IPP Program Journey: Disaster Resilience in Australia

Guest blog written Jorida Zeneli

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy  Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

When I came to IPP my motivation level was at the lowest it had been in a decade. After two years of struggle to revamp the policies that underpin resource allocation, operating on the edge of the established processes, knocking on many doors, speaking to many people, pouring a lot of sweat and long hours, agitating, engaging, consulting, and facing much resistance for the sake of resistance rather than for sake of progressing the work, I had managed to get something over the line that I believe was a much improved product. There had been several attempts to do so from predecessors, but these had failed. By the looks of it I had succeeded, but I did not feel that way. So I had a bunch of questions and I was hungry for good answers, not non existing silver bullets, just credible insights:  What went wrong and what went right? What insights can I gain into working better and smarter next time? What are the organisational processes that supported me and what hindered my work? How can I manage these more effectively? How can I make meaningful change count? How can I prevent myself but also other people around me from burning out? How can I empower people to drive change? How can I sustain their motivation? How can I support their curiosity?

So the IPP started and it must have been on day 2 when Matt Andrews was talking about the roles that define project success that I had one of these enlightening and so scary realisations at the same time – I had taken over most of the key project roles for pretty much all projects I had been involved in: Ideator, problem identifier, organiser, convenor, empower, authoriser etc. not just for a bit of time, but for the entire duration of these projects, as a complete outsider in a team of accountants. In the same classroom, I was surrounded by incredibly passionate, capable and bright people from all over the world with similar experiences. I learned three lessons in those first two days:

  • Lesson number 1 – I was not alone and shared pain is half the pain and shared joy is double the joy. Loneliness in the workplace is real – so surrounding yourself with a community and sharing the risks/ benefits is the only healthy and sustainable way to approach complex problems that need creativity, perseverance, motivation, skill and a diver’s breath.
  • Lesson number 2: Operate and team like a snowflake molecule that has a strong centre and is linked, however not two of them are the same, so make it unique and tailor it to the context and problem at hand – yes to chemistry!
  • Lesson number 3: Leadership is about risk and restraint (thank you Monica Higgins) – we all have our Everests to climb!

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It was just day 2 at IPP – and I had cried, laughed, and bonded with some awesome people – real leaders, change makers, passionate and willing to fight for the right things and for the right impact.  To have such a community around has been incredibly powerful and inspiring. The course if it would have ended on day number 2 it was already worth 24h of flight, my being away from family and pretty much exceeded every expectation I had. I had answers to some of my questions,  I had lessons to what to do better next time, I had a platform to go back to discuss future questions when I got stuck. Everything else was a bonus and there was a lot of it – with the most important being the learning journey!

The disaster resilience piece came to me a bit from the left side – from an organisation I had found hard to establish a productive and collaborative relationship with as they regularly claim an area that my organisation has the legal mandate to fulfil and has at times been too slow to do so.

My initial thoughts: I need to be careful and based on past experiences a bit suspicious. My second thought: this is interesting and very important work. My third thought was more of an intuition: preparing a policy on this and adding it to the pile of the current convoluted landscape of policies will just tick the box and be of questionable value add.

My questions: Where do I go from here? The answer is embracing the 5-whys and the fishbone diagram. I have taught these to my kids – who think a fishbone is fun to draw and each bone is a different color. I started mapping up the stories that will get the attention of the authorizers – there is a lot of them … while deconstructing the problem. It is not a problem – it is a big problem! I had not realised the scale of it until I started deconstructing- why is there not effective investment in resilience? How do we do disaster risk management? Who does it and how is it done? How much do we invest for the betterment of infrastructure? What % of that is critical? How much do we spend for maintenance? Who pays? What about insurance? What % of  infrastructure is ageing? Does it comply to standards? Do we have standards? Why are new schools in flood plains? There is a limited amount of water left, farmers mental health is impacted by the draughts, we have reached peak heat temperatures and it is not summer yet, 1.5M acres are on fire, build more dams, climate change might be a thing, but we call it bushfire, floods, droughts…other…

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So we pitched our fishbone diagram which kept getting more bones to countless people in the sector, local councils, academia, colleagues, my local member of parliament, my friends, insurance companies, banks, other jurisdictions…We have had a huge response and a lot of people have picked up this work and have come back after speaking to their authorizers. Their feedback is that this is a piece that needs radical collaboration – something we don’t do well in the public sector and it needs to extend beyond the boundaries of the government sector to include the community, non for profit and the private sector. We have found a lot of people that can basically change the space for action by increasing ability, acceptance, and very important – authorization.

Along the way I have built trust and collaboration with colleagues in and outside my organisation. Its been a process – Government is not known for being fast.  When I was feeling down these people picked me up and I did the same.  They have been successfully converted to the principles of PDIA. Ultimately, I ran into a senior person and the conversation was spot on big picture great stuff happening in the State so I pitched some elements of the problem by using the compelling stories of users I had collected. The confidence to approach senior staff came from the fact that I have had a chance to think through the root-causes of the problem equipped with a whole range of cutting-edge tools through IPP and backed by my community of peers. I had the time to think things through and materialise what was an intuition to concrete problems that can be broken down. I celebrated with other colleagues the fact that approaching senior staff out of the blue did not get me fired 😉.

Following the catastrophic bushfire season there is a lot of momentum building up on sustainability and resilience as we continue to iterate and engage with even more people and identify opportunities for good investments, based on evidence. Some of my colleagues are sceptical about the policy shift to these progressive topics. I disagree. We operate in a very unforgiving market environment where a private bank will not fund investment in a new built because they have no confidence that is good standard, or where insurance companies have no incentives to operate because loss is the only guarantee. Most important peoples’ awareness on this topic has never been higher and the problems have materialised and become very real. The change space is constantly evolving, and the problems are evolving too. There is a lot of untapped opportunities to do more and to do better and we are not giving up.

Ultimately this topic has become very personal for me at a degree that I was not planning for – with the earthquake shaking recently my hometown Durres, Albania – it is obvious we can prevent a lot , but on those events that we can’t prevent from happening, we can be prepared to resist their impact and we are failing our people if we close our eyes to the ultimate responsibility to guarantee their lives and everything they have worked so hard for just for the short term gain. In the Aboriginal culture everything is about the learning and what a learning journey this has been – we acknowledge the land first because that is home and we pay respect to the people of the past to learn from their experience and their stories as these shape the leaders of the present and those of the future. Andrew, Crystal, David, Issa, Anisha, Amber, Salimah, Matt everyone else thank you!

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To learn more about Implementing Public Policy (IPP) watch the course and testimonial video, listen to the podcast, and visit the course website.

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