“I do not think very highly of NGOs and am always suspicious of their intentions. They all come with their own agenda – to show the government in poor light and to tell us they know better” something an official told us in our first meeting with them way back in early 2017, when Madhi was taking baby steps in engaging with the government. “We trust that you will recommend only the most relevant approach” – this was the same official talking to us about the way forward, just a few weeks ago.
So what changed from 2017 to 2020?
A key ingredient in all successful partnerships – both in the personal and professional realm – is trust. The relationship between an NGO and its government partner is no different. In fact, it may take many years and relentless efforts towards establishing transparency, accountability and empathy, to build professional trust.
Over the past few years of deep engagement with multiple stakeholders, our team has identified 5 critical attitudes that contributed to building a truly synergistic partnership with the government. The learning curve has been steep and the journey rather daunting, but we are truly grateful for all the lessons learnt along the way.
1. Be relentlessly optimistic
We have an inside joke – we joke about the fact that we will not wonder if the glass is half full or half empty but celebrate the fact that ‘we at least have a glass’!
It is extremely challenging to sustain a long-term engagement with the government without firmly believing that change is possible. Will is a necessary catalyst for completing any marathon, and allowing cynicism to get the better of us undermines our motivation and upsets the balance of the partnership. Being hopelessly optimistic even in the most testing times, and spreading that infectious enthusiasm within your team is your best bet to surviving the ebbs and flows of working with the government machinery.
2. Be patient but persistent
There have been multiple instances where we have had to wait for hours together for a brief 15-minute discussion with a government representative. And even as we found creative ways to make the waiting time purposeful, we were conscious to constantly recall that each meeting, despite the frustrating delays, was an important and vital step towards achieving the goal we were all working towards. In fact, your tenacity and commitment may be secretly scrutinised and there is no better way to demonstrate your zeal than by being painfully patient and tactfully persistent.
3. Be empathetic but get heard
Despite all the clichés around government offices and officers, you may be surprised to notice your perceptions changing once you start working with your government partners closely. Many of the government officials work extremely hard, often in a politically charged, socially volatile, and grossly understaffed environment. You may not hear this very often, but government officers deserve our empathy too. However, be careful not to drop the ball. While being empathetic is acknowledging the constraints faced by the other party, your empathy must not distract your focus away from the outcomes from the partnership. It is all too common to be thrown some curveballs by the government officials – some genuine, and some just to get rid of the pesky NGO that you are. Being unable to issue permissions, sign an MoU on time, or release funds as planned, are some of the many roadblocks you are likely to encounter along the way. In such cases, we have always strived to let empathy and not frustration guide our responses. Working together to resolve the situation, to offer multiple solutions, and being open to tweaking your programme as long as it does not adversely affect the outcomes, can allow you to offer an empathetic yet purposeful response when an officer is unable to honour their original commitment.
‘Thiruvinai venRu vAzh’ translated to ‘do not expect (favourable) results for your actions’ is a profound quote by the Tamil poet Bharati. While dealing with the government, uncertainty is the only constant. You want to survive the long haul? Detach. Detachment is two-fold in our case. Firstly, there is a need to detach oneself from ‘your’ hold over ‘your’ idea. The ‘mine’ or ‘me’ in your proposition needs to disappear. Let the focus be on the outcome and not so much on where the idea came from or whose it was to begin with. Secondly, understand that many variables and interdependencies affect the outcome and in the end, the fruits of your labour may fall short of your hopes. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that despite our best plans, things can go awfully wrong. Working with the government has shown us not only how to pour our heart and soul into crafting a perfect programme, but also to cultivate an almost zen like detachment from the consequences of the chaos outside our control. It has helped us to grow immensely, both professionally and for many of us, personally.
5. Be humble and let the learning never stop
Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ concept is a magnificent illustration of our next point. The government is a gargantuan machinery. A juggernaut that continues to function despite the myriad constraints and limitations. As if on some kind of ‘auto-pilot’, come rain or shine, the show goes on. Nobody and nothing is indispensable to it and this humbling realisation reflects in our every single interaction with the government. Know that you know little. There is a wealth of knowledge that can be collectively generated through meaningful collaborations with the government and that begins with our acknowledging that we are but a dot in an expansive sky. Be open to treating every interaction with an official as a learning opportunity. No public policy course from any Ivy League institution may teach you what a 15 minute middle-of-the-corridor conversation with a mid-level officer might. You can only understand the nuances of the government’s working ‘style’ by listening intently even during the most mundane interactions.
All said and done, we do not claim to know all the answers. There still are many days when we secretly wish we had a perfectly functioning system or a slightly less difficult officer to deal with. But we quickly realise that without these challenges we may not have evolved into the kind of resilient, optimistic and determined team that we are today. If you truly believe that the problem you have resolved to tackle is worth solving, let that guide you and let your will to see it through permeate every conversation – so much, that it is difficult for government officers to ignore your energy or wish you away!
Vijayalakshmi is a part of the partnerships team at Madhi. With a firm belief in leveraging the power of a collective, the partnerships team strives to establish meaningful collaboration with various stakeholders to transform education outcomes for our children.