Public policy studies – A discipline whose time has come

Despite a global focus on Asia’s economic growth and the need to develop talent for emerging industries and the knowledge economy, the importance of developing the skills to govern these economies is often overlooked.

But Kishore Mahbubani, founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) School of Public Policy (LKY) at the National University of Singapore, believes public policy studies is being recognised as a discipline whose time has come – not just to train people to serve their countries, but also to solve global problems.

The Western financial crisis has underlined its importance.

“When the chips were down and banks began to fail all over the place, only governments could come in and rescue the global financial system,” Mahbubani argues. “One of the key lessons from the financial crisis is that public goods are essential to keep societies in good shape.

“Public policy as a field is about what governments can or should do for the common good,” say Mahbubani and other LKY professors, Kanti Bajpai and Scott A Fritzen, in a book just published by World Scientific, Building a Global Policy School in Asia.

“The starting point for public policy studies is the notion that governments are the most important agents of policies towards the common good, and that the common good is a central aim of government functioning,” they write.

Governments may not be the only bodies acting in the public good, and some may only serve their political masters rather than their public.

“Public policy-making is often plagued by extreme fragmentation and initially debilitating, rather than synergistic, actions across agencies and levels of government: venality and pathology can therefore make governments dysfunctional in terms of the common good.”

And good public governance is also vital for the private sector. “If critical public goods like safety and security, education and health care, or even water, electricity and waste disposal are not provided well, the private sector cannot perform,” the authors note.

Need to strengthen governance in Asia

LKY, established in 2004, is now eight years old. “We were created at the right time because governance is back,” says Mahbubani. “There’s a deep hunger in Asia to strengthen institutions of governance. And that’s our mission; to train the next generation of Asian leaders.”

He describes public policy studies as a “sunrise industry”. Demand for public policy education and research at LKY has been “phenomenal”, says Mahbubani, who as a career diplomat served as Singapore’s permanent representative to the United Nations, before turning to academia.

He points to new public policy schools opening up, such as the Blavatnik School of Public Policy at Oxford University, which opened last month with its first cohort, and others joining the Global Public Policy Network, which in May expanded from just four institutions including LKY, Columbia University in the United States, the London School of Economics and France’s Sciences Po, to seven earlier this year.

The new members reflect a change in the geography of public policy to include institutions in Tokyo, São Paolo and Berlin, and underscores the thinking that governance is not just a Western idea.

New schools of public policy are also opening in Delhi and in Kazakhstan, and they have turned to LKY for advice and examples of good teaching practice.

Although it may not face many of the challenges of the larger and poorer countries in Asia such as India and China, Singapore as a state is often admired for its governance and provides a ‘laboratory, for LKY’s international students, says Mahbubani.

Western origins, but steeped in Asia

LKY has grown from 40 students from a handful of countries to around 330 students from more than 50 countries. Only one in five is Singaporean. South East Asia, India and China each account for another 20% of the student body, with a fifth from the rest of the world.

Mahbubani acknowledges the programme’s Western roots – its postgraduate curriculum is derived from that of Harvard’s Kennedy School – but says such schools must move forward to resolve the problems of emerging Asia, including its giants India and China, and of the developing world.

“A school of public policy rests on three pillars. It rests on economics, politics, and also on leadership and management skills, so we try to train and develop them in those three areas. At the same time we try to have more Asian content, Asian case studies, so that when [students] go back, they take experience which is relevant to them that they can apply.

“For the first time the Western, and more specifically US, experience is no longer necessarily the gold standard. Public policy research is beginning to examine the experiences and practices of other societies and learn lessons from them.

“The experiences and practices of countries that have been successful in economic transformation – many of which are in Asia – are coming to be regarded as highly instructive for other countries in the global South and beyond.”

Public policy is becoming increasingly global and, he notes, “there is no doubt that Asia's emerging and developing countries will have to play a bigger role on the world stage”.

This brings Mahbubani to his favourite theme, and one he has aired in his writings before: that the past two centuries of Western domination are a “historical aberration” which, like all aberrations, will end eventually, returning Asia to the global centre-stage.

Preparing for the Asian century

“It’s quite clear that the 21st century is the Asian century and the shift towards Asia of global economic power will continue. Despite the current slowdown [in Asia], the Asian economies will continue to grow but the biggest challenge is that the institutions of governance are going to have a very hard time catching up with all this growth,” he says.

“You can see in one form or another all over Asia that governance challenges are emerging, whether it’s in China or India or Thailand. So it’s very clear that the region needs a good school of public policy to prepare more people for more challenges of governance.

“Public policy has largely been a Western social science, developed on the assumption that it had universal applicability. History has proven this assumption to be flawed. We now have an opportunity to reshape the thinking of future leaders by exposing them to Asian experiences.”

Mahbubani also points to the Asian middle-class, which numbers approximately 500 million people. “By 2020 this will explode to 1.75 billion.”

“It would be unwise for Asian governments to continue on auto-pilot as their societies experience a major transformation,” he says, adding they will have to adapt and adjust the way they govern “and indeed many have already begun doing so".

He continued: “It is also clear that many are learning from each other. In the midst of this great search for best methods of good governance in Asia, there will inevitably be a need for a great intellectual watering hole (such as LKY) to bring together current and future generations of Asian policy-makers to study and reflect on best practices.

“Our aim is very simple. We feel that anyone who spends one to two years in our school will go back equipped with some real new skills that he or she can apply to do a better job. It could be railways in India or the foreign affairs department in Shanghai.”