WITH the government, WITHIN the government, and AS the government

Over the last two years I have written extensively about the emerging new idea of governance around the world. Historically in democracies, we paid a lot of attention to government FOR the people, and government OF the people, but it is only recently that there is more and more attention on self-governance and participatory democracies, … what we might consider government BY the people themselves.

But how exactly could this alternative work? What are its contours? Broadly, there are three pillars on which we can imagine this.

a) We need to work WITH the government … a lot of what is needed to be changed in government is the prerogative and the responsibility of officials and elected respresentatives, who have been formally tasked with doing things. We can’t displace that. Instead, we have to find ways of helping them do their jobs better, and build lasting new capacity in public administration.

b) We need to work WITHIN the government – any significant intervention in governance requires process reform in addition to everything else. And carrying that out requires close engagement with the people whose roles need to be reimagined. Making things change is not only about proposing new ways of doing things, but also about physically showing up in government departments, rolling up sleeves, and thinking and working through problems with staff and leadership.

c) Working AS the government … true, citizens have not been elected by anyone. But effective governance includes self-governance too. So, when we engage in matters of public interest, we have to think of ourselves not as outsiders to government, but as an additional kind of government itself. And the consequences of thinking this way are significant – it will lead us to create systems and processes that do not only rely upon the work of elected persons and public officials, but also empower citizens to be a permanent part of deciding public choices. The way we contract, the way we build technology, the way we design public services … all of this will be fundamentally reshaped by the thinking that citizens too are an extension of governments.

This, then, is the HOW of the new model in our quest to build government BY the people. These approaches will result in the fundamental goal of new democracy – to not only solve public problems, but in the process, to increase the number of problem solving people.

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The government is struggling with decisions on city infrastructure because it is trying to make each decision separately. That will not add up.

When people go to the city minister or the CM with demands, they don’t usually ask for an integrated plan. They instead ask for specific interventions in their areas.

If the government tries to please all such petitioners, it will end up with a medley of different projects that don’t make any sense together.

Instead, it should first draw up an approach to city development at three different scales – regional, city, and neighbourhood – as well as for different modes of transport – bus, walk, cycle, car, taxi etc.

Armed with this plan, it can work with individual interests to fit them into the larger scheme of things in an integrated way.

Putting together such a plan was done two years ago, and is available with the government as the recommendations of the Decongestion Committee. But there has been no movement in implementing it.

If we don’t do this, we’ll get silly things like magic boxes and steel flyovers and sky-walks that are closer to heaven than to earth.

However, to do this, it will take diligence and continuous effort. Mere power and directions will not do. Our departments need help in getting this done. Any vision for change, therefore, has to be accompanied by action that steers the course.

Ashwin Mahesh
About Ashwin Mahesh 85 Articles
Ashwin Mahesh has been involved in public policy for Bengaluru through his work with the Karnataka government. The views expressed here are his own. He is a member of the Lok Satta party. He is also CEO of Mapunity Information Services, and a director at Oorvani Media, publisher of Citizen Matters and India Together. He is also a visiting faculty with the Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore.

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