A framework to think through a decision on a career in Public Policy

Some people have asked me for my thoughts on a career in public policy. I am synthesizing these in the post below.
The essence of my suggestion is that
the decision on a career in public policy should be based on 3 factors — nature of the person, nature of the problem that the person is interested in, and the available path.
In the following post, I first describe what I mean by each of those 3 factors mentioned above and I put the various combinations arising from these 3 factors in form of a matrix at the end of the post. If you directly want to jump to the matrix, please feel free to do so.

I. Nature of the person

The “nature” of a person has wide connotations but in our present context, we can categorize people into three broad categories. These categories are illustrative and there can be overlaps between them.
  1. Problem Solvers: These people are obsessed with the policy problem. They would go to any extent to solve the problem. If they need to do a massive protest, they would do it. If they need to enter politics, they would do it. If they need to sit and research for years, they would do it. In essence, they are path agnostic. They will figure out their path. They don’t need advice! Such people are analogous to entrepreneurs in business.
  2. Career-ists: Some people are interested in policy sector but they don’t want to take risks. They would like to pursue it more as a career, with stability. Such people are categorised in “career-ists” group. Such people are akin to MBAs, who want to be in the private sector but don’t want to take the risk of becoming an entrepreneur. They get an MBA, enter the corporate world and climb the ladder.
  3. Satisfaction-seekers: Such people are seeking satisfaction, something beyond the materialistic pleasures of life. Often, they want immediate tangible outcomes. For instance, the joy of donating money to a poor person.
Just to be clear, there’s no judgment involved in categorizing people. It’s just a description of people’s nature as it is.

II. Nature of the problem

Often, people don’t think through the nature of the problem they are interested in. Not all problems yield to the same approach. There can be a difference of opinion on the nature of the problem; a particular problem can be complex and have multiple dimensions (natures) but it is necessary to at least think along these lines.
For instance, “patriarchy” is a social issue. It needs social reform. You can’t do that effectively by becoming a bureaucrat. It needs a different approach. So, the tools and approach are important.
The policy problems can be categorized as follows
  1. Ideology and social issues: Issues like caste oppression, patriarchy, and lack of scientific temper come under this category. Addressing these issues require changing mindsets of people at large.
  2. Issue of lack of law: This category of problems includes those where a single law or rule or regulation of government can have a significant impact. For instance, if you identify that a particular tool (RTI in this case), is a significant step in improving transparency, then you are dealing with an issue under this category.
  3. Implementation of policy: Implementation is part of every policy, but in the case of some problems, most of what needs to be done is known but implementation is the binding constraint. For instance, problems like health and education.
  4. Lack of research or understanding of the problem: There are issues where there is lack of understanding of the problem and hence it needs further research. Research is part of every policy problem but there can be issues where we don’t know enough to even take first steps.

III. Available Paths

Once you have explored your nature and the nature of the problem, you need to think of the best possible pathways to achieve your goal. I am listing some paths in policy sector -
  1. Politics: It is a high risk, high return path. One needs to work for several decades to reach a position from where one can significantly influence policy change. In Indian scenario, often, even becoming a legislator isn’t enough. One needs to be either a minister or a Chief Minster or Prime Minister. But if you can do that, you can bring disproportionate change. This is equivalent to becoming a successful entrepreneur. But, be careful — in the pretext of career advancement in politics, if you end up being part of the negative aspects that politics is known for OR become part of the creed that create justifications for the negative aspects of politics, you are not only squandering your time and energy, you are having a net negative effect on the system.
  2. Non-electoral politics: This is a new development in policy space where people don’t necessarily contest elections but assist a particular political party in the election process. If the party happens to win elections, you can work as a research assistant to the minister (Officer on Special Duty) helping the minister to design and strategize policy. This can be pursued if the person has strong political inclinations.
  3. Bureaucracy: Apart from addressing implementation centered problems, bureaucracy is also suitable to those who are not interested in any particular problem and want to do generic public service, whatever it may be. If a generic public service is the aim, in a long career of 30+ years, one might get at least a few years to do something significant. The further advantage of bureaucracy is that the problems are given to you, unlike a private individual who has to think of the problem of the address and create something from nothing. Selection procedure is the risk here. The procedure is time taking and highly uncertain. The same advice regarding politics — becoming part of the negative aspects of bureaucracy leads to net negative impact — is applicable here too.
  4. Academic researcher: The advantage is that one can change the direction of thinking of societies and governments, over a period of time. But such change isn’t tangible in short term. Here again, if you are an average researcher, publishing papers of only incremental value, you wouldn’t be of much value add. But, if you can create paradigm shifts, it will have massive effects on humankind. Also, if your aim is to have intellectual stimulation, then it’s the only path for you.
  5. Activist: It is the only available path in the case of certain problems. If you want to get an RTI act or NREGA act passed, there’s no other way than becoming an activist.
  6. NGOs: NGOs address a problem comprehensively. It gives a tangible outcome and hence a sense of closure and mental satisfaction. But all of this is at a small scale. If immediate tangible mental satisfaction is the only thing you are looking for, NGO is the way forward.
  7. Think-Tank or consultancy: Can influence or assist governments in making and implementing a policy. Starting the organization is a risk but one can have a stable career if one wants to work as an employee. I would add working for organizations like World Bank, IMF etc. into this category. Completing a Masters in Public Policy can help people pursue this path. Just be mindful of the costs of the foreign MPP courses and think through thoroughly on its utility, because, if you are passionate enough and have enough expertise, many organisations in India can hire you even without a costly foreign MPP degree. If you want to settle abroad or work on global problems across multiple countries, then that’s a different issue.
I am not adding the financial viability of each of the above paths because that is more contextual and dependent on the person. If you still want a general sense you can group the above into two categories — Politics, Activist, NGO — and Bureaucrat, Academia, Consultancy. The former has huge financial constraints, while the latter is better off.
Once you have thought through deeply about the nature of the person (you), nature of the problem you are interested in, and the suitable path, you can put these three together inform of a matrix.
I have made a template below, suggesting general pathways for each given combination of the nature of a person and nature of the policy problem. Read this carefully.

As you can observe from the above table, problem solvers have access to problems of all kinds, while satisfaction-seekers work in a narrow domain. Careerists also have access to all problems but the impact will be in incremental terms unlike the problem solvers.
One can make a decision based on the different trade-offs. The next step is searching the organizations that suit your interests. Hope that won’t an issue.
Please let me know what you think of the above.
If you liked this post, you might also want to read my another post on a related topic — “Reading list for beginners in public policy

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