Think tank woes

  • The government’s promise of cooperation has fallen short

May 22, 2019-

It seems that the future of the Policy Research Academy, formed last September, is in jeopardy. It has now emerged that the government think tank’s founding head, Chaitanya Mishra, had put in his papers more than a week ago. The think tank has been controversial since its initiation, and Mishra’s resignation in less than eight months since its founding is sure to put its workings in further disarray. With parts of its mandate clashing with the well-established National Planning Commission (NPC), the government needs to define a clear cut path for the functioning of the Academy or risk dragging along yet another ineffective bureaucratic agency on the tax payer’s dime.

In a Cabinet decision on September 17, 2018, the government had decided to establish the Policy Research Academy as a permanent body under the Prime Minister’s Office, saying that it would be a think tank of experts that would carry out independent research on ‘development, construction, security, foreign relations, and good governance, among others’ and recommend policies to the government on the same. If this sounds familiar, it is because most of the Academy’s mandate overlaps with the mandate of the National Planning Commission—also under the Prime Minister’s Office—leading experts to question the need to form this second body focused on recommending policy. A former vice-chairman of the NPC, Swarnim Wagle, had said that he saw no relevance in the establishment of a second think tank since the objectives of the Commission had been revised after the implementation of federalism to make ‘it a premier think tank to undertake various policy-related research for the government, apart from foreign affairs and security’ and that the recommendations for the latter two could be provided by the Institute of Foreign Affairs.

Even with the scope of their work clashing, Prime Minister KP Oli and his government were bent on establishing the Policy Research Academy. During the introductory meeting of the Academy in November 2018, Oli blamed the slow pace of development in his first nine months in office on ‘faulty’ policy recommendations, seemingly laying the blame on the body responsible for recommending policy—the National Planning Commission. Indeed, some Nepal Communist Party leaders told The Kathmandu Post that party insiders had long felt that the planning commission had become ‘too budget-oriented, bureaucratic, and had a limited role to advise the government’. While this may be true, the government is responsible for cleaning up its agencies when the work produced is not satisfactory. The need for a whole new think tank, instead of the redevelopment of the existing one, seemed suspect then.

The government then had promised that the Research Academy’s independence, and said that its scope to study the impact of implemented policy and conduct critical research made it a necessity. In fact, Oli had himself promised non interference on numerous occasions. This obviously did not happen, with Mishra himself citing bureaucratic and logistical hurdles in a recent interview and insiders at the Academy saying that the government’s uncooperative attitude was the reason behind Mishra’s resignation. If the government cannot fulfil its own promises on ensuring independence, we will have two policy think tanks within the Prime Minister’s Office mired in bureaucratic hurdles. What is then the point of the second one? For good policy recommendations to shine through, the government needs to clearly define and separate the mandates of the NPC and the Policy Research Academy, and it needs to ensure independence and autonomy for both.

Published: 22-05-2019 09:25

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