Dr. Abraham Biju Paul is Professor of Public Policy and Management at IIM Calcutta. Apart from it, he consults in the area of public systems, primarily in strategic reviews of organizations and reviews of program implementation. He been part of a research project on analyzing systems and processes in the area of public health in West Bengal and also reviews of government programmes such as MNREGA.
Question: How do you define public policy for a country like India, which has diverse populations coming from different academic and educational backgrounds?
Answer: Normally, when we look at public policy in a developing country context we are essentially looking at government initiatives and programs which are designed to achieve a common objective. For example, when we look at the fact that the country has limited resources, and there are quite a large number of needs in terms of public spending investment, the government essentially needs to allocate resources in such a manner that it is effectively utilized. There are some aspects of policy where ensuring efficiency in terms of national programs and activity is critical. If we look at health policy, for example, there are different ways in which you can decide to spend on health care. One is to look at health policy as something that looks at curative care. If people fall ill, then you set up an infrastructure to treat them and cure. The other is to put emphasis on public health and prevention. Both are important, the question is which do you prioritize. In a country like India where both infectious diseases which are typical of developing countries, and lifestyle-related diseases which are typical of developed countries are present this is a difficult choice.
So essentially, public policy would be successful if they are implemented properly for a common welfare keeping in view the circumstances of the condition of society at any point in time.
Question: How is public policy formulated in a country like India?
Answer: There are two ways in which policy is formulated in India. One is that Government becomes aware of emerging problems based on data and information available from various sources. This calls for the formulation of programmes that can address emerging concerns Second, the problems are flagged from the field by peoples’ representatives or civil society. This forces the government to respond and frame policy Basically, a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach are both evident in policy formulation. In certain areas such as economic policy lobbying by special interest groups also play a role in policy formulation.
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Question: Who ensures and introspects implementation of public policy? The common man is not often the largest beneficiary of such policy?
Answer: When it comes to policy implementation there are two aspects to be considered. You need to formulate an implementation strategy, constantly review problems in implementation and make changes wherever needed. The government would typically either commission a study or do studies in coalition with NGOs. Recommendations coming out of such studies can then be considered to improve implementation. In many cases, there are international best practices which are available and could be followed with suitable modifications to suit local conditions.
If you look at the Information Technology Act for example that is heavily model on the UN model IT Act. There are policies which countries tweak it to match their own requirement. But in all cases, it’s a very dynamic process. When such processes of implementation and review fails, intended beneficiaries do not see desired results
Regarding your second point, that a lot of people are not benefiting from it, yes that’s true but this really relates to a point that I’ve made earlier about the power of lobbying and special interest groups. They are different influencers in policymaking. It is not that the government consciously tries to exclude anyone. Very often those who have greater influence or lobbying power are able to garner most of the benefits of implementation.
Question: Lobbying is for the rich. Poor don’t have money for lobbying and how do we form a balanced policy mechanism?
Answer: By increasing knowledge and awareness. We need a mechanism to inform people so that they understand what objectives of the policy are and what the expected outcomes are. The government often tries to consult civil society groups which can represent marginalized sections of the society. They also play a vital role in helping those do not have much lobbying power.
Question: How do you rate the current Government’s policymaking, implementation, and performance?
Answer: The government has been placing a lot of emphasis in terms of targeting subsidies. That is a very good thing. Through digitalization, finally, the government has managed to ensure delivery of many subsidies to intended beneficiaries and prevent those who don’t need subsidies from getting it. The use of Aadhaar in the public distribution system is a prime example. However, there are privacy concerns as well and this is a key factor that needs to be addressed.
Question: How is public policymaking advanced countries and regions like the US or Europe different from that of India and how do they ensure better policy making and implementation?
Answer: Data availability, data collection, and data analysis are better in advanced countries. Data helps policymakers to form better policy. In India, the problem has been both lack of data and access to data. It is often difficult to get data at the same level of detail for the entire country and there have been some concerns with regards to quality of data. The second difference is knowledge of rights among citizens. This is much better in developed countries and helps in developing policies that are responsive to needs.