80 crore people and gave momentum to the economic recovery,” says the Economic Survey 2021 released on 29 January.

The need for collaboration: In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, the Government of India announced a variety of measures to provide food security, direct cash transfers, extra funds for healthcare and relief for the states. The Prime Minister announced an overall economic stimulus package worth 30 trillion, 15% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP), with emphasis to make India Atmanirbhar—a self-reliant nation. The National Education Policy 2020, aimed at building foundational skills among children and youth, was rolled out to boost the human capital potential of the country. The Union budget in Feb 2021 further affirmed the commitment to equitable growth, at the same time acknowledging that while India has succeeded in addressing the “bare necessities” or basic needs of a large section of the population, a gap exists between the urban and rural, and among different income groups. This gap, according to the economic survey, could be addressed through the welfare schemes for supply of potable drinking water, to improve sanitation facilities and build toilets; affordable housing programmes for the poor, affordable and portable healthcare etc—with a design of appropriate strategy to enable India to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

It is a unique period in our history when governments across the country are collaborating deeply with private partners towards these ambitious goals. With so much to do and so little time, several models of engagement have emerged for professionals in different sectors to work on problems of national importance by working with and within the public systems.

Partnership in thought and action: Policymaking is an iterative process that requires multiple rounds of consultations and co-creation with external partners who have stake, motivation and capability to contribute to long range goals. Think tanks have played a critical role in this area, enabling policy to be advised by research and evidence. For instance, Vidhi legal, an independent think-tank has helped to make better laws and improve governance for the public good through high quality, peer reviewed original legal research, engaging with the Government of India, State governments and other public institutions to both inform policymaking and to effectively convert policy into law. Institutions like Ekstep and eGov Foundation have combined the power of policy, technology and ecosystem to extend the reach of public services to every citizen – taking on the mandate of execution, beyond design and thought partnership.

Across education, healthcare, sanitation and several other sectors, India has benefited from institutions of public good, working in tandem with government machinery to deliver outsized impact.

Lateral talent into public administration: In 2019, the government selected nine professionals from the private sector, driving a major shift in the entry of professionals in shaping public systems. Inducted into the administration at a joint-secretary level, these lateral entrants were examples of high achievers finding a meaningful way to contribute their skills and capabilities towards public good.

While the lateral talent experiment awaits acceptance as a proven methodology, it has its merits, most notably its potential to combine subject matter expertise and the growth mindset cultivated in the corporate sector with the existing strengths of civil servant cadres to manage government programs of population scale.

Fellows on special duty: While lateral entry into government offered a permanent role within the government, at par with traditional civil service cadres, fellowships have offered a time-bound opportunity for talent from the private sector to learn from, and contribute to, the government sector. The Indian Administrative Fellowship by The/Nudge Foundation is an effort to place senior leaders and high achievers in collaboration with visionary civil servants to work jointly to co-create and implement initiatives that leapfrog progress on sustainable development goals. With oversight from state planning departments, the program will blend the best executive leadership and professional rigour of fellows with the experience and wisdom of functional department heads to deliver outsized value efficiently and at scale. The first cohort of the fellowship will work closely with principal secretaries in the Karnataka government on 11 projects of statewide importance.

Conclusion: The combined objectives of economic recovery and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals require the coming together of several forces—government, industry and civil society to not merely regain a pre-pandemic position of “normal”—but to script a better future that makes development work for every Indian, and unlocks the human potential of this young, vibrant, growing country. With a rapidly evolving ecosystem to nurture individuals’ participation in shaping policy, the time is right for socially conscious professionals to rise in the hierarchy of aspirations, and take on larger than life goals.

Sudha Srinivasan is chief executive officer, The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation

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