5 Books that you should read as a student of Public Policy

The importance of designing and implementing sustainable and feasible policy measures has never been more important than now, when the world grapples to survive a pandemic. The ability to circumnavigate the barriers to most viable and realistic policy measures is the key determinant which separates a good policymaker from a regular policymaker. While one would certainly learn about some of these barriers through practice, there is a vast amount of literature that forewarns about them and the erratic and fissile world of policymaking.

To broadly illustrate the main hurdles to optimum policy-making, I am sharing with you a list of 5 books which have greatly benefitted me by expanding the scope of my understanding of issues and making me aware of all the considerations required before even designing a policy.

Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen

This ageless classic is the introductory text to policy-making that an aspiring policymaker must feast upon. Beyond introducing the idea that development can be defined in more ways than just in monetary terms, the book strongly backs the argument that development which empowers the individual economically, politically and socially is the wholesome and yet complex to achieve objective that policies should strive for. In a world with ever rising support for that oxymoron, ‘authoritarian development’, this book is a pertinent call to understanding that development is an exercise in expanding freedoms and any development that subjugates the people may be growth – but it certainly isn’t development.

Why Nations Fail by Darron Açemoglu and James Robinson

Why Nations Fail introduces policymakers to an obvious but easy to miss necessity of good policymaking: the quality of institutions. Açemoglu and Robinson build upon their existing scholarship to argue that the most fundamental building block of economic development, and by extension policymaking, is the quality of the institution under whose auspices that policymaking happens. Open and inclusive intuitions (democratic), that allow for many people to participate in them, tend to have better economic outcomes than closed and extractive institutions (authoritarian) where few people have access to decision-making and engage in the exploitation of those who are not part of the inner clique. In the process, the book tries to dismiss a few other theories of development i.e. culture, geography et al. Of course, this does not imply that the book is a self-sufficient explanation of economic development. Readers are cautioned against relying entirely on the it’s explanations as it fails to take into account factors like the role of the bureaucratic politics that may affect developmental outcomes. Nonetheless, it is an excellent read that all policymakers must be aware of.

The Anti-Politics Machine by James Ferguson

The Anti-Politics Machine is an excellent complementary read to Why Nations Fail as it investigates the claim that technical solutions (such as policy-prescriptions and developmental projects) are, by themselves, a sufficient condition to improve developmental outcomes. Through a study of development projects of the 1970s and 1980s in Lesotho, the book presents a strong hypothesis of how experts often tend to look at developmental problems as technical problems while ignoring the cultural context and the vast gamut of socio-political and economic relations/issues within the local community that underlie the community’s development outcomes. In such cases, the implementation of apolitical solutions, which fail to account for these socio-political and economic realities, tends to not only fail but also have unintended consequences such as expanding the powers of the self-serving bureaucracy through vast resource allocations (read aid) which may never reach the concerned community.

Essence of Decision by Graham T. Allison and Philip Zelikow

Albeit written in the context of the Cuban missile crisis and the US response, this book offers key insights into the myriad ways that a bureaucracy operates and tends to shape government decision-making. Given recurring developmental proclamations for institution building and technical solutions, this book refocuses attention to the internal politics that occurs within the bureaucracy during the decision-making stage. It analyses how governments arrive at decisions either based on departmental positions and standard operating procedures or through internal negotiations and bargaining between different departments based on policy positions. Overall, the book removes the aura that surrounds policymaking as a technical subject and reduces it to its base element of politics within the bureaucracy.

What the Economy Needs Now edited by Abhijit Banerjee, Gita Gopinath, Raghuram Rajan, and Mihir S. Sharma

To conclude this set, it would be important to recall that experts can fill the knowledge gap that exists between a bureaucrat’s perception of reality and reality as it exists. In that respect, this book aims to fill the massive hole in the area of policy expertise on Indian contemporary issues of economic importance. It offers concise chapter-wise insights into key policy areas by experts including top academics and government advisors. A key strength and weakness of this book lies in the fact that it does not delve into the nitty-gritties of political and economic considerations required for the implementation of the policies that it prescribes. Thus, this is an excellent beginner’s guide to aspiring policymakers looking for a succinct study of India’s economic woes with an introduction into possible courses of action.

Author: Dhruva Mathur