Eisenhower Fellowships- South Asia 2012


(Nipun Vinayak (India) Nov 12, 2012)

I would not call Eisenhower Fellowships a starting line for taking off. Not because, I think it is less significant; but because life is a continuous learning process, a journey. And Eisenhower Fellowships was a very important part of this journey.

Having travelled across more than fifteen places in USA, looking at various issues, specifically and generally, the learnings are immense. And it may not be possible to pen all of them right now. The lessons learnt will come back to us, surely at the appropriate times; when we apply those more precisely to our work and personal lives.

Observations and Takeaways 

Four things stand out through this journey of USA.

  1. India is arriving
  2. The approach
  3. The pleasure of friendship
  4. Inspiration and Ideas

Let’s talk about these. The first observation is very dear to my heart. I want to believe this, and trust this; and be passionate about this, even if there is no evidence for this. But there is evidence. To see is to believe. When I filled up the Eisenhower form, I had mentioned that an exposure to a foreign country (or any new thing, for that matter) opens eyes, and increases confidence and resolve. This had happened to me when I visited UK in 2008 and felt that India could be there in few decades. Now (in USA), the exposure was much deeper, wider. And while there are challenges, I do believe that the future belongs to India. I was very happy to find Edward Glaeser, Professor of Economics at Harvard substantiate the potential wealth of India in the coming years. The hope is important, because it gives you power to overcome challenges and stay focussed. The hope is exciting, because you are thankful that you are in that part of the world at this juncture of history, and are poised to witness and contribute to it.

Some of the potential reasons for being optimistic about India are- young population, English speaking population, growing maturity of democratic institutions and bubbling energy of social entrepreneurship. Lest this learning should be deemed as ‘nationalist, I want to place on record that this is not. This is ‘internationalist’. For if the world has to grow and progress as a whole, the developing nations must catch up with the standards of developed countries.

The second learning is the approach. This is the environment and the system in which all other virtues blossom. This is also the ‘gap closure’, the ‘binder’ without which other things do not create an impact. USA is a capitalist/competitive model. Everyone here has an opportunity to prove himself/herself. The system supports that, provided you really have the desire/dedication. The flexibility of the system is more ‘facilitative’ in directing everyone towards his/her true potential. Thus, everyone finds his/her ‘niche’, where he/she contributes to raise the overall bar.  Competition brings out the best in you. Many public service delivery systems also revolve around sustainable ‘business models’. These are contextual and depend on the stage of development of a country. Hence, these may not be necessarily replicable ‘as is’. However, it makes sense to explore these models to various situations, wherever and whenever possible. This model also builds in enough checks and balances to bring a level of maturity in the entire system. Thus political accountability- a Mayor with full executive power, or a District Attorney with discretion- is ensured, and is a sign of a mature system.

The third takeaway is the newly developed friendships with co-fellows, and a chance to catch up with some of the old friends here. The stories of these ‘positives’ inspire you and reinforce ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’ theory. The immigrants who come to this country imbibe quickly this, and go on to contribute to the greatness of this country. This is the real ‘gentrification’ that has happened to this Nation and holds lessons for other countries as well.

The fourth takeaway is the new ideas, inspirations and reinforcement of some beliefs. I may mention here only the important ones. All of these are in context of public service specifically, and society generally. The first one is hard work. Pure hard work. The USA does not take many holidays. One person does the work of more than one. They multi-task, where ever possible. A Starbucks person will bill for you, make you the coffee, and clean up the counter as well. A taxi driver will work for 10-12 hours. And they don’t stop working when they get older. (I don’t know if that is by choice). Thus you have a 75 year old tourist guide and a woman in her seventies as a bus driver. Everyone is contributing to the economy.[1]

The second one is reliance on evidence and research. The ‘right questions’ are asked and encouraged. Policy is not the ‘gut feeling’ or ‘ideology’ of someone[2], but has a well-researched basis. Thus the District Attorney of San Francisco is not advocating restorative justice because he believes that is correct; he does so because there is evidence to believe that incarceration does not help enough. The ‘strategic planning’ is another tool to think ahead. There is lack of complacence. Probably, a big chunk of this comes from the brilliant system of education, especially higher education.

The third idea is ‘excellence’ and ‘meritocracy’.[3] Thus NIH will sponsor for post doc no one, but the best. Internationally. The final idea is the contribution of partnerships (public –private) and philanthropy[4] to the final outcome.

The table below highlights the topics explored during the fellowship. Each one of these discussions brought learnings and conclusions, which I have penned in those essays respectively.

Table 1

City wise exploration of issues

S. No City Issues explored
1 Washington DC Working of Federal Government (Public Health), Think Tanks
2 Detroit De-industrialisation, Housing, Social Justice, Representative vs. Participative democracy, community efforts
3 NYC Resurgence, Leadership, Public Transportation, Urbanisation (Density as good for city)
4 Cleveland Suburbs, School education, Networking, Stay hungry, stay foolish
5 Portland, OR Civic engagement, Environmental sustainability, Regional cooperation, Social entrepreneurship
6 San Francisco Disability issues, Public housing, restorative justice, equity
7 Navajo Nation Native American issues
8 Santa Fe Art and Culture
9 Chicago New Urbanism, Urban Agriculture
10 Boston Higher education, Evidence-based policy, Education- Policy synergy

Thus, it is evident that the fellowship objectives originally conceived continued to evolve as I visited different cities in USA. In a way, this was more beneficial, as being in the public service, we must appreciate looking at issues holistically. Moreover, our roles change every few years, and it is the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of things, that are bigger lessons to us than the ‘what’. (The feedback on individual meetings, their rankings and key learnings/recommendations for their continual engagement has been separately provided to the P.O.).


We keep two things in mind, when we discuss this.

  1. The leadership code[5]
  2. Facilitative leadership

It is also much more informative to be in USA to witness the Presidential election. Whatever political colour one may belong to, the increasing participation of people[6] in the election process is a healthy sign for democracy[7]. We feel that time is coming in India too, when people want to be part of public policy and are increasingly daring to enter the ‘system’.

The factors which influence both, components of 1 and 2 above are:

  • Conditions for development of ‘independent’ thinking mind-set (in part, through the competitive/capitalist approach we talked above, and in part through education)
  • Catching them young (ideas when young)
  • The ‘system’/environment (discussed above)
  • Potential for partnerships
  • Holistic approach to issues

Although some degree of ‘facilitation’ is a sine-qua-non for any leader, the more skilled ‘facilitative leadership’, especially involvement of people at large is not seen very commonly in US (the individualistic society[8]) outside Portland, Oregon. The success thus is still defined by clear ‘outcomes’ and ‘profit’. The ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘competitiveness’ however, are forces which tend to increase facilitation in some ways.

Plan ahead 

While the purpose of my life[9] evades any long term planning, and helps me to focus on my current role, I do go back with much lesser anxiety about the ‘churning’ inside[10]. I plan to go back and meet few people, who I think can help me address this churning finally. Or else, the answer will appear, when it has to.

Nevertheless, I will try to stay hungry, stay foolish. I will also remember for some time at least, the fact that human endurance is unlimited. I will also ponder over the observation that ‘it makes sense to work towards making systems work smarter rather than individuals work harder’.

[1] This is generally speaking. The awareness that there is joblessness is also there.

[2] Though leaders have discretion to mould it as per that

[3] Although, we know of nepotism and racial preferences as well.

[4] Despite its limitations

[5] Combines all virtues of a leader in 4 groups- executor, strategist, talent manager and human capital developer. The binding factor is personal proficiency

[6] Especially, youth and people of colour

[7] There is one view though that real issues are skirted; however, perhaps no better alternative to democracy exists

[8] Which may have its positives

[9] ‘God has plans for me. I do not know what they are. My purpose in life is not to resist those plans’

[10] Whether to be a specialist addressing one issue throughout my life, or continue to engage with different subjects


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