It is unfortunate that the words ‘government’ and ‘relations’ taken in conjunction commonly inspire perceptions of inaccessibility and hopelessness. Navigating this diplomatic tightrope may be a skill perfected by a blend of tact and credibility, but real-time experience goes a long way too.
While ivory-towered optimism is always eclipsed by the realities on ground, I don’t think starting off with that attitude is necessarily a bad thing, as long as expectations driven by that passion is managed well. I speak from personal experience when I offer this caveat, because for all the policies that are in place to ensure good practises, the execution phase can be very challenging.
I moved to Bihar in 2015 – following years of spearheading a pilot program of Quest Alliance to deliver quality education to schools in India. Monikered Anandshala, the project has been aiming at bringing about large scale systematic reform at the district level, starting from a small hamlet called Samastipur.
Having traversed this sticky territory for over five odd years, one would expect me to have an Idiot’s Guide on Government Relations ready to go. The ground reality, however, is that a cookie cutter approach doesn’t work. Engaging with the movers and shakers of the sector varies depending on the geography and, more importantly, on the political hierarchy one is dealing with – be it at the State or the district level.
Having said that, there are some key practises and learnings that has held me in good stead throughout my (ongoing) journey. Here are but a few of them – curated and during my stint with Anandshala: –
Effective advocacy strategy: A crucial step to achieving Anandshala’s vision has been to ensure that the program is institutionalized by the district through advocacy. While it may be true that the objective of such an undertaking is to influence policy changes, beginning a correspondence with a proposal for a radical change in policy is not the right approach.
A good start would be to identify the right people in the system and align with them to catalyse effective execution of policies. It is also prudent to understand that scale matters a lot in such meetings and needs to be accounted for when charting out one’s advocacy agenda. To this end, one’s vision should be communicated effectively when dealing with these functionaries and care needs to be taken before bringing them on board.
Lateral entry to good Government relations: While it is safe to assume that most – if not all – non-profits start off with a clear vision, it is also important to understand and respect the fact that government functionaries are also doing what it takes to design and implement its various programs.
Keeping this in mind, I understood very early on that an alternate (and better) route will be to look for existing government entries instead of building parallel processes. In the context of education, setting up one’s own curriculum as opposed to the one perhaps started by the government is not a sustainable model. The idea here is to complement the government’s work and not position oneself as more able or better-equipped when it comes to coming up with solutions.
Understand key stakeholders: The pay-off of doing a deep dive into understanding key stakeholders as well as beneficiaries cannot be emphasized enough. Feedback that filter through these entities will help gather further insights into how to effectively run an intervention and thereby, find oneself on top of the government agenda. The aforementioned stakeholders can be government functionaries, headmasters/headmistresses, teachers as well as students.
My experience has taught me that it is crucial to work with existing stakeholders in the educational system – be it the state as well as district education departments –and make them partners in the change process. Headmasters and teachers are key players too and can and should be empowered to make real changes in their individual schools. Care should be taken to ensure that they are aligned to the larger idea of what the district is trying to change. In practice, however, there is often a disconnect – and that needs to be given more attention.