Mrinalini Darswal: Lessons in Inclusive Leadership: Collaboration in the decision process is as vital as the outcome

Mrinalini DarswalAfter two score years of dancing on the floor of public policy as an Indian public servant, I got an opportunity to be on the balcony to reflect on the arc of my leadership journey as a consultant to the India Research Center of Harvard for my summer immersion. I was part of a team working on the design of a curriculum on strategic communications for India’s decision-makers – the officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).

To customize the curriculum to the needs of Indian decision-makers, I conducted interviews with IAS officers and found myself interacting with former colleagues as an outsider! The interaction made me reminisce about my time in the IAS, when the ideas about leadership and public service were taking root inside me.

During one of my initial postings as a Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) in one of the remotest districts of India, a local NGO had requested me to help guide a group of executives from first-world philanthropy. Their money was routed to help indigenous tribes, the predominant community in the area. As the IAS officer in charge of the division, I translated, facilitated, and regulated the interaction, besides lending an iota of administrative formality and gravitas to the occasion.

The British Indian Civil service, the predecessor of the local IAS, bequeathed a modicum of “the white man’s burden” – i.e., the idea that the white race was morally obligated to civilize the non-white races on Indian bureaucracy, mixed with the administrative structure and jurisprudence. Also consigned was the colonial health system, perfected to ensure a constant supply of healthy labor. After decades of decolonization, that legacy still endures. I reflected that the established patterns, leadership styles, governance and policy paradigms, and helicoptered delivery, instead of carrying our nation on an assured path of development, perpetuated vicious traps where poverty begot more deprivation, and politico-economic structures condemned millions to struggle for bare sustenance.

The NGO had arranged for us to sit on the ground on a clean carpet with the villagers. However, the prospect made our guests visibly twitchy, prompting us to hurriedly put out rickety chairs borrowed from neighboring huts. Feeling the onus of making both groups comfortable, I, the liaison, stood on the side as the dynamic between the groups, as disparate as chalk and cheese, unfolded before me.

A field-level bureaucrat is a bridge between those who decide what development projects to pursue and those who benefit from it. Unfortunately, we do not perform well when it comes to spanning the communication gap between stakeholders. A go-between always leads to a splurge of intermediaries seeking rent from the development funds, generating a toxic cycle of corruption and patronage.

As our guests sat and spoke with the locals, I could not help mulling the infinite distance between the benefactor and the benefited, the leader and the led – curated by years of subjugation, neglect, and iniquitous distribution – though the physical distance between them was just a few feet. Even now, the locals had to look up to an outsider, even if symbolically.

I realized we must make space for the voices of the communities purportedly benefiting from such decision-making in the strategic war rooms, where their lives and livelihoods are only vaguely understood, passionately debated, and unilaterally settled. When the decision-makers celebrate a finalized plan, there is seldom a hand that belongs to the people—who, by assumption, profit from these efforts—available to pat their backs in appreciation.

Interviewing IAS officers for my summer immersion, I realized my experience was neither unique nor infrequent. Most Indian civil servants would gain from training on how to use strategic communications, which is the purposeful use of various evidence-based communication strategies to facilitate the implementation of public programs and generate public support for policy and its implementation in their work.

The interviews were a great reminder lesson in inclusivity. Back home, it would be acceptable to devise the course sitting in an office and deliver the final product in the classroom. But during immersion, when we spoke of involvement, we deployed it at every step. We incorporated the feedback to improve the content and pedagogy. I wondered what if the same process were to underlie the design of every public policy in India – inclusion and course correction on the advice of those affected? The IAS, considered the most potent type of bureaucrat in India, would finally rid itself of the sensibility of a British designed system that incentivizes the arms-length leadership and duly regard the dreams and aspirations of an emergent India in their policies and programs.

After 75 years of independence, the bureaucracy is dealing with a new, educated, and aspirational India that clamors for a role in hewing the development path. We need diverse, inclusive, collaborative, sensitive, courageous, risk-taking, and visionary leadership. As more complex, globally interrelated problems emerge, the linear, tried and tested solutions to existing issues tend to fall short of the expectations. These problems need inclusive inputs from the millions of stakeholders, the citizenry of India, for whose benefit all policies and programs exist. Alas, the change in leadership qualities, like everything else in bureaucracy, has been slow and has stayed out of step with the needs of the people.

Mrinalini Darswal, DrPH ’23, spent 20+ years serving her country as an Indian Administrative Services Officer and had the opportunity to work on the curriculum design on strategic communications for IAS officers in India with the India Research Center of Harvard for her summer field immersion.