Public policy in a knowledge society

Imagine you are a citizen racing across newspapers rapid fire. As you flip the pages you run across events like the Vedanta mining case, the Koodankulam nuclear controversy, the debate on poverty and reports about climate change. Each of these can be a life-threatening event and none of them have a life support system of knowledge which allows them to be debated in the open. The basic information comes from the state and the media and many of these are in the grip of powerful interest groups. It is almost as if our society has no research systems of its own. Sadly, NGOs have particular interests and function as short-term entities. There is literally no school of public policy that can function with a degree of autonomy.
Public policy in India has been a twice disadvantaged subject. It is located in management institutes which see public policy as a secondary subject of tertiary importance. For management schools public policy is a polyglot subject, a second chance for economists. No public policy school in India can claim any major study in policy management. What management schools trivialise, think tanks in the control of government marginalise further. Our knowledge commission is too illiterate to ask why there is no school of public policy within one of our Central universities. The university is one of the homes of autonomous ideas and yet stay silent about generating a school of professional talent that has the skills, the vision, the methodologies, the imaginaries to look at governance in a kaleidoscopic and transformative way.
Public policy is an attempt to create public knowledge about governance as a process. Ask yourself a simple set of questions: How is science policy made? Is it an open process or is it a construct of a coalition of scientists who are not subject to public scrutiny? Science often claims to be public knowledge but science policy seems to be captive to private processes which often operate backstage. It is almost as if science shuns democracy, often confusing illiterate claim with literate critique. Science is so intertwined with security and state that any critique of science is seen as anti-national or labelled as anti-secular. Given this cordon sanitaire around science, debate becomes a risky affair, and any opposition is equated with some foreign hand.
Consider the twists and turns of the Anna Hazare affair where its critique of Parliament is merely seen as insulting parliamentarians. The philistine Parliament seems to think civil society needs to be taught a lesson in table manners. The tragedy is that there is no public institution to mediate the debate and argue how a legislative process can be built by a movement. Consider a second example. Time and again India Today and other journals list a bevy of chief ministers in terms of governance rankings. These carry a great deal of weight and yet few seem to ask or even question the validity of these rankings. The public does not know whether these are by legitimation efforts or a serious exercise in public policy. It is time now that we considered ourselves a knowledge society and not just a knowledge economy and build institutions that can understand the making of public policy.
The idea of public policy needs to take the idea of the public seriously. The public has to become a domain in which the future of governance, the making of laws, the dynamics of audit, the philosophy of well-being are debated. To facilitate this, we need academics who can demystify the policy process, showing how a group of experts can become captive to vested interests or prey to their own methods. Public policy cannot be merely about the state and the corporations. It has to be a space for the understanding of the informal economy as an agency for subsistence, imaginations in demystifying knowledge; public policy has to demystify science and show that governance has to speak a variety of dialects that can comprehend a variety of solutions.
We are today a society caught between the arrogance of expertise and the threat of populism. Third party forces like trade unions or NGOs have not built the expertise and the systems of research to analyse policy processes. It is not just paucity of institutional investment I am talking about. I am talking about a failure of imagination. One can think of the budgetary process but can one add new notions of ecological audit, new ideas of well-being, a civil-society approach to the future that turns foreign policy into the civics of everydayness and demands that war and peace be studied as everyday facts? Can we create a right to information system that makes all think tank reports public? Can we syndicate columns which explain major studies of the Planning Commission? We need to desperately bring knowledge under the Essential Services Act and stop treating it as the cultural preserve of technocratic shamans with PhDs.
Public policy has to be an intellectual commons open to access and innovation. Our current flock of institutes are servants of power and not the servants or munshis of public discourse. Democracy desperately needs not just an inclusive society but a vision of inclusive knowledge. Ask yourself why is it that no major university has a centre for science studies. I am not referring to idiot centres for science or centres for policy innovation but open-ended attempts to exemplify knowledge as expertise as it works for corporation, state or coalitions. There is a need for playfulness about power and what better beginning than a public policy institute serving as a commons for civil society.

The writer is a social scientist

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