Citizens can help govt by jogging its memory, and helping with skills

Concrete blocks of median almost level with the road. Pic: Raghukumar C

The easiest way to work with government is to solve some of their problems. We often think that the government should solve our problems, but in practice, they have many of their own!! And unless those are sorted first, there’s no chance of anything we want being tackled well.

There are some standard problems in government that citizens can help solve. Once we understand this, it’s only a matter of finding things to get started with. After that, it’s quite easy to build a good working relationship with officials to pursue solutions to public problems.

Broadly, there are two categories of problems that sarkar needs help with. The first is to do with skills that don’t exist in government, because the staffing hasn’t included that. Design is a good example of such a skill. Many jobs in government need design skills, but there’s no one to do that on the rolls of the government. So, if you can add that to some problem-solving effort, that’s welcome in government.

The other type of deficit is in momentum and memory. Because of constant changes in leadership and key staff through transfers, and because these transfers are between unrelated departments in many cases, there’s loss of momentum. A good officer may initiate something, but once she’s transferred, it is anyone’s guess if the next person will continue the initiative. In fact s/he may know nothing of it.

In such a situation, the only people who can maintain institutional memory are the citizens themselves. Engagement, therefore, becomes a way of being able to continue to do things across the tenures of many people.

Another thing I’ve learned from trying these things: the participation of citizens makes the government space a little more peer-based, whereas otherwise it is entirely hierarchical. In a peer-based network, more people propose solutions to problems, since they feel they will be heard. And that’s an important part of the answer – increasing the number of problem solving people.


Internal capacity building in government is an important part of our quest for development. The mad rush to outsource everything in the last 20 years has virtually hollowed out a lot of departments, leaving them unable to do even the core functions of their jobs. We can have as much angst as we like about sarkar not doing this or that, but the plain truth is that in many departments there isn’t enough internal capacity to do things.

We’ll have to tackle this systematically, and also try to see how we can achieve some results quickly. One of the most effective ways that I have encountered is a new kind of PPP. That much abused term, public-private partnership, is often nothing more than outsourcing in a new look. Instead of that, we need to bring together the knowledge capital of the private sector to work with the people in the public sector.

People in different professional streams know things. Especially technical things that are not known at all in government. They’ve also had a lot more practice at re-engineering processes, whereas governments tend to stick with one formula for decades past the use-by dates. This knowledge, and the networks between professionals, can help do new things in government. And a very large number of people will be willing to help freely, so we don’t even need to spend much money doing this.

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About Ashwin Mahesh 96 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.