Padma Mahanti, Director Directorate of Environment and Climate Change (DOECC), Government of Kerala is a woman of many firsts. She became the first Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer to take full- time charge of DOECC since it was constituted in 2010. Before her tenure began in 2016, the Directorate under the Environment Department was assigned as an additional responsibility to senior government officials.
In her earlier tenure in the Forest Department, she had introduced team building exercises to dilute hierarchies and encouraged junior staff members to speak their mind. “When we tried these “unconventional” methods there was some discomfort, but when they started working people began to accept them grudgingly,” she recalled.
With climate change emerging as a serious threat to Kerala’s growth story, she has taken yet another unconventional approach namely setup a Community of Practice (CoP-CC) to help government departments coordinate and provide a common front. The CoP consists of four officials from the 33 departments/agencies of the Government of Kerala, who will use a digital platform to debate, discuss and solve state specific climate change challenges.
Action on Climate Today (ACT), a Department for International Development initiative to help South Asian governments build climate resilience, has supported COP-CC in building this community. In this candid interview, Ms. Padma along with Action on Climate Today-CCIP Kerala Team Leader, Ms. Mariamma Sanu George (Nirmala), talk about the unique challenges of climate change, need for a shift in government work culture and their vision for a climate resilient Kerala.
The need for coordination is so clear and yet there are silos?
Padma: We are trained like that. We start as district level officers and cannot go beyond our own district. This instills discipline. Having said that, all things are merging. We have to work together, as a team.
You are talking about a cultural shift?
Padma: We need to adopt a corporate culture without the basic profit-driven principles of corporate system. Our pressures are similar: deadlines, targets and proposal developments. We cannot do it alone.
How does this Community evolve?
Padma: We lack a knowledge sharing forum. So we plan to continue adding more and more members to develop it into a real knowledge sharing unit. It can then go down to the panchayat level.
There is plenty of enthuisiam when such initiatives begin, but sustaining interest is a separate challenge.
Nirmala: We will ensure it doesn’t become monotonous. Learning will be the main feature of this Community. We will introduce relevant topics and give two weeks to revert with feedbacks and contributions. This involves discussion, debates and peer support and their will knowledge products. All the membes may not be active regularly but we expect that the majority will read it and some will interact regularly.
Padma: We will also invite speakers to the forum to keep it dynamic.
Are there any incentives to join this group?
Nirmala: The officials are not expecting monetary rewards, but they would like to gain knowledge to help advance their careers. We will also provide recognition by putting their profiles on the DOECC website. During the last training on climate change, the climate change cell focal team members was presented with certificates. For example, the members of the Transport Department called us after the first day of the training saying they are not the right choice for such a discussion as they know so little about climate change. They turned out to be the best performers. Once the discussions started, they could contribute and connect their routine activities and its climate related aspects. The same approach is expected in CoP-CC.
Padma: We can consider peer reviews, e-certificates. Most importantly, they come out of their department and learn about different topics.
Do you have any concerns?
Padma: Climate change is a new area of focus and is in fashion. Everybody wants to take a share whether they contribute or not. This sometimes harms the process.
Where does ACT-CCIP come in the picture?
Padma: We didn’t have permanent support staff until last month and are dependent on contractual staff with limited understanding of climate change. Inputs from different spheres is required. ACT-CCIP has been an anchor in taking this work forward.
Nirmala: Our job is to propose innovative ideas and jointly develop them with the Government.
Padma: Good ideas need to be turned into working models. In government, officials don’t stay for too long in a department. I might leave in six months. ACT-CCIP has been here since 2014 and will continue till March 2019. They have helped built this institutional memory.
As the moderator and facilitator of this Community, how does your role evolve?
Padma: We work together to keep it live and dynamic. Chip in with relevant issues and get relevant answers. Steer them in right direction. There needs to be a two way communication.
Nirmala: We are taking feedback in tomorrow’s workshop, finalsing it and then we start operating it. And will make sure it sustains.
The Community of Practice is not a new mechanism, but it is new within the Government system. Generating enthusiasm and sustaining the behavioural change will pose a significant challenge to the organisers, however, their effort also presents an opportunity to develop a new governance template that is critical to meet the cross-cutting challenges of coastal erosion, rise in sea surface temperature, sea level rise, heat wave scenarios and hazards like floods and droughts that afflict Kerala development and growth story.
This interview is conducted by Anmol Arora. Anmol is the Knowledge Management Officer for Action on Climate Today initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.