Advice for those who are looking forward to launching Careers in Public Policy (Especially in India)

[Transcript for the Convocation Speech for the Global Policy, Diplomacy, and Sustainability (GPODS) Fellowship‘s Summer 2022 cohort]

Today, what I want to tell you should not come as a surprise to you. As you graduate from this Fellowship program, I hope you will find these bunch of advices useful in launcing a career in policy, diplomacy, and sustainability, as GPODS Fellows. I am hopeful that you are prepared for this news already – being a policy professional or an IR professional, or a sustainability professional is not an easy thing in life. In many ways, a profession in these fields, especially if you are in India, and I’m sure in many other parts of the world, is like being in the profession of acting, or even standup comedy.

The Pyramid

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Because there is a sort of a pyramid here – there are people who are well known, they get to be the ministers, or advisers, or legislators, or renowned philosophers of public policy doing talks for thousands of dollars or videos that go viral every day (I’m going to use public policy as a blanket term for professions related to IR, public administration, and sustainability), then there are consultants, OSDs (Officers on Special Duty), heads of medium to small thinktanks and basically all of the people who support the bigwigs in the background. They are the pool of people who hope to one day break into the front row, or from the position of being in backstage to the frontstage. And for this they are trying to get published, writing articles, doing talks, and building their CV so that when one day they are being considered for the frontstage, they have the right credentials to legitimize the selection. They usually depend on their skills and/or the goodwill of a ministry, a minister, a foundation, a business patron, or an individual politician for their survival.

Then comes a huge sea of consultants, analysts, and managers, these are usually young graduates with a few years of work experience. They are usually always on the lookout for jobs, rarely satisfied with their salaries and forever twisting in turning in alternating waves of an extremely busy schedule and lots of free time.

And then there is a universe of people who want to be consultants and managers but are still looking to be hired for the first time in a public policy role. They do a lot of internships, lots of free work, they write articles which rarely get published, and watch a lot of ted talks. They plan on doing their MPA or MPP degrees when they have some relevant experience under their belt.

At each stage of the pyramid, it is easy to go hungry. Of course, if you are in the bottom stage, you are trying to figure out how do you even make money in this field? If you are at the top of the pyramid, you have either saved, or invested in businesses to keep you afloat but you are never sure. Once you are out of power or luck or both, it is hard to hold on to your assets and then look for work at the lower end of the pyramid because of your stature and profile, but other non-egotistical reasons as well. Like movie stars, as long as your going is good, you are god, and after that no one even recognizes you. There are so many ex-ministers and legislators that nobody even knows about and they literally struggle to make their ends meet. They don’t even get a guest lecturer’s job, unless they are willing to do it for free.

The Quest for Financial Survival and the Limits of Ideas

So the hard truth of this career is that no matter how bright your ideas are, nobody is interested for a long period of time and perhaps at all. And no matter how great your qualifications are, it doesn’t guarantee a job. Let me give you two examples. A very close friend of mine had a Ph.D. degree from a prestigious college in London. She was struggling to find a job for a very long time after her Ph.D. As her topic was related to giving rivers the status of a person – that kind of thing. Then she got a job in the private sector that she hated because she was a public policy person and this was a low intelligence, a boring job she was working in. She hated it. She was looking for something that could use her talents and be well paying at the same time. I met her in London this June and she had repurposed her whole CV and was working in a tech firm as a policy consultant and was relatively satisfied. She is now member of a number of tech advisory groups at the European Commission as well.

What’s the lesson here? Policy careers focus on providing public goods. Providing public goods doesn’t pay. So you either have to be plugged into the sector that generates wealth – i.e. the private sector directly – such as working in Tech policy which is usually a private sector interest, or working in political risk management that helps businesses make intelligent investment decisions, or you depend on the patronage of the private sector – for example politicians who spend inordinate amounts of time courting financers and businessmen. There is a quid pro quo in that. And mind you even the best of the politicians do it. If you read Nelson Mandela’s biography and I think it is also mentioned in his autobiography, that he faced some financial difficulties in building a house when one of his patrons left his side. He used to famously host parties for Harry Oppenheimer a South African businessman along with many popstars and celebrities. People even started doubting his commitment to social causes when he did that – this was a man who spent 27 years in Jail and was not given permission to visit his young son’s funeral when he died in a car crash. A person who made such sacrifices was not guaranteed the financial means to sustain himself, had to court the private sector, and had his intentions doubted. Despite all the sacrifices.

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So please do not think that you will be able to escape the quest for money, however idealistic you may be. Senators and legislators all over the world spend an inordinate amount of time raising funds. There are policy solutions to that and it isnt correct. For now it is the truth. This doesn’t mean you should be overtly greedy or unethical. It simply means that you should look out for your financial sustainence in an innovative way. If you are extremely lucky you will be paid for directly working on something that makes akes great social impact as well as money. If not, then be prepared that you will need to look at those to as separate streams or mixed streams.

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Indeed there are those, who turn some public goods into club goods – they make public non-excludable goods excludable and charge a fee to keep afloat. Memberships, Fellowships etc. Or turn their work into private goods selling courses, selling talks, speeches, even merchandize. You do get to work on public goods indeed but that happens either sporadically or parallelly. The quest for self-sustenance goes on.

In order for you to be successful in the quest, firstly, you should know that this quest is there and will remain. Awareness solves part of the problem. And then you should also be ethical as well as strategic about this quest with a strong taste of reality.

Build Relations First (if you are in India or the East)

What I mean by a strong taste for reality is to know that ideas matter, but it is extremely hard to make big ideas change things in the real world. Moreover, for many if not most people, at least in India, ideas do not matter. I met a health minister in a state government recently. I was in the quest for raising funds and getting some projects for our thinktank. It was my first meeting with him. I jumped into discussing ideas about how the government could design a policy for the senior citizens where their at home care and the training of at home caregivers could be subsidized by the government and before I could finish, he said – “you know these policies work in the US, not in India. You can come with me to any village and senior citizens there are super fit – they could run faster than us.” While that may be true, the data on senior citizen health did not show that they were having a particularly great time, I remarked. I also pointed out that that the senior citizen population is going to be growing from 8.5% right now to 20% in 2050 so we must change the existing laws which put them at a disadvantage and build capacity from now on. He told me again that these policies are not for India. I beg to differ but he was in the decision-making position. He then told me that if you want to work for health policy, tell me how do we create three times more doctors than we have right now. How do we stop the hospital roofs from leaking during the rainy season when we don’t have the money for it and when construction work cannot happen in the rainy season. I thought of giving some answers that I had, and then stopped. It would have been of no use. What is the lesson I learnt here – I will tell you shortly.

While I was sitting with this minister, a number of petitioners were buzzing in and out – the attention span of people in a ministerial position is indeed low. So most of my conversation as one should expect, was being interrupted by phonecalls to the minister and occasional petitioners who would hand him a paper or ask him for a favour and leave in 10 to 20 seconds. There came another petitioner to interrupt our discussion. He said that his mother was bit by a monkey and when she went to the government hospital, they said they don’t have the vaccine/injection available there and asked them to go elsewhere where they were charged an amount which was much higher than the rate at which the government was offering vaccines. He was pointing to the fact that the government officials could be in collusion and creating artificial scarcity and thereby perpetuating a blackmarket.

The Minister got up from his seat, he asked the petitioner if he knows what a CHC is. The petitioner did not know. He said, it is the community health centre. There are many of them in each district and that is the place where vaccines are available and not in the district hospital. He then also counted a whole number of services that people think are available at the district hospital but are actually provided at the community hospital. Then he complained how people don’t understand which services are available where and come to him with complaining. He then asked his PA to call the Chief Medical Officer for the district immediately, and asked the CMO if rabies vaccines are available in all the centres. The CMO answered that they have sufficient vaccine and there is no shortage. The minister then sort of scolded the petitioner for coming with a pointless complain. Meanwhile, I almost leapt out from my seat to suggest that perhaps the communication of which service is available where is the problem and there could be a more effective program than distributing pamphlets to make people aware of this. But I stopped. I had already absorbed a very important lesson.

The lesson is this something that consumer behavior experts operating in developing countries will tell you. Which is that we operate in a low-trust environment in India and similarly in many other developing countries. That is also one reason why most of the brands selling consumer products don’t talk about product features so much. No matter how good the features are, the potential consumer does not have any trust in you that your product will be as good as you claim. That is why they talk about other things, such as how wearing a white spotless shirt will enhance your prestige in front of your neighbor, how they have a strong relationship with their customers, and how this brand will make you look smart. They work on building trust first or instigate psychological associations and motivations in the potential buyers’ minds before even thinking of selling the product.

Contrast this to high trust environments where a person who wanted to sell something to Elon Musk, most probably a business service that would help Tesla, met him and when Musk asked him what are we meeting for? He answered, “I’m meeting you so that we can build a great relationship” or something like that. Musk quickly shook his hands and said “it was really nice meeting you” and moved to the next order of business which was basically a signal for this person to leave. If you don’t get directly to the point in high trust cultures and focus on relationship building, the potential buyer loses interest. In eastern cultures and I know I am making a lot of generalizations here so apply reasonable exceptions, relationship and trust building should come before that selling process. Of course, don’t be that person who only builds relationships and doesn’t get any work done. But also don’t expect much success if you are hyper-focused on your work just because your ideas and product is great. A lot of people would tell you this lie in India that your product should be great and that is all it is about. The truth is far less simple than that. You need great relationship-building abilities and a great product and then some luck.

Typically, you need to work with people for free for a long time and invest greatly in a relationship to be able to reap any rewards. And that doesn’t mean that all your relationships have to be instrumental Only about 2% of your relationships will give you any rewards. There will inevitably be times where you think that I am meeting so many people, and publishing so much but it is not converting into any tangible work. You then decide that you will only meet people instrumentally and focus on those who give you some work. You will not succeed. No doubt you need to network with people who would take your career ahead but do not make the mistake of being purely instrumental with them. The first time you meet them, never ask for work. Tell them what you do and then talk about other stuff.

Typically, if you are going to someone with an idea and they listen to your idea and ask you to send a proposal – know that your job is not done. You will not get the deal. They are never going to go ahead. When you know and a sense that the proposal is merely a formality and the person is sold on the idea then you know you have made it. Reflecting now that I have only been able to raise funds with people to whom I have conveyed my expertise through a lecture or a conversation, and focused on building a relationship while never making a selling offer in the initial meetings. At times, for many meetings together.

How to Avoid Wasting Time and Being Gullible

Quite importantly, don’t be gullible. There are two types of gullible and naïve tropes I have noticed. The first type is when you have been overcommitted to, usually by a politician. Benjamin Franklin’s story is a nice example here. By the way, he was also a politician who had a printing press business to support is public life. But coming back to the point, in his early life he had run away from his family in Boston and come over to Pennsylvania and started working as an apprentice in a printing press. He met with a relative of his, perhaps his brother-in-law who was a captain in the army, who connected him to the Governor of Pennsylvania. The Governor took a great liking for Franklin since he was well read and well spoken. Now Franklin, only an apprentice, was being invited to important dinners and meetings. The Governor would come to his press, not meet his boss but meet Franklin. You can imagine the impact it would have had on a young person.

Then one day, the Governor asked him to go back to his family and reconcile with them. He even handed over a letter to Franklin for his father giving him the offer that if he sets up a small press that Benjamin could independently run, the Governor would give them all of the printing work of the Pennsylvania state to that press. Now, his father was a pragmatic man and told Benjamin that he is too young to run a press on his own. It is not that he did not have the means to set up a small press, he had already set one up for his elder brother so could have arranged something one way or the other, but he was not sure if Benjamin could handle it and if the Governor would make good on his promise. This time, Benjamin left for Pennsylvania with his family’s blessings and approval but without investment.

When the Governor learnt of this, he told Benjamin that he would fund the setting up of the printing press for Benjamin on credit and give him the promised business. He asked Benjamin to come up with a “proposal” with all of the costs and financial outlay in it. He then convinced Benjamin to board a ship for London so that he can purchase the best of the equipment from there and assured him that he will give him the right documents, letters of credit etc. in a few days, which would help him procure all the material from London. At the appointed day Franklin reached the Governor’s office to receive the letters of credit and other recommendation letters. The Governor made him wait and his secretary asked him to come later as the Governor was busy. The secretary then assured him that the papers he needs will be sent to his house directly. The day of his departure came near and the papers did not arrive. The Governor’s secretary told Franklin that the Governor has assured that everything is discussed and all set. He will receive the papers directly on board in the ship. So on the day of the departure, Franklin boarded the ship. He asked the captain if the Governor had sent some papers for him and the captain told him that there are some papers from the Governor in a particular room which would only be accessible later when the ship navigation has started (perhaps the navigators occupied that room at that time). Franklin was relieved to know that the Governor did send papers.

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After the ship had sailed he was invited to look for his papers out of the many papers that the Governor had sent for various purposes. He scourged all the bags and each paper in them but did not find any letter addressed for him. The captain told him that the Governor must have mailed the letters meant for him directly to London and he can check with the postmaster once he arrives. Franklin reached London and checked with the postmaster for many days and no letter arrived. He only learnt later that the Governor had the reputation of overpromising and not delivering on his promises. Franklin was almost penniless but found a job at a printing press and returned form London after an year. He was still lucky. But most people do not realize that overpromising is a tendency among tall politicians. A lot of times, it is a habit and even if they want to deliver on their promises, they are so caught up with competing priorities, they are not able to follow through on their promises.

The lesson here is, trust, but verify. Do not set sail unless you can afford that even if you are going to be taken for a ride, you will survive or you have some evidence of the other side meeting you halfway. To build trust in a low trust environment, break deliverables down into stages. Move to the next stage when the first is complete. Even if it is embarrassing to do so in front of a tall leader.

The second type of instances where you may find yourself being gullible are as follows. There was a person In Dubai, who I had met. He told me about how Dubai is the next big hub for investments, which I still think it is. He also told me how setting up something in Dubai could fetch us great clients and investments etc. He offered to mentor me, claimed to act as an elder brother. Gradually he began asking me to connect him with Indian companies which may want to invest in Dubai or Gulf based firms who were trying to set up a business in India. That left me wondering that the relationship started with the promise that I or Indian firms would get investments in Dubai but now I am being connected to Gulf firms asking for investments from India. I thought such a track would not materialize. Then the next offer came that we could take Indian firms to the UAE, make them meet ministries there and see what work could the ministries could give them. This sounded like a much better idea. The caveat however was that I was to find all the firms, the firms would need to pay us to get to meet all the bigwigs in UAE Ministries, then set up an office there and pay him or his UAE associates licencing fees in the hope of getting business. The only guarantee that they will get any business did not exist – just his word and some past experience behind him. Further, I realized what was happening with me was that I was being expected to make money for him rather than my expectation that he will help me make money. Of course, I was naïve. When I realized that his demands, even though fair, were perhaps way outside my current areas of competence and priorities, I stepped back, and perhaps that was the right decision. I have since had similar experiences of people who are well-established and well-meaning who promise to help you in advancing your career but are in fact trying to restart their own careers off your back. You make the effort while they reap most of the rewards. Don’t fall for this trap. No matter how good your relationship is with them, until they give you some proof that they can add value, don’t take the leap. For example, here, this gentleman could have made me meet a few ministers or people in the relevant department to give evidence that they are indeed interested in investing in certain types of Indian companies and offered already some benefits for me, even in terms of building connections with the UAE bigwigs before expecting me to jump ship and run headlong in the direction he wanted me to.

You might say that I am myself operating out of a low trust mindset and my answer to that would be yes. The way to survive is to build relations with many, give them some value, then verify with a few if they will every actually reciprocate, and then go into doing things for them, especially if you have to go out of the way (even for your own benefit). If you don’t have to go out of the way, then help as much and as many as you can.

So don’t be naïve. If you find that you have been taken for a ride, make the best out of the situation and learn something, a skill which will help you in the future. Develop your own brand. Develop your own financial sources. Invest in relationship building and give and take some evidence of value before getting into sales or business.

Think Small. Think of an Individual. Then Scale.

A great challenge in the way of success for policy folks is that when policy-minded individuals sit down to think of developing income streams, as is natural, we always think of ideas and interests which are very public in nature. If the roads are jammed, policies and software to make traffic management more efficient. If urban areas get clogged and flooded during monsoon, then a new urban plan or a new land utilization policy. These policies are very important to learn about, to know, and to understand. But you will only be able to implement these policies when you are at the stage when you get the chance, authority, or resources to provide public goods or support those who provide public goods, such as a minister or a governor. Until then most policy people think about how they can impact policy meaningfully beyond planting trees or cleaning up their neighborhood. The problem is that we are thinking in the wrong direction. It is important to know about new and innovative policies but that is a knowledge bank you are creating to be utilized at a time when the opportunity presents itself. You can write about it and talk about it but you will only implement these policies when you get the opportunity, resources, and political mandate to do so. Until you prepare for them think about private interests. Interests of a particular individual. An individual’s pain points and solutions to those pain points.

This is what Mohammad Yunus, who later founded the Grameen Bank, did. He saw that people working in low income jobs are never able to save enough, so he started out with a few people, gave them interim credit at no interest from his own professorial salary, then send experimented with giving loans to groups of people where they had to monitor each other so that each person has the capacity to pay back. The second person would only get a loan when the first has paid back. Or the group will only get another round of credit when all in the group have repaid. He started out with a very private solution to a public problem.

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Now imagine if he had started out with the problem from the public perspective that the government or a foundation should setup a bank that gives interim loans to low-income workers which can be repaid by them to this bank when they can – the system would never have worked. Big policy changes are a culmination of small beginnings and processes. We often assume that the story should start from big policy changes while big policy changes are a middle stage in bringing policy outcomes. There is a small beginning, a big policy change, and then various forces unleashed as outcomes of the big policy change that may or may not lead to the desired impact. The challenge is that we are not trained to think small.

There is an individual level, the organization level (government department or agencies or private organization), and then the society or policy level. Your framing of interests and solutions should have the awareness as to which level are you thinking about. Beginning from the individual level often works best. It translates into action. Now when Grameen bank is a global phenomenon, governments and NGOs apply that model at scale but the starting point of change was not a full-fledged institution. Start small.

Snakes and Ladders 


Finally, please know that even though I used the metaphor of the pyramid, it is not a real pyramid out there. A snakes and ladders game is a much better metaphor. If you are at the bottom of the pyramid, you could suddenly find yourself at the top and then in another instance, in the middle of the board. Yet everyone should prepare in a manner that they are effective when called upon to do the top job and survive when they are at the bottom of the board. That is the policy field for you.

 Congratulations once again on your convocation, and may you reach the top of the board and stay there to bring about meaningful change in this world!

About Arpit Chaturvedi

Arpit (MPA Cornell University) is a policy entrepreneur. He is the Founder of the Political Risk management and policy advocacy firm Insights International. He is also the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Global Policy Insights (GPI) – a centrist thinktank focused on Governance, International Political Economy, International Security Studies and Sustainability, based out of New Delhi, New York, and London.

He is the Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder of EnviPol, an environmental consultancy firm based out of New Delhi and serves as the Joint-Director of the Global Policy, Diplomacy, and Sustainability Fellowship. He Co-Chairs various international affairs and public diplomacy forums such as the QUAD Security Forum and the Indian Women in International Affairs Forums to bring diverse voices in the fields of public affairs. He also serves as an Advisor at the Kyiv School of Diplomatic Arts.

Arpit Chaturvedi

Arpit (MPA Cornell University) is a policy entrepreneur. He is the Founder of the Political Risk management and policy advocacy firm Insights International. He is also the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Global Policy Insights (GPI) – a centrist thinktank focused on Governance, International Political Economy, International Security Studies and Sustainability, based out of New Delhi, New York, and London. He is the Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder of EnviPol, an environmental consultancy firm based out of New Delhi and serves as the Joint-Director of the Global Policy, Diplomacy, and Sustainability Fellowship. He Co-Chairs various international affairs and public diplomacy forums such as the QUAD Security Forum and the Indian Women in International Affairs Forums to bring diverse voices in the fields of public affairs. He also serves as an Advisor at the Kyiv School of Diplomatic Arts.

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