Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On the other side of reason!

I could not but resist my temptation to respond to Ms. Arundhati Roy's article: 

The link is attached to an extensive article filled with factual inaccuracies and comparisons between unrelated numbers.  


A formula done to death. Introduce the reader to the imagery of rich capitalists and their overflowing assets, and then contrast it with slum dwellers and debt ridden farmers and expect the self proclaimed altruistic and well meaning readers to find a causality in the two images as if to suggest, the rich capitalist stole it from the debt ridden farmers or the poor adivasis. 

The problems with such uninformed passionate writing, are the assumptions and factual inaccuracies that stem from a complete reliance on literary skills and creative imaginations that postulate solely for the purposes of jaundiced argument and explanation.

In reality there is hardly any causality between a rich capitalist and a debt ridden farmer, it would have been so if total wealth and everything of monetary value been finite. In India, the factors that explain a debt ridden farmer and burgeoning migration to the urban slums, are caused by the lack of formal market or capitalistic penetration and not by the abundance of it. 

The poor farmer is debt ridden not because the rich capitalist like in feudal setups have usurped all of their wealth but because the feudal informal market with lack of symmetric information devalues the farmers produce inefficiently from what is the going market rate and at the same time extends informal credit at rates beyond conventional banking conventions. As a matter of fact any true capitalist worth its salt benefits from citizenry with purchasing power as opposed to those without. 

The poor farmer is therefore never subjected to capitalist trickery as is argued by the author but in an informal cycle of inefficient wealth aggregation mechanism by feudal and informal forces. A very similar kind of argument is what vetoed the decision to liberalize retail, a sector that is responsible for the largest stream of inefficiency, wastage, leakages and exploitation of the farming community. 

Arundhati Roy's argument that Nilekani's technocratic obsession is misplaced as she rather sarcastically comments, "as though lack of information is what is causing world hunger", exemplifies the extent of her ignorance along with other such well meaning self proclaimed intellectuals in matters of economics, poverty and the very subject on which she writes. Lack of information is certainly what causes world hunger and however sweeping and absolute it may sound, lack of critical information skews market forces, gives rise to inefficiency and promotes leakages in welfare spending. And encourages incorrect diagnosis of some of the most debated and pressing challenges of civilized humanity, as validated by the majority of Roy's rants on everything she knows very little about. 

While some fiction fanatics might go gaga over such a creative rant, I cannot but dwell in the inaccuracies of her arguments, ignorance of facts and hypocrisy of conclusions. 

Among the many comments to her article I could not but ponder over one , "Self-proclaimed intellectuals like Arundhati operate as double parasites: they feed on the blood of the rich and live on the sores of the poor." Need I say more? 

Friday, September 2, 2011

A heartfelt response to someone who thought being different is fashionable!

This is my response to what one cynic had to say against Anna and his team and most importantly the movement against corruption that has been in the limelight for the past few weeks. Before reading my response scroll down and read the main piece to which I had to respond.

Before I begin, I appreciate in no uncertain terms a debate of this kind, and the perspectives and paradigms of governance that has been discussed. I also am somebody who has not managed to participate as often as I would have ideally liked, partly because I have been mostly enthralled by these debates as a reader. This issue and the arguments presented by a certain section against the movement against corruption which incidentally also happens to be incidentally led by Anna and his team has provoked me to articulate my reaction to people who have a problem with such a representation.

I would also attempt to keep my arguments topical and acknowledging perhaps the temptation to make personal references to contributors would like to believe I can keep that to a bare minimum, if at all. Needless to say I would expect such reciprocation.

As for my reactions, I feel the argument that a fast by definition is undemocratic and amounts to blackmail is simplistic and devoid of proper reasoning. I do agree that it could be termed as persuasion but I find no problems with persuasion being a part of democracy as long as the issue is justified. Yes I take a Machiavellian stance here, but it must be understood that to a huge extent parliamentary party politics is Machiavellian where persuasion and sometimes even coercion are the most frequently used methods to convince, persuade and/or articulate a perspective. To that extent the legitimacy of the method of persuasion is derived from the extent to which it has popular support which no doubt Anna and his team had(something that really angered his critics who never predicted such footfall).

I have problems with critics stating that Anna is not exactly Gandhi. Yes, he idolizes Gandhi and to whichever extent possible adopts certain means that is Gandhi's contribution to the Indian political landscape and could be a Gandhian in that sense. To say he doesn't do all that Gandhi has done or stood for, is a redundant argument. Why should he? He is different,born at a different time and faced with systemically and structurally different challenges. And if we have to judge the extent to which he is credible and/or successful, we need to judge that on the basis of the ends he stands for or is crusading against.

To the second part of the argument of this write up that is as misplaced as the first, I don't understand how standing against the British Raj was more legitimate and/or credible than standing against your own people for improvement and reforms of structures that promote corruption. Also to add some more sense to my argument, it must be stated that some of the greatest contributions to the extent of the corruption that we see today has been the systems of governance and administration that the infamous white sahibs created to serve their colonial interests, and at the same time having very different accountability systems back home. In the Indian political and administrative circles nothing much has changed after Independence and we still hugely rely on the same systems which encourage corruption albeit controlled by the brown sahibs.

Contrary to one of the previous contributions on this issue, I along with several others believe Anna's fight against corruption was never aimed at breaking into existing structures of governance and institutions, rather it was to improve them by making them more accountable to people who they derive their legitimacy from.

To say, the Government passed the RTI bill is like saying in retrospect (may be as soon as the bill would be finally passed) that the Jan Lokpal bill is also passed by the Government. Nobody else is supposed to pass the Bill and Anna and his team do not expect anybody else to do it except the Government. The RTI bill was also a result of attempts by similar movements from the Civil society and it would be extremely unfair to say that it was a result of the ruling Government's vision.

Another misplaced argument that if you speak for creating an Ombudsman or for reforms of accountability and skewing the incentive structure of corruption by making the Government and other administrative wings accountable, you are asking for a new constitution and attacking the "fundamental bases of our state" is as much of an exaggeration as mind could possibly conceive.

I detest the argument, that a change is only desirable if every single person agree with Anna. Democratic politics to the best of my understanding and education of social sciences doesn't presuppose that action is only legitimate when each one of its constituents are in agreement. It is not only impractical but also against the classical definition of democracy. By every means differing views are welcome, but for democracy to flourish why is Anna or his team bound to make amendments to their bill based on what the differing views are? If there is a better way why not campaign for it? why not garner public support? and rather than convince Anna and his team who derive their legitimacy from people who support him, do groups who believe they have a better bill persuade the people to see reason. But to escape that and compel Anna and his team to change their views is as undemocratic as the allegations made against them.

To the other most frequently used argument about the lack of debate taking the legitimacy out of the Jan Lokpal Bill I feel, debate in Indian polity has forever been used to justify reluctance to change, improve and reform. We have been doing so from 1963 when the word 'Lokpal' was coined in 1963 during a debate in parliament about grievance redressal mechanisms. The bill was first introduced in the parliament in 1968 and passed in the Lok Sabha in 1969, but debates and deliberation saw the Lok Sabha getting dissolved and the bill lapsing.

Subsequent versions have been introduced right till 2008 with none of them passed. The bill was intensely debated all through but it lacked political will. It is difficult to find reasons as to why without provocation and persuasion, politicians would want to pass a bill that holds them accountable especially when a bill has real teeth(reference made to Jan Lokpal Bill as opposed to the Government's version. History rationalizes this point.

Whether Anna is always right or sometimes wrong is not even the question. Even if Anna is mostly wrong but only right in as much as rightly advocating the reforms he is, and also willing to fast for it, I see no problem in following him even if I am of the opinion that alcohol and smoking is good and sex is as much about other things as it is about procreation.

Before I conclude, it is important to remember that democracy of any form-parliamentary or otherwise was propounded as a result of the concept of social contract which underlines a valid contract between people and their representatives. And in legal terms, for a contract to be valid, there needs to be a valid consideration. And in this context the consideration is governance with minimal corruption (since zero corruption is Utopian) To that extent, every action of the people is legitimate when they ensure that functional democracy remains of the people, by the people and for the people instead of becoming of the government, by the Government and for the Government. I see this movement as a crucial wake up call for systems and agents of governance and logically I am with several others who are at peace with the developments of the last few days (may be a tad excited about it) notwithstanding how many tremors it creates.

The original piece which I had to respond to:

For some time I have had a general lack of faith in Anna Hazare and the Jan Lokpal, but this is perhaps the first time I am going to try and put forward a coherent case for why it is that I dislike the methods that he is using, the kind of discourse his team is putting forward, and the way that the media is portraying him as opposed perhaps to the truth of the matter.

Firstly, his methods.

Anna Hazare is a man who is fasting unto death until and unless three things happen: that the Lokpal Bill is removed from the Parliament, that the Jan Lokpal is put in front of the Standing Committee, and that it is then passed speedily without any hindrances or changes.

This threat to fast unto death is only credible if (and only if) he fully intends to die in the case that his demands are not met. So, this nonsense that his doctors will stop him from fasting is very counterproductive, which is why no one believes them.

Why is this important? This is important because this man is holding a gun to his head, and he says that unless we do what he wants, he will pull the trigger. Protesting via this sort of threat is almost always illegitimate purely because of the sort of threat you make. The legitimacy he wants to claim comes from the fact that a) Gandhi did it against the British and b) that the 'country' and 'civil society' are with him.

I have problems with both things.

Firstly, that when Gandhi fasted, whether unto death or for only seven days or what-have-you, he did it against an imperial power, against which he had absolutely no method of redress and when he was heard, he stopped fasting. Gandhi also never fasted for a singularly specific demand in the manner that Anna is today, in the manner that KCR did a couple of years ago, in the manner that seems to be catching on among politicians. He did so as a method of atonement, to try and bridge the divide between communities, to appeal to huge blocks of ordinary people. Once he managed that, he stopped. Let me say that again. He stopped.

This government is not an imperial overlord. This government can and has been held accountable. This government in no way or form resembles the sort of sheer oppression that the Raj inflicted on this country for almost 200 years. To fast in this manner is to accuse this government of all of that, and it is not an accusation one makes lightly. Making that accusation means that what you want to do is break down the institutions, and create a completely new one. It is an extreme method of protesting that you undertake when you believe that there is no democracy within the country. It took 150 years of oppressive rule before Gandhi came along and fasted. It has been 64 years since we became independent.

This government passed the RTI bill. It can and has been spoken to and compromised with. To accuse it of being similar to the Raj is, quite frankly, insulting to any person who believes that we are better than the Raj, and I hope that is all of us.

When you protest in this manner, you are attacking the fundamental bases of our state. You are saying that you have no faith whatsoever in it. If that is the case, then you should make it clear that is what you believe. You should make it clear that you believe that every single level of our government is so incurably corrupt that there is absolutely no way of changing it except by putting a gun to Anna's head and saying you will pull the trigger. You should then draft yourself a new constitution, because that's what they did the last time our society viewed its government in such a manner.

Secondly, in a democracy such as ours, one person can never speak for either the country or 'civil society' (whatever those words mean). I am part of civil society, or at least I would like to think so. If that is the case, and for whatever reason I don't agree with him, then clearly there is atleast one person in civil society or the country that he does not speak for.

The reason we give every person within our state a vote is not so that the side with more votes can win, it is so that every person within society has an equal voice: one vote. If there is even one person in all of India who does not agree with Anna's bill, then that one person has the right to stand up and be counted and offer arguments as to why it is not the case that the Jan Lokpal is the best. When this man fasts and accepts no compromise, he is infringing on my ability to have a debate with the rest of society.

A change like this can only happen if it is true that every single person in all of society agrees with Anna, so it is clear that this no-compromise solution is the one everyone wants. But even the members of our parliament are part of our society. We give them a vote. If you will not give Manmohan Singh the chance to be heard as PM, at least give him the chance to be heard as a citizen of this state. At the point at which you refuse to do so, you undermine the fundamental equality that is set up in our constitution.

Secondly, his language.

Team Anna has made it very clear that anyone who is not with them is against them. That if you do not support his bill, you are helping the hold that corruption has on this state. This is an extremely patronising thing to say. Apparently, being anti-corruption and being anti-Anna are mutually exclusive. Why is this the case? I stand here, telling you that I am no fan of either corruption or Anna, and I find no logical contradiction within my position. The mere idea that somehow I need to be on Anna's side or corruption's side and that there is no middle ground whatsoever is one that is painful in its simplicity.

And when you demonise me, or the NCPRI, or anyone who disagrees with your precise view of what the Lokpal bill should be, you are undermining the ability for us to have a debate. When you view me as someone who is supporting corruption merely because I disapprove of Anna's methods, you are less likely to listen to me, and more likely to mischaracterise my arguments. Anything I say is clearly pro-corruption, and thus insane because well, I'm supporting corruption.

If someone wants to offer an alternative version of a bill, let them do so. What is wrong? We are living in a free country, we are allowed to have opinions even if they differ from the majority position, if the NCPRI want to offer a third alternative, surely that is a good thing? More debate is better than less debate, and for something that is so momentous, I hope there's going to be as much debate as possible.

Either Team Anna has to clearly tell me why being anti-Anna is equivalent to being pro-corruption, or they should stop treating the two of them the same. Cutting out a large section of the population in such a manner cannot be good for debate in a democracy, especially when the debate is about an issue that intimately affects every person in our state.

Thirdly, his portrayal.

Anna is being heralded as some mixture of the second coming of Gandhi, Lord Rama given flesh, and the new Avatar of the Indian Republic. This is not a good thing.

It is not a good thing because as I said previously, no one man should be held representative of the country like that. Even Gandhi had his detractors, like Ambedkar and Annie Besant. As much as he was held to be the Father of the Nation, even he had people who said he was wrong, and were vocal and vociferous in their belief.

When you say that this man is always right, you are giving him an authority which he should not have. Like Gandhi, Anna believes that alcohol and smoking are wrong, that sex should only be for procreation, that religion can and should inform every part of your life. In the village of Ralegan Siddhi, where he is widely hailed as a hero and an icon, anyone caught drinking is tied to a pole in front of the temple and flogged. This is accepted by everyone in the village because Anna says so. I don't want to live in a society where everyone agrees with this one man, and this man dictates what I do with my life, what I believe, and how I behave. No one should be deified like this, least of all Anna Hazare.

In conclusion, I just want to say that by agreeing with Anna, you are agreeing with his methods, the ridiculous implications of them, and the consequences of them to the state. You may be at peace with that, but I am not.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Theoretical Debates and Reality

We are all indeed always tempted to look at social reality through the theoretical baggage of hypothetical socio-political literature. Such a temptation generally revolves around pronouncements of world capitalism or socialism which also leads to new coinages like socialistic capitalism especially in the context of Government policies in the US & European Union using stimulus and bailout as economic policy tools to correct the economy.

There is indeed no comprehensive theory that explains what works in all cases and the advent of post-modernism exemplifies how theoretical models only aid in the understanding of disjointed social causality and cannot be generalized in the very strict positivist notion.

One of the greatest advantage of what we call capitalism today has historically been its adaptability and the absence of any rigid theoretical basis. What it relies on is maintenance of contracts that needs to be guaranteed by the legal infrastructure and the basic incentive for progress that is as natural as human instincts themselves. Marx would call this transfomismo or the inherent ability within capitalism to nullify revolution.

Ironically capitalism is again mostly blamed for inequality, the belief being that the rich gets richer at the cost of the poor. This is rooted in the belief that wealth is finite and if the rich takes all of it what could be left for the poor ? The truth cannot be any further from that belief. Failed economies and economies with gigantic informal markets statistically have recorded the greatest deviation in wealth creation possibilities between the rich and the poor, not because the rich benefits from capitalism at the expense of the poor but because missing markets or informal markets allow the rich to disproportionately accumulate wealth which are untaxed and unaccounted for in GDP estimates. Informal employment also indicates the absence of the requisite legal infrastructure and a massive governance failure.

Concentrating on the specific example of India, let us all ask the following questions ?

How and why is Agriculture untaxed-We never hear about the rich in the agricultural sector since formal estimates are impossible ?

Why do we not have formal credit systems in the agricultural heartland ?

Why are formal work contracts absent in the gigantic informal sector of our country ? --The informal labour market is the worst affected, heavily exploited with no access to housing, food or any of the basic living standard estimates of ILO.

The greatest advantage of capitalism is perhaps its informality and most importantly money by definition doesn't discriminate, discrimination- financial or otherwise is a problem of failed or informal markets, skewed political incentive structures and massive governance failures.

Some might still be more interested in debating Capitalism & Socialism but such is democracy. Isn't it ?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The proposition of a Private-Public partnership model in Higher Educational service delivery.

Any commentary on educational policy essentially takes into consideration the various methodological debates that exist within the scope of the attempt to define education at elementary and advanced stages. It is essentially a wide ranging and interesting subject as the very tools and methods that go into researching a certain educational policy are in themselves real reflections of policies on education that have shaped the scope of logic.

Having thus acknowledged these various dimensions, and based on the need to restrict the scope of this article to the proposed changes to India’s Higher Education Policy I would speak about the higher educational policy in the context of an assumed service delivery model without questioning the underlying assumptions of such a model.

In order to fully understand the possible benefits of a Private-Public partnership (PPP) service delivery model in higher education let us explore what exactly is the rationale behind adopting PPP models and the various benefits that can accrue from it.

Initiatives of adopting a PPP model in most sectors seeks to fuse the skills, expertise, and experience from both the public and private sectors towards delivering higher standards of service delivery centered on the respective strategic advantages of both the parties in the initiative. The public sector essentially brings to the table its expertise in governance, responsibility to the electorate, access to funding (subject to other variables) appreciation of local cultural sensitiveness as well as a local workforce, many with long years of service delivery experience.

The contribution from the private sector includes operational efficiencies, innovative technologies, international and sometimes cross cultural managerial experience with access to additional finance and risk sharing. Risk sharing is one of the most important strategic advantages.

The definition of a private-public partnerships especially in the context of education is an important step because all stakeholders have very different perspectives on the problems and of the goals and aspirations of involving the private sector. Thus a consensus needs to be maintained within the following steps;

  1. The different sets of higher educational objectives are kept compatible or if possible aligned.
  2. The objectives of the higher education sector are agreed at the outset
  3. Unattainable objectives for this sector (education) are exposed and future steps are tailored to meet the objectives.

Concerns of private initiatives into educational service delivery have long been there and have been debated and the problems that accrue to the most important stakeholder in this context, that of the student in higher educational ventures of the private sector have been lack of accountability mechanisms.

This has been partially due to either lack of regulation or the presence of archaic regulatory bodies which are themselves mismanaged, and/or caught up in legal red tape-ism.

However, Government initiatives in higher education has not been without its own share of problems, mainly mismanagement, resource shortage and most importantly absence of industry linkages to the private sector.

In this context PPP models or a well regulated Private Sector model makes a lot of policy sense and is undoubtedly of tremendous significance for guaranteeing a certain quality of human resource for the society and the industry. However, attention needs to be on the all important regulatory model, which needs to be free from political processes as well as corporate interests.

This shall also mean that it would not just be the private educational initiatives that would be regulated but also the government sector- central or state government funded universities that should come under the purview of such a regulatory body which guarantees a uniform standard of educational service delivery across private and public sectors or any mutual alliance thereof.

The Comptroller & Auditor General of India in conversation regarding leakages in Welfare Spending.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Intellectual challenge: Concluding on the Applicability of Social research in Public Policy Making.

Any conclusive assertion on the applicability of social research on public policy making would be as unanticipatedly inaccurate as any conclusive explanation of what constitutes credible social research. In line with such an acknowledgement of the limitations of an unequivocal affirmation, I would try and present the myriad perspectives that deal with the question of application of social/ sociological research on the framing and adoption of public policy.

However, before exploring the manifold perspectives on the applicability of social research for public policy formulation, attention needs to be first diverted to the much underrated dimension of the debate surrounding the real motive of undertaking social and sociological research. In this context it is imperative to explore the much debated question of whether resources for sociological research should be diverted towards the pursuit of creating bodies of knowledge or towards policy centric research outputs. The argument exists by virtue of a certain belief that sometimes those that need to be studied might not have policy relevance.

It is problematic therefore to decide the fundamental objective of a social researcher or sociologist, to be able to conclude which is the overriding requirement of initiated social research. This brings us to the crucial question of what constitutes knowledge in the first place. Thus an attempt to explore constituents of the precise definition of knowledge can indeed take us closer to the final objective of clarity of comprehension with regards to the debate on knowledge building research in strict opposition to action oriented policy relevant research.

Contrary to political ideology or religious belief, proof does not appear to be a matter of logic or rationality of an argument alone. It necessitates corroboration by the empirical evidence collected, processed, analyzed and reported to the highest standards. “What qualifies as evidence might vary between styles of research but the need for research to verify its claims with reference to empirical evidence remains constant (Denscombe, 2002, P 197.) Any proof based on evidence can either verify or refute existing knowledge and understanding. It can be found either conforming what we know about a social issue or problem, or it can offer an alternative explanation-a competing form of knowledge or way of knowing.

In “The logic of scientific discovery , Karl Popper argued that research evidence can support knowledge but it can never prove it absolutely since the final stamp of proof can be falsified on attainment of future contradictory evidence. Thus it would not be difficult to propound the theory based on this logic that all knowledge, all theory and all evidence always remains provisional- the best available at that time and place- but always open to refutation by new evidence at a later date.

The important other paradigm that exists in connection with the provisional nature of knowledge is that research should consciously seek to test existing knowledge and theories in contextual situations where they are most likely to be refuted. This takes our attention to a completely novel direction wherein the desirability and acceptability of research is enhanced not by its attempt to validate the policy initiatives or directions but in the active pursuit of evidence that can prove existing research wrong.

Contrary to the most likely conclusion on this kind of research wherein one might be tempted to conclude that such research aims more at falsification of knowledge as opposed to creation and validation it is important to state that any attempt towards falsification is always the first step towards new knowledge creation since the only way to consolidate the authenticity and applicability of new research is by several tests of falsification.

Any commentary on the reality of policy and practice would invariably hint towards very little research being actually directed towards proving existence research evidence invalid thereby losing out on the scope of enhancing the durability, robustness and reliability of such knowledge. Focusing our attention to the crucial question that exists between social researches that furthers the cause of knowledge in strict opposition to the one that drives policy, it will be interesting to explore the propriety of the belief that there exists a tradeoff between the two camps as far as research funding, research manpower and research ideology is concerned.

In the Indian context, we find new streams of sociological research primarily devoted to researching the various factors that perpetuate the hijacking of knowledge about society and its history in the direction that furthers the interest of the dominant class. A case in point in the Indian context is the recent interest in subaltern studies and research furthered by organisations like Centre for Studies in Social sciences headed by subaltern historian and social scientist Partha Chatterjee.

Furthermore emphasis on social research aimed at furthering the enlightenment model of exploring the social reality gives little or no attention to the problem of utilizing the findings of research in specific organizational settings. A case in point is social research outputs in India concerning the migration pattern of Indians to Fiji in the 1800s. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the migration pattern of Indians to Fiji in the 1800s has little or no policy significance, even though it can be a very interesting intellectual and academic initiative.

Social scientists tend to assume their knowledge is tangible simply because it is difficult to inhibit the movement of anything as intangible as an idea. The paradigm of relating social science to social problems invariably invokes a model of the application of physical sciences to problems of the physical universe. The dichotomy between knowledge for understanding and knowledge for action is best represented by the decision of a man with a legal problem who does not want the wisdom of a professor of jurisprudence but the shrewdness of a lawyer who can find loopholes in a confining contract.

The rare combination that it takes to construct the academic social scientist with the appropriate combination of patience, and enthusiasm presupposes an undying conviction in his discipline to be able to effectively participate in the policy process. This presupposition is challenged by reality where the academic social scientist is too aware of the precarious edifice of knowledge on which he is perched.

Having explored the various tradeoff that exists between the academic social researcher who furthers the interest of knowledge creation for his discipline as opposed to policy relevant research, let us direct our attention to the actual desirability of policy being directed and influenced by relevant research in that field. The overriding rationale for the desire to apply social research to policy making is that such an initiative will generate a certain amount of legitimacy to the exact policy making exercise. The hope of legitimizing public policy by using social research output rests on the belief that social research is by far more scientific than the usual political rhetoric that is there behind most policy decisions.

However, in this context there remains a certain danger of social research driven public policy getting transformed into a public policy driven social research. At the outset the difference between social research driven public policy and public policy driven social research might not be that apparent but it becomes prominent on closer inspection. If social research is applied to public policy to legitimize the process, than in effect it is probable for a system to operate where policy decisions are made independent of any available social research on the subject and then selective social research outputs are used to substantiate and legitimize an otherwise unscientific policy decision.

This concern therefore is closely associated with issues of research funding where funds for research chases researchers and social scientists whose research findings are either conforming to the political stances or where the researcher is paid to influence research in a direction that would legitimize an otherwise unscientific policy decision. This also defeats the very purpose of undertaking social research where the researcher, ideally and by definition is unbiased, value free and free from political considerations to the effect that the research methodology used to unravel reality is such that the researcher is as likely to find evidence that supports the hypothesis as much as he is to find those that falsify it. Therefore when the scales of probability with regards to unraveling the truth is tilted towards research which somehow seeks supporting evidence and ignores contradictory ones, the very purpose of undertaking social research stands defeated.

Thus, in the name of making public policy scientific and legitimate, not only is it made more dubious but even social research hitherto considered scientific and independent of political considerations is scrapped of its neutrality with regards to unraveling truth. Additionally, we shall now shift our attention to whether indeed public policy which is essentially a political process needs certification for legitimacy. Modernity in its strictest definition would suggest that indeed the only way to rationalize a political process would necessitate social research evidence to influence public policy in pursuit of legitimacy.

However, the fundamental assumption here remains that a political process shall fail to find legitimacy on just political logic or real world considerations but it essentially needs to be absolved of the various responsibilities associated with its decisions on account of incorporating research evidence into its structure. Herein the ideals of a democratic polity, that of dialogue and democracy is questioned on the grounds that democracy in theory and practice might not be that scientific and that the majority consensus can indeed not be the most reliable and scientific model of undertaking public policy.

This implies that research evidence can at times suggest certain actions over alternatives, wherein the suggestion is against the political necessities of implementation. Therefore the conclusion on whether research should influence public policy or not shall rest on the normative decision of whether empirical evidence or democratic considerations should take precedence in the public policy making mechanism.

Going beyond the philosophical and theoretical propriety of the desire to use social research in public policy there are some real practical inhibitive factors towards the application of social research in public policy. The most important real world hindrance to integration of social research into public policy perhaps is the inability of the researcher to access the decision makers. This implies that there are severe difficulties and hurdles for relevant policy research outputs by individual researchers towards integration into future policy making.

The fundamental assumption that one would need to make in order to satisfactorily conclude on the on the influence that research has on policy and practice is that both policy and practice are influenced in the same way and in the same direction. However, the connection between research and practice are characteristically different. The most significant truth with regards to public policies towards certain utilitarian objectives is that policies most often fail at the level of implementation which leads to subsequent criticism of the policy formulation exercise or the policy document.

Thus a completely social research driven and influenced public policy can fail in its implementation due to acts of inefficient administration which might incorrectly question the credibility of the social research which has influenced the policy. Whether any policy at the level of formulation can be made immune to bad administration is an intellectual challenge. However, common sense shall suggest that it is difficult to factor administrative hurdles of implementation into the policy document irrespective of the credibility of the social research output that may influence a certain policy.

Therefore it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the real intellectual and political challenge is to be able to define a credible research objectively free from personal or political values. The problem of values driving public policy or the lack of it is an inherent limitation of the very mechanism of public policy. Therefore research can be only used instrumentally to resolve problems where decision makers and researchers use the same set of values. However, objectivity in policy remains an extreme challenge in the public policy field where public policy by its very nature and definition is loaded with political ideology and personal values. Indeed sometimes more and better social research can serve to complicate grassroot realities.

Before concluding on the subject it is imperative to state that there is a lack of conceptual clarity with regards to what exactly we mean by using social research in public policy. Usage of social research in public policy can mean anything from adoption of research recommendations intact, to nudging of decisions in the direction suggested by the research findings or just plain consideration of the research findings without any concrete action. Thus having analyzed the possible debates surrounding the desirability of applying social research to public policy and of the various debates surrounding the real world inhibitive factors, it would be natural to infer that it is hugely problematic to have a universal conclusion on the exact factors that prevent the integration of social research into public policy and the final conclusion over this issue shall largely be a normative conclusion. The question shall always remain- “Would the world be a better, wiser, and more equal place if all policy decisions were taken by social researchers?”

Thursday, May 7, 2009


It is indeed paradoxical to attempt an analysis of the relevance of Public Policy education today, which by its very definition is an analysis of the processes involved in the formulation of Public Policy. However, there are reasons which make it significantly meaningful for me to undertake such an intellectual exercise. The paradoxical nature of this attempt, notwithstanding, the real appeal of this discipline (Public Policy) lies in the much needed promise to social science theorizing of various disciplines that it is indeed possible to apply the vast reservoirs of reasoned and rationalized analytical knowledge to the interest needs of the society towards effective governance.

However , for such an attempt to be successful and to accommodate the various social science disciplines into one practical science of decision making in the public domain, there needs to be an overriding emphasis of the discipline that justifies the interdisciplinary amalgamation of often methodologically conflicting disciplines. This overriding emphasis presents itself in the form of a problem oriented approach, which by virtue of its existence in the public policy domain automatically necessitates and justifies the synthesis of ideas and techniques borrowed from the divergent and often compartmentalized social science disciplines making public policy essentially a multidisciplinary action oriented science.

However, to conclude on the very nature of Public as an integrated specialized and multidisciplinary knowledge structure of social sciences it is essential to investigate the possible influences and factors that led to the acknowledgement of the need to integrate various social science disciplines in a historical context. It is natural to conclude, given the novelty of the attempt of public policy to integrate the knowledge of various disciplines towards an interdisciplinary science that an acknowledgment of such a need has no historical precedence. However such an assertion is as far away from the truth as possible. History is testimony to instances where the need for using the knowledge bank of social sciences have been felt and acknowledged with an undying conviction. However the real novelty of public policy as an academic discipline that hit the academic institutions during the 1970s lies not in the singular recognition of the role of social sciences in solving public problems which has a huge history of past occurrences but the very fact that the treatment of policy sciences as a contextual multi-method and problem oriented science in the hands of the public commitment makers was indeed a very revolutionary attempt at dealing and influencing private, social and public reality.

The following extract shall exemplify the aforementioned paragraph “The policy scientist perceives himself as an integrator of knowledge and action and hence as a specialist in eliciting and giving effect to all the rationality of which individuals and groups are capable at any given time. He is a mediator between those who specialize in specific areas of knowledge and those who make the commitments in public and private life…Both the intellectual community and the community at large is beginning to acknowledge the indispensable place of the integrator, mediator and go between….

(Lasswell, 1970a: 13-14)

Furthermore to appreciate the bridge between approaches aimed at exploring social reality and of using such knowledge in the form of a prescriptive knowledge structure careful attention must be drawn towards locating the emergence of policy sciences in an institutional setting on the historical timeline of evolving disciplines in social sciences. The earliest conception of policy sciences as a as a proposed discipline transports the mind to the Post Second World War US around 1950s when Harold Lasswell was beginning to make an impact with his proposed discipline of public policy as a manifestation of his vision of a multidisciplinary enterprise capable of guiding the political decision process of the Post Second World War industrial societies. In this context, therefore it is imperative to conceptualize the impulses of time, place and history in his comprehension of a need for policy sciences. The historical rationale with regards to time and place would suggest that the imagery of ill effects of governance directly observable after the Second World War was the most important stimuli for his grand theorizing.

A definite precursor to emergence of Policy sciences is quantitative methods of operations research which as a management science was evolving when industrial engineers shifted their focus of attention from individual work operations to the overall operations of the firm. The basic conception of Operation Research was stimulated in the critical environment that prevailed after the Second World War wherein groups of operation researchers were sponsored by the government in core sectors like iron and steel, road and rail transport textiles, agriculture etc. The extension of the operation science methodology to social and governance issues implies the ground for the integration of different academic schools of thought in the social sciences to further the cause of problem solving in different government initiatives, actions and inactions.

Additionally with regards to pre-existing economic determinism rooted in classical free market emphasis, the situation after the Second World War presented a new paradigm of public policy. This alternative approach was centred on the works and contribution of John Maynard Keynes wherein he unravelled the underlying causes of the Great Depression of 1940s. Thus the contribution of Keynes opened up a new can of worms with regards to pre-existing conventional thinking in economics of laissez faire and it is difficult to disregard the impact which Keynesian paradigm of Macro economics had on the argument towards the need for Public Policy.

Keynes essentially stated how free markets devoid of Government intervention would have a constant tendency to find an inefficient & unemployment equilibrium, contrary to what the classicists would claim or believe. This meant that the Governments did have an extremely crucial role to play in deciding and influencing fiscal allocation and that the market could not be given a free hand to reach unemployment equilibrium.

Now, then the manipulation of the allocative processes towards allocative efficiency would require rigorous empirical skills and also the conclusion of full employment shall essentially be a normative decision. Therefore a definite correlation can be drawn with regards to Keynesian prescription of government intervention in the free market mechanism through fiscal management and the rationale for the growth of Public Policy.

However even though the emergence of policy sciences was largely a product of the ground level socio-economic factors of the Great Depression and the corresponding Second World War, at the level of conception, a policy orientation was evident much before Lasswell and Y Dror, in the very beginning of American social science. The concerns which informs the policy science writings of Lasswell finds its roots in the drive towards educational and sociological training for legislators furthered by Lester Ward with a view towards embedding rational decision making into the very culture of political institutions of American society.

According to Brooks “The vision of a new politics share a conviction that the institutionalization of scientific analysis into the policy making process is a necessary condition for the attainment of democratic government in modern society.” Lasswell essentially acknowledges the role of American Pragmatism wherein he seconds the belief that his conception of policy sciences is nothing but a contemporary adaptation of American pragmatic thought furthered by John Dewey. In this context therefore special emphasis was given to the integration of scientific method and creative intelligence towards more reasoned and relevant public policy.

Questioning the Validity of the Novel Initiative of Harold Lasswell

The contribution of Lasswell can thus be regarded as the first systematic effort towards a new field of enquiry aimed at the needs of decision making in public sphere. The validity or the real need for this is that which shall be explored further and like the very nature of social reality, is an extremely complicated ideal with an unlimited range of overlapping variables. In this context it is essential to focus our attention towards the self proclaimed ambitions of Harold Lasswell with regards to the policy sciences framework.

If at all anything was lacking in the vision of Harold Lasswell with regards to the conception of Policy Sciences, it was modesty of goal setting. The emphasis of this multidisciplinary knowledge structure of Harold Lasswell known as Policy sciences, was thus on assimilating the intelligence needs of policy practitioners and analysts to act as a mediator between academics, government decision makers and the citizenry by providing objective solutions which shall be easily discernible to eliminate the scope for uninformed political debate in areas where the objective knowledge of policy sciences is more authentic However the characteristic goal setting to prescribe the very nature of Public Policy was not limited to an interdisciplinary and objective study of social reality but towards a mega policy for the analysis of the political policy process. It essentially accommodates and is rooted in the notion of theoretical complexity of analysis and evaluation.

However, the inherent contradiction to the basic theoretical and methodological premise is presented when it also intends to be normative by allowing a specific scope to value judgments in the selection of the most suitable policy deal with a concerned social problem. The argument put forward by Lasswell with regards to adoption and prescription of normative and prescriptive methods for policy formulation and analysis was the fact that he visualized the nature of policy science as a desperate measure to maintain the interests of democratic polity and of perpetuating its interests for promoting the cause of human dignity in theory and practice. He therefore assumed that public policy should be set and constrained by the need in facilitating the development and evolution of democratic government in a corporate liberal society.

At the intentional and theoretical level even if Public Policy as a discipline came up in recognition of the need to construct a science of public decision making to further the cause of democracy, at a practical level it is highly debatable if it has been successful in being able to do so. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest in line with the evolutionary trajectory of policy sciences post 1960 down to the present day, the evolution of policy sciences has happened more on technocratic lines then on the lines of democratic polity. This is a huge deviation from what policy sciences essentially set out to be.

With one foot already on possible cynicism with regards to the theoretical propriety of policy sciences we cannot help but unravel the multitude of other theoretical contradictions in the policy making project. If empiricism is considered as the tricks of the trade for policy analysis, then how are we to conceptualise that armed with all the empiricism the analyst is supposed to take a normative stance. If the facts of a social problem do speak for themselves in case of an empirical approach then this essentially implies that those problems will by themselves be capable of suggesting objective solutions. The reasoning would automatically imply that there needs no real normative assessment. This therefore can be extended to the conclusion that consistent with the positive and empirical assessment of reality a normative stance rooted in values of utilitarianism is either falsified or a methodologically impossible thing to achieve. The only ground for such a claim to exist (mutual existence of empirical and normative assessment) can be found if the accommodation of empirical analysis and normative methods can be qualified at the level of action but never at the level of theory. The theoretical contradiction therefore is apparent in its very structure. In this context, however, it is essentially important to resist the temptation of suggesting empirical evaluation under quasi-experimental conditions.

The inherent contradiction of the prescription of Lasswell does not end at the acknowledgement of the conflict between the adoptions of empirical methods with the hope of a normative analysis of empirical deductions. It goes much beyond into the prescription of an action oriented science of policy making or in other words public decision making. It has already been stated how the grand theorising ideal of policy sciences finds no justification in its evolution but in the context it is interesting to explore the reasons which contribute to such a happening. It is a matter of fact that social sciences occur in strict contexts of time space and history, essentially implying a micro-level occurrence. In this logical framework the very expectation of a grand theory to explain such behaviour is logically inconsistent with the occurrence of reality. Therefore it would not be an exaggeration to conclude that such grand theorising would be incapable of explaining a micro level occurrence and formulate policies for its mediation or management. Unlike the empirical discipline of modern economics where Micro models can be aggregated to conceptualise a bigger macro phenomenon, the context of a social problem at the micro level cannot use aggregation beyond the boundaries of its context.

Let us now focus our attention to the most important hurdle towards the clarity of conceptualisation of Public Policy as an academic discipline. The most important argument produced by Harold Lasswell in his 1970 work prescribing his visions of a policy scientist as an integrator of knowledge of multiple disciplines presents within itself the most important contradiction. The argument essentially is that public policy as an academic discipline has a need to emerge because of an indispensable requirement of specialisation in the art of policy making, formulation, analysis and evaluation as an action centred science since the pre existing social science disciplines cannot or have not done justice to the requirements of public action.

Lasswell therefore, wanted to selectively borrow relevant knowledge from the pre-existing knowledge structure based on the normative assessment of the relevance of the different disciplines to the needs of the problem. However the real contradiction in such an initiative is that it is extremely problematic to normatively decide and reach a consensus on the relevance of a particular approach towards the mitigation of public problems.