Don’t want to do a regular MBA? Here’s why Public policy is a far better option

By Tarun Sharma

Tarun Sharma is the Director, Nagrika, Alumni from Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore.

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While sitting over tea, one of my colleagues asked me, “What do you tell people when they ask you that what have you studied and what is it that your organization does?” I paused for a moment and recalled an incident about 9 years back when I was interning in the summer break between my 1st and 2nd year at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. The landlady of a friend whom I was conversing with, got interested in some part of our conversation. She asked me what am I studying. And I told her I am a student of public policy. Her face beamed and she said that even her policy was about to expire and if I had any better policies with money back options. Yes, she thought that I had something to do with Life Insurance Policies. I told my colleague that we have come a long way from that conversation. Not only in the evolution of better insurance plans but also the perception of public policy in India. And hence it is not difficult to explain what we do now as it was then.

When I applied for the public policy course a decade ago, I had a vague idea why I wanted to apply for this course. From my undergraduate college, I immediately joined a multinational management consulting firm in a research role. I was working on financial and strategic issues of Fortune 500 companies to expand their market share and improve their financial bottom-lines. However, I could not relate to my work. I felt that the outcomes of my work reflected more in terms of economic profits and less in terms of social change. Borrowing from the concepts of my economics degree, I realized that my quest was to find a sector that dealt with public or common goods. The closest answer to this quest was to join Indian civil service which I didn’t want to do. The next answer I found was to do a public policy degree.

When I started looking for people to talk to about this course, I found only one person with such a degree from my immediate network. I talked to some civil servants and my undergraduate professors and both showed either little interest or encouragement with regards to the course’s prospects. Almost all my peers that they and I knew either applied for a Masters in Economics or an MBA.

I, however, went ahead and applied for this course. And I have been happy without any regrets. It has given me a fulfilling career and more importantly, satisfaction. In my purpose statement written exactly 10 years ago, I stated that I wish to gain knowledge and sensibility every policymaker should have to design and implement successful policies with concrete outcomes. My 2 years at LKYSPP taught me exactly that.

The course is research-oriented and focuses on the entire policy cycle. This cycle starts by setting the agenda where you recognize the core problem. Then you move on to policy formulation where you propose policy-driven solutions. Next step is to make the decision with regards to choosing the right policy solution from various alternatives. And this is eventually followed by actual implementation of policies. However, the role of policy professionals doesn’t end here and once a policy is employed, one needs to monitor the results as well.  The public policy school has multiple courses and course elements (in the form of assignments, case-studies, simulation exercises, thesis and others) which bring alive these stages of policy cycle during those two years.  For example, you might be writing a policy position paper that suggests the best mode of water service delivery in a habitation based on cost-benefit analysis of various alternatives available including piped water supply, water vendors, water kiosks, water hand-pumps etc. Or you might be asked to generate an interagency capability index which assesses the effectiveness of coordination between different public agencies and provide recommendations to improve coordination between them. I specialized in urban policy during my time at the school with a lot of my learning focused on land policy, housing policies, land use planning, urban governance, infrastructure pricing, regulatory practices and so on.

However, the class-based learning was only one part of my education at LKYSPP. A significant amount of learning was from the multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-regional environment I studied in. There were students from 26 nationalities in my class. I lived in a house with a Buddhist, a Muslim and a Christian. The professors who taught us also were from all over the world, with experience in diverse professional settings including academia, multilateral organizations, diplomacy, civil services and others.  The learning from interacting with this amazing mix of people was a quantum jump in my learning in those two years. I also got important lessons in community life, group, and teamwork, taking initiatives and many other life skills during these two years. These life skills have been equally important in overall personal and professional growth.

Today as I write this in 2018, the acceptance and visibility of public policy alumni have grown significantly in India. Every year I get emails or messages from many prospective applicants asking questions about the school. I know of people who did their master’s in economics and went on to do another master’s in public policy. The scope of public goods and services has grown manifold in last decade. The pressure on their demand is so immense that it might not be logical to expect only the government to provide these service and other partners need to step up. It has been difficult for government actors and institutions as well, to provide for all these goods and services alone. And hence there is a demand for qualified and keen professionals who can share this task.  And it is not just government which has opened to public policy graduates but the doors have been open also in the third sector, academia, journalism, consulting and many such fields. Public policy is an exciting field and the times ahead are even more exciting.

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