Annapoorna Ravichander: Can you tell us a few things about yourself?
Suresh Raghavan: I have a background in the natural sciences, and a record of extensive work on the ground on livelihoods and natural resource management. In addition, I have worked in several capacities – field manager, strategic manager, programme manager for funding organisations, network builder, freelance consultant, etc. I have developed a special interest in organisational learning and knowledge management, and incorporated several working tools on participatory management into my repertoire. I had a working experience of about twenty five years when I was contacted by the Public Affairs Centre.
As an independent consultant, I had managed a successful project for PAC for over a year when the incumbent Director left office. After a short spell as Acting Director, I was offered the position of Director of PAC by the Board, which I accepted. I was well-prepared for this position as I had had a year’s experience of watching PAC from the ‘outside’, and was alerted to the major fault lines in the organisation with regard to structure, personnel and finances. I had also led the internal discussions at PAC on strategy formulation for a perspective plan. I was able to hit the road running when right from the start.
AR: Why and how did you join PAC?
SR: I took up this position in the genuine belief that PAC could do much better in terms of its relevance to India’s many development problems if it took a less insular view of its own obligations. PAC had positioned itself as a research NGO, generating learning through its many applications of social accountability tools and offering them to others for expansion, elaboration and application if necessary.
In my opinion, however, PAC had not picked up the gauntlet on ‘walking the talk’ enough. This could be attributed to the nature of its personnel and the hesitation of its Board in wanting to directly engage with forces against transparency and accountability in public delivery systems.
I believed that I had all the right starting points to initiate this organisational transformation.
I began with a series of internal organisational workshops to generate consensus on the change needed, the resources available, and a game plan. After generating enthusiasm and bringing the governance structure on board, the task reduced to a challenge of work organisation and resource generation for the transformation.
AR: What have been your challenges as an ED, in terms of, retaining human capital, raising and managing funds, engagement with different audience?
SR: Modernising an organisation presents a few difficulties with regard to vitalising old attitudes of organisational change, empowering key team members to act alongside for the revised goals, and replacing intransigent elements who represent a decadent view. I was most fortunate that I had the complete support of the founder of the organisation who agreed with my view of rejuvenation.
The first challenge in this task was to raise the funds necessary to re-configure the Public Affairs Centre as an organisation that meant business, not only in terms of its research approaches and unique competencies, but also with regard to altering its research path to include key action elements so that on-ground change was visible. The announcement of the Think Tank Initiative in early 2009 was the trigger for PAC to earnestly firm its conceptual understanding of the change required at the organisational level, and use this as the basis for an application. This was successfully defended and the partnership with the Think Tank Initiative from 2010 has proved to be the primary sustenance for the transformation process. This partnership also attracted attention from several other important donors who offered resource support to flesh out several key strategic and operational plans that PAC had produced for itself during its conceptual development process.
The next challenge was to strengthen administrative regimens within PAC so that it ran largely on auto-pilot, with some discretionary and statutory elements within the control of the Director. Refreshing the administration team became a priority and this was accomplished through the careful recruitment of motivated and senior personnel who could be depended upon, and removing old team members from key positions of responsibility. This move released the time of the ED to focus on programme direction and quality assurance.
Beyond this, the key functions of programme design, definition and roll-out were entrusted to senior personnel. They were delegated powers to choose their teams, and to manage resources approved by their budgets. The ED retained a say in commenting on the quality of outputs, and timely delivery. Credit for work done was also appropriately devolved to those directly involved with projects and activities. Programme redesign was a frequent topic of discussion in the early days, as specific and targeted outputs and outcomes required better and more-focused activity definition.
Refreshing the team periodically was an important task, as there was a constant turnover of personnel for career reasons. Identifying stable and reliable sources of trained young people willing to work for relatively low salaries (compared to what the corporate sector could offer) and to commit to a cause which was nebulous but important required the calibration of recruitment procedures to assess technical fit, social fit, as well as financial fit. Over time, this more systematic recruitment process led to the development of a stable young team willing to commit a few years of their lives under the guidance of senior and experienced persons, to acquire a unique perspective of the development opportunities of a growing country like India.
The shift in strategy towards a more direct engagement with communities along with working with policy makers meant that the team also had to be reoriented appropriately. A raft of participatory tools that were familiar to the ED and some senior personnel were presented to the team, and systematic training in these, as well as incorporation of these tools within the existing set of social accountability approaches, became a priority. This led to a renewed sense of mission and direction besides contributing to team bonding in field situations.
AR: How do you chose a research domain or a project? Is there any specific agenda or method that you follow?
SR: PAC has defined its core domain areas for the next five years in its latest strategic plan. The plan envisages equal facility with sectoral specificities as well as research approaches when engaging with a new domain. To this end, each project is chosen and designed to exploit our potentials and assessed for new learning on a process basis, with the support of external peers as well as working partners. This accompaniment process allows for the incorporation of new ideas even while a project is being executed.
AR: How has your interaction with your Board members been over this period of change?
SR: The Board has consistently supported most of the transformational elements proposed by the team, although all the implications of these measures have not always been internalised by them. Trust from the Board has been a hallmark of my time at the Public Affairs Centre. Besides administrative sanction, the Board has, from time to time, offered network bridges and project ideas to the team.
The Board has, unfortunately, not spent adequate time with the team members to understand their motivations and lines of growth. In my opinion, the Board of a think tank needs to directly engage with all members of the team if only to appreciate the drivers of transformation within the organisation. This needs to be done without treading on the ED’s toes.
AR: What have been your key learnings as the Executive Director of PAC?
SR: It has been an honour and a privilege to have had the opportunity to lead a young team towards a new purpose over the past seven years.
The most important learning has been that providing space for subordinates leads to the blooming of special potentials for people and teams. A lighter hand with super-ordination almost always leads to pleasant surprises with respect to innovation and creativity. At that point all that is required is a steady hand to streamline new learning into styles and modes that are familiar to the larger world we operate in.
An important learning with regard to gaining credibility with your peers is that honesty of opinion is valued, and an open discussion on a burning topic can generate much empathy and perhaps an offer of a collaboration. Clichéd responses attract similar responses and do not advance your cause very much.
On the whole, thinking on your feet is the primary quality for a leader. The failure to cultivate this may result in the loss of a great opportunity when it presents itself. At the same time, this capacity to envision on one’s feet needs to be balanced with an equal discipline to refrain from being all things to all men. There is much at stake when a leader commits to an action – resources, time, and most of all, the goodwill of your team.
AR: How has the think tank community and broader landscape changed since you joined PAC? What do you think the future holds for it?
SR: The think tank community has been a vibrant space for different opinions and ideologies. Over time, the weight of national pressures is increasingly felt when presentations are made, or issues discussed. This indicates that spaces for think tanks to work in are shrinking significantly. Maintaining a sense of perspective and direction in times of stress is the primary challenge that a think tank faces over time. Not to mention the financial pressures that are faced by any organisation that is not inherently viable and dependent on largesse from within or outside the country. Within networks, leadership and power are issues that persist, and many think tanks leaders are unable to balance their organisational pressures with the demands of community action on behalf of all think tanks.
Whether the future is bright or otherwise within a national sphere, it is important that think tanks continue to produce and disseminate balanced and non-partisan views of government and development so that the thinking public is offered alternatives with regard to choices of governance and strategic direction.