Recently, news comes in that the Union Government has spent 500 crores in consulting firms, especially the Big Four. Many of such spending has been in the contracts awarded by the Government to multinational consulting firms, which includes reputable names. To be fair, the Union Government and several State Governments have offered projects to foreign firms on various legitimate policy grounds for multiple sectoral projects. For example, the India-European Union relationship has driven the sense to develop public infrastructure across cities, thereby investing in India's infrastructure sector. There are also other such sectors such as Energy, Automobiles, Manufacturing and others where India has partnered with foreign consulting firms to bring real-time change and impact, which has been appreciative.
However, the option to enter into contracts with foreign consulting firms on projects pertaining to core policy questions, despite their contingents (representatives) being Indian employees, is concerning.
Let's understand this in the simplest of ways.
Why would a government intend to outsource their work to foreign consulting firms?
It is justified to offer contracts to foreign consulting firms to achieve any project. Governments worldwide, including those with conservative economic & political ideologies, often engage foreign consulting firms to handle various tasks and projects. While this practice may seem counterintuitive for conservative governments that emphasize self-reliance and domestic expertise, there are some reasons behind this decision. Even in India, since former PM Narsimha Rao's nothing-short-of-revolutionary way of liberalising the Indian economy in 1990s, the Union and State Governments have regularly engaged with foreign consulting firms. This is for a neoliberal turn for governments across the world to take help from foreign consulting firms. Here is a list of some plausible reasons why governments outsource their work to foreign consulting firms. Again, these reasons could reflect a government's ingenious interest to promote governance-related work to be done effectively.
Specialized Expertise and Experience
Foreign consulting firms have contingents who possess specialised expertise and experience in diverse domains, which could exceed the capabilities of domestic firms, especially when they are multinational firms. This expertise is particularly valuable for complex projects that require niche skills or knowledge not readily available within the country. Conservative governments recognize the benefits of leveraging external expertise to achieve their objectives effectively. Even France, with a wave of liberal governments had outsourced their policy work on COVID management to Baker McKinsey.
Cost-Effectiveness and Efficiency
Engaging foreign consulting firms can be a cost-effective solution in certain situations. For specialized projects that require a unique skill set, hiring external experts may be more economical than building in-house capabilities. Conservative governments, with their focus on fiscal responsibility, carefully weigh the costs and benefits before outsourcing work.
Capacity Building and Knowledge Transfer
Engagement with foreign consulting firms could foster capacity building and knowledge transfer within the government and local industries. Through collaboration and knowledge sharing, domestic experts can gain valuable insights and skills, enhancing their ability to handle future projects independently. Conservative governments, with their focus on long-term sustainability, view knowledge transfer as an investment in the future capabilities of the nation.
Now, the reasons as described show a set of trends. It is evident that capacity building is an issue governments would have to address. India does have a huge capacity deficit of policy experts, or specialists across domains, be it law, climate studies, architecture, history, or any other technical field. Another capacity deficit that India does have which remains ignored is the lack of infrastructure that supports policy specialists across domains. For example, state governments across do not have any policy ecosystems in which they could invest in and trust to analyse policy issues on any of the two aspects - (1) project-based hands-on issues, which have to be dealt in the realistic ways possible; or (2) core policy problems. Even in law, the Government of India relies on a shrinking number of think tanks for outsourcing some legal research, thereby creating a monopoly of a tiny number of think tanks - of repute - to get their work done. While the priorities of the Government seem to be set, the issue with such an approach could sideline the moral as well as practical necessity to utilise a much younger and talented segment of our population, who have domestic or foreign degrees in related areas, and can offer entrepreneurial solutions.
Adding the fact that ageism is also a problem where bureaucrats across the aisle have had a colonial, post-colonial and modern tendency to ignore the participation of the Indian youth in law, social science and policy professions, the list even narrows in a sense, which only reflects the lack of imagination and intent of governments in India - both Union and of the States, to truly contribute to policy innovation.
The outsourcing of policymaking, particularly to foreign MNCs and foundations, raises concerns far beyond mere sovereignty. While worries about competence, citizen participation, and political interference are valid, a closer look reveals deeper risks. I have provided a contrasting perspective of experiences with foreign consulting firms of two Quad partners - India and Australia.
First, over-reliance on foreign entities undermines national self-reliance and intellectual sovereignty.
For example, this mirrors Australia's initial heavy reliance on external consultants, raising concerns about its ability to develop its own policy expertise. Just as Australia's proposed AGC aims to build in-house capabilities, India must invest in domestic think tanks and attract top talent to foster innovation and critical thinking within its policy ecosystem.
Second, the opaque nature of outsourced processes raises questions about transparency and accountability.
Foreign firms often lack the same level of public scrutiny as domestic institutions. This echoes Australia's concerns about "jobs for mates" and the potential for hidden agendas. India needs clear guidelines on consultant engagement, rigorous evaluations, and increased public access to policy documents to ensure transparency and responsible decision-making.
Third, outsourcing policy prescriptions disenfranchises stakeholders.
Policymaking should be a collaborative process, as Australia's AGC recognizes by involving public servants across departments. India must empower its citizens, businesses, and NGOs by establishing public consultations, citizen forums, and participatory governance initiatives. Just as Australians were concerned about losing control over projects, Indians deserve a say in decisions that affect their lives.
Fourth, outsourcing fosters a culture of intellectual laziness within the bureaucracy.
Officials may abdicate responsibility for critical thinking, relying on pre-packaged solutions. This mirrors Australia's concerns about needing to "embed reforms across the APS" and develop internal skills. India needs to prioritize internal capacity building and encourage critical analysis to strengthen its long-term policymaking capabilities.
The solution lies in prioritizing domestic expertise, transparency, and stakeholder engagement:
Invest in domestic policy research institutions and think tanks. This mirrors Australia's establishment of the Australian Centre for Evaluation to ensure rigorous impact assessments. India needs similar mechanisms to foster a robust policy landscape.
Promote transparency and accountability in policymaking. Develop clear guidelines for consultant engagement, as Australia's AGC strives to do, and implement rigorous evaluation mechanisms to ensure responsible policymaking.
Empower and engage stakeholders in policymaking. Foster public consultations, citizen forums, and participatory governance initiatives, similar to Australia's efforts to involve public servants across departments. This ensures diverse voices are heard and incorporated.
Develop a long-term vision for India's policy landscape. This vision, like Australia's focus on "service that embodies integrity in everything it does," should prioritize national interests, sustainable development, and inclusive growth, while remaining open to global collaboration on specific issues where external expertise can add value.
India has the intellectual and human resources to be a global leader in policy innovation. By learning from Australia's experiences, prioritizing domestic expertise, fostering transparency, and empowering stakeholders, India can move beyond the trap of outsourcing and build a robust, independent, and responsive policymaking ecosystem. Only then can it truly achieve its full potential and contribute meaningfully to the global conversation on critical issues.
Building a Robust Policy Ecosystem: Beyond Outsourcing and Towards Revitalization
While concerns about outsourcing policymaking are valid, the deeper issue lies in the state of India's law, policy, and social science academia. These critical fields suffer from a lack of internal rigor, vibrant discourse, and effective engagement with stakeholders. To truly move beyond dependence on external consultants and build a robust policy ecosystem, India needs a multi-pronged approach that revitalizes its academic landscape.
State governments, while yet to fully utilize domestic policy talent, can be key players in this process. By engaging local think tanks, universities, and subject-matter experts in open and transparent discussions, they can tap into a wealth of knowledge and perspectives that are often overlooked. This can lead to more nuanced, locally-relevant policies that truly serve the needs of their citizens.
But simply throwing open the doors is not enough. We need a clear framework to guide this domestic debate and ensure its effectiveness. This includes:
Defining the scope of local tenders: Which policy issues benefit most from local expertise? What criteria should be used to determine when outsourcing is necessary? Open discussions and transparent guidelines can prevent conflicts of interest and ensure that domestic talent gets a fair shot. This should be done at least for core policy projects.
Establishing clear conflict of interest guidelines: The lines between expertise and vested interests can be blurry. Robust conflict of interest policies and disclosure mechanisms are essential to ensure that policy decisions are made based on evidence and sound reasoning, not private agendas. They also cannot be based on random and 'attractive' so-called 'data-driven insights', which often could be misleading due to the lack of subject-matter or domain specialisation to understand the meat of the policy problem, whether it is a core policy issue or an applied policy problem.
Moreover, engaging with domestic talent goes beyond simply hiring consultants. We need to foster a culture of open dialogue and debate within our universities, think tanks, and civil society organizations. This means encouraging critical thinking, challenging assumptions, and providing platforms for diverse voices to be heard.
Such a vibrant policy discourse is not only "fail-safe" – it's essential for ensuring policies are informed by a wide range of perspectives and are truly responsive to the needs of the people. It's also "healthy" for our democracy, promoting active citizenship and strengthening the foundations of a participatory society. Therefore, while short-term capacity building measures are crucial, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. Breaking free from the outsourcing trap requires not just technical skills but also a cultural shift towards valuing and nurturing domestic expertise, promoting open discourse, and empowering citizens to be active participants in shaping their own future.
Foster a culture of excellence: Unlike STEM fields, where standards of excellence are deeply ingrained, law and social sciences often lack this rigor. Encouraging peer-reviewed research, rigorous debates, and critical analysis is essential.
Embrace diversity of thought: Excessively centralized academic structures and gatekeeping by established voices stifle the emergence of fresh perspectives. Promoting regional and diverse academic voices will enrich the policy discourse.
Move beyond Delhi-centricity: The concentration of expertise in New Delhi creates an echo chamber that fails to capture the nuances of India's vast and diverse landscape. Engaging scholars and practitioners across the country is crucial for grounded and inclusive policymaking.
Shift universities from zombie companies to dynamic institutions: Universities need to move beyond administrative lethargy and political maneuvering. They must operate with a sense of public duty and focus on high-quality education and research.
Empower faculty: Discouraging political affiliations and promoting excellence in teaching and research will inspire faculty to become active contributors to the policy discourse.
Support student success: Universities should equip students with job-seeking and freelancing skills, preparing them for the evolving job market and enabling them to contribute to policy discussions.
Open doors to fresh voices: The government and established think tanks should actively seek out and engage with talented individuals and institutions outside their usual circles. This will infuse the policy landscape with new ideas and perspectives.
Promote public participation: Public consultations, citizen forums, and participatory governance initiatives are not just buzzwords; they are essential mechanisms for ensuring that policymaking reflects the needs and aspirations of the people.
Embrace collaboration: While outsourcing certain expertise may be necessary at times, it should not be the default solution. Building strong partnerships with domestic think tanks and universities will foster long-term knowledge creation and policy innovation.
The revitalization of India's law, policy, and social science academia is not a quick fix; it demands a sustained commitment to excellence, inclusivity, and stakeholder engagement. By fostering vibrant academic discourse, strengthening universities, and actively engaging with diverse voices, India can move beyond the trap of outsourcing and build a policy ecosystem that is robust, responsive, and truly serves the needs of its people.
This approach may seem daunting, but it is not a lost cause. By starting with the basics, such as improving teaching, fostering research, and supporting student success, universities can lay the foundation for a more dynamic and impactful academic landscape. And by opening their hearts and minds to a wider range of voices and perspectives, policymakers can ensure that the policies they craft are informed by the best minds India has to offer. The future of India's policy landscape is not predetermined; it is shaped by the choices we make today.
The allure of outsourcing policy might be seductive, but the cost to national self-reliance, intellectual sovereignty, and citizen engagement is far too high. It's time we break free from these gilded chains and forge a path towards a vibrant, independent policy ecosystem. We can build a policy landscape where universities are not zombie companies, but dynamic hubs of knowledge creation and engagement. Let's empower faculty to master teaching and research, not political maneuvering. Let's hire research assistants to free them from administrative burdens. Invest in student success, equipping them for the policy arena. Start with these seemingly small steps, and watch the ripple effect transform universities, funding, and ultimately, the quality of our policymaking. You anyways have a pro-active National Education Policy. You just need some contagious forms of trust-based hardcore interventions to support policy and law ecosystems in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities as well, for domestic consultants, industry academia and university academia - all three of them.
This journey won't be paved with quick fixes; it's a marathon, not a sprint. It requires sustained commitment, a willingness to learn from others, and a relentless pursuit of excellence. But remember, the reward is a nation empowered, informed, and wielding its own intellectual capital with pride.
So, let us not fall prey to the siren song of outsourcing. Let us embrace the challenge of building a policy ecosystem that reflects the unique spirit and aspirations of India. Let us choose self-reliance, not dependence. Let us choose a future where India's own minds guide the way. None of this happens without support. Universities need a helping hand, a lifeline to break free from their zombie state. Hire research assistants, free faculty to focus on their core strengths, and empower students to contribute their talent. Start with these basics, and watch the tide turn.
The path to policy sovereignty lies not in external consultants, but in nurturing the intellectual fire within our own borders.