Three Lessons of PDIA, or the Art of Public Policy

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Guest blog written by Olga Yulikova

It is not surprising to anyone who is a part of the PDIA community that Matt Andrew’s book Building State Capability uses medical metaphors and examples to describe public policy. Like Matt, I too believe that policy-making is a form of therapy for society’s ailments. (Wouldn’t be great if all bureaucrats took a version of a Hippocratic Oath upon entering the service to build a person-centered practice?) And just like medicine, policy work is uncertain and difficult. And the more you learn, the more you understand your limitations. PDIA offers a way to make that task of healing societies a little less treacherous.

I decided to enroll in Implementing Public Policy (IPP) class because I was stuck. I was stuck and I was helpless. I was stuck and I was helpless and I was miserable. I needed something to fix my misery. Coming into the class, I had no idea what to expect. At first I did not really understand the language of PDIA. It all seemed too cerebral to me. My problem was about very poor and unskilled older people who are trying to get a job, any job and just can’t. They rely on the state’s program I administer to help them. The program has limited federal funding and can accommodate less than one percent of the eligible population. We do all we can to help as many as we can, but half the people we serve are just not getting the jobs, even when the economy is fine. Agencies that I work with ask me for more funding, but I don’t have it. All I can do is provide creative solutions to help them. And it is not a new problem for me – after all I have been doing my job for ten years – I simply ran out of ideas on how to solve the problem of chronic and persistent unemployment for this vulnerable population. After ten years of public service, I felt I was a failure.

IPP started with a bang for me – there were people from all over the world with the energy and enthusiasm unmatched in my day to day reality of a state office. They were all highly accomplished, driven, enthusiastic and yet everyone had a similar problem to mine, they all were struggling with their “problems.” Corrupt governments, indifferent agency heads, low budgets, unclear guidance – all familiar aches. We became a team in just a few days. We shared so much in common. Our individual problems became common problems, individual pains became a common condition. And the fantastic and practical PDIA team became our therapists, our mentors on our individual paths to alleviate some of the pain we felt for ourselves and the people we advocate for in our work.

Throughout the class, I learned many things, and here are the three main lessons of PDIA:

LESSON 1: Nothing is new under the sun

I have been practicing a lot of PDIA principles all along (minus the fishbone) without knowing it. Moreover, I learned that the fact that “I ran out of ideas” was not a sign of a personal failure, it was a respite moment to pause and reexamine my assumptions. PDIA helped me to deconstruct my problem, go back to the basics and talk to the users about their needs and experience with the program. And even though I have done it a million times in the last ten years, and every time I ask “why some people don’t get the jobs” I discover something new.

So this time when I asked the case managers why older workers don’t get jobs, they all said “older workers/ program participants do not want to change and are not motivated to get a job.” That was their assumption, not mine. To investigate it further, I then measured the workers’ level of motivation to change using a technique borrowed from the transtheoretical model of stages of change. And the result was a surprise to all – the majority of program participants are highly motivated to get a job.

I then asked the participants why they don’t get a job and they said that case managers are too busy filling out the forms instead of talking to them and learning about their real barriers to employment. So I researched the best person-centred practice and introduced the case managers to the Motivational Interviewing Technique (a clinical approach to substance abuse treatment) to help better support the workers in different stages of change. Case managers were reluctant at first, but after the classroom based two day intensive training everyone agreed to allocate more time to talk to their clients and better understand their needs.

These are small victories, but they are very important to me and my team, which leads to lesson number two.

LESSON 2: Do not practice PDIA alone

I learned, or rather confirmed to myself, the importance of having a strong team. I have been working with many teams at the state government, and I know how critical personal relationships are in our work.

When I needed to interview the employers, I was told by my employer engagement team that no employer would tell me the truth about why they don’t hire older workers. I had to find someone outside of the state government to help with this task. To that end, I am beginning to work more closely with the Federal Reserve Bank on this problem. Their team is trying to understand the employers’ behavior in regards to low-wage and low-skilled jobs.

When I was not sure my policy development design was working, I had to recruit outside help, and several experts came forth to offer help with the process evaluation. I am now working on the process evaluation report with Brown University MPA students to help me with this. It’s a new way of looking at policy development for me.

When I was struggling with changes in my authorizing environment, I had my IPP team there for me! WhatsApp or not, I can always ask for help or a virtual hug.

LESSON 3: PDIA is not an exact science; Art is everything

I also learned that PDIA is neither an exact science nor a panacea for all problems. PDIA is a methodology that helps one examine the causes of problems and work on solutions regardless of shifting environments. It is not just a system of bureaucratic steps, it is a framework to help public policy practitioners to examine and re-examine their work, without losing sight of the reason why they dedicate themselves to this profession in the first place.

The work of an average state government employee is somewhat removed from the users it is intended to help. PDIA helps bridge the gap between policy and those affected by it. It’s basic principle of decomposing (taking apart) the problem leads you to the very core of the societal pain you are trying to heal. Once again to borrow from the art of medicine, Hippocrates teaching from the ancient times about the treatment of boils is the same today: to heal a boil, one needs to open it completely to drain it, and only then apply the medicine.

In conclusion, I would add that to provide the best services to the people we serve is not easy a priori. To provide the best services and not lose personal integrity and enthusiasm is very hard. PDIA teaches how to not lose sight of the main objective, while taking risks wisely and achieving small tangible results, so that you recognize the change you make. Taking risks, pausing to re-assess the lessons learned, enhancing legitimacy and many other PDIA steps are as much an Art as any creative process.

And if you are like me, an artist of PDIA, you are sincere and vulnerable, and will probably make mistakes. Yet because you have time to practice and the supportive team to give you feedback, you will have a meaningful path in life and may even help to heal the world!

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.

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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