Solving public problems isn’t the job of a few!

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If you ask people about their local RWA or apartment association, they’ll tell you a lot of uncharitable things. Words like ‘bickering,’ ‘clueless,’ ‘no communication’ etc. will dominate the response. And if you stop to think about it, you’ll realise that there are a lot of parallels between this and how they think about politics and governance of the country itself. What’s going on?

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First, solving public problems isn’t the responsibility of a few people. For legal and practical reasons we have formed these things – RWAs, industry associations, religious trusts, ward committees, city councils, state legislatures, parliament – but there is a vast different between functionally organising ourselves and pursuing ideas of progress together. These are very different worlds, and understanding that is important to getting the best of any of them.

People respond to inspiration, more than anything else. That means that our strategy for problem solving must be connected, in their minds, to lofty ideas that they agree with and endorse.

And that’s where our politics has gone wrong, at all levels. We are not sufficiently reminding ourselves WHY we do the things that we are doing. The motivations we articulate must connect with people. If we imagine that security guards and office bearers and elected representatives can substitute for this, we will only disappoint ourselves.

Changing language and perspectives

Some of it is changing. The language of “India first,” and “down with corruption” is replacing schemes and programs as that major determinants of how people vote. That will get even more powerful if we get more specific with the outcomes we seek. “A real education for every child.” “A living wage for all work,” “kids need public spaces too,” “the road is not just for cars” are arguments than can move a lot of hearts, and minds.

There are two things that we can do, at all levels, that can quickly help – set the goals in a very public way, and provide constant reminders of those goals. The activities carried out to achieve those goals will still be needed, but without the public articulation and the constant recollection of that ‘purpose,’ we will take a lot of things for granted. And end up being cynical about choices we have ourselves made. We even forget that the choices were made by us! If you had to sign in at a register every time you visit your friend, it’s hard to remember that friendship is the core of those visits.

We are constantly doing little things that we hope will improve our lives. But most of this seems like a rule here, a rule there. “No speeding,” “do not spit,” “remove your shoes,” ‘until 8 PM only,” “Always display your badge,” “visitors must sign” and so on. If we throw that lens away and instead put on the positive ones that we say drives our choices we’ll come to very different conclusions, and outcomes.

Ultimately, whether we segregate trash at home or whether walking in our campuses and neighbourhoods is safe, or whether our security guards have a place to sit while on the job, is as much a reflection of ourselves as the things we seek from the governments we elect. To be sure, there are other issues – knowledge, competence, egos, disagreements, corruption – that don’t get addressed by the large canvas alone, and for that the details will always be needed. But first we have to decide who we are. The rest will be much easier.


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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.