Guest blog written by Upamanyu Basu
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.
I am a career bureaucrat from India and my job responsibilities have always revolved around implementing public policy – whether in my postings in my parent department i.e. Income tax Department or in my secondments to the Ministry of Human Resource Development and now in the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying. My job of administering the Government’s policy of ‘prevention, control and containment of animal diseases’ entails vaccination of all eligible animals (livestock and poultry) against diseases considered economically important for the humongous losses caused by them. My challenge includes managing limited public funds and its timely availability, large number of eligible animals with lack of animal identification, farmers with few livestock, scattered in difficult geographical terrains, multi-agency implementers, availability of quality vaccines and their efficacy, motivating vaccinators in the wake of shortage of supervisory veterinary staff, risk management at quarantine stations, animal movements across state borders, lack of last mile monitoring of service delivery. Stakeholders include Central and the State Governments and their Veterinary Services, vaccine and vaccination equipment industry, farmers (and their animals) and finally, the political authorizers.
Taking all the challenges into consideration and meandering through multiple roadblocks is the true test, in my opinion, of implementing public policy. Yet, I was drawn into the programme offered at HKS titled ‘Implementing public policy” simply wondering as to what is it that is going to be taught different than what our experiential learning could not teach. My curiosity was fuelled further by simply talking to my peers at the commencement of the course. Everybody appeared to try to solve their respective public policy in their own way. Yet, the binding thread appeared to be the selflessness and the honesty of approach that was clearly visible on their faces. The urge to passionately pursue their public problem appeared to be in everyone’s mind. It seemed as if everybody had a story to tell!
In the classes and thereafter, it was clear that while our experiences taught us a lot about implementing public policy to alleviate a public problem in a sustained manner, there were gaps that we did not realize. Our perceptions somewhere went awry and hence a single problem often tried to grow hydra-like tentacles. Iteration of a problem often helped in solving it, striking at the roots rather than trying to address it in a chalked-out path. Iteration of a problem followed by construction, deconstruction and reconstruction helps in understanding not only the source of the problem but whether the one that we are trying to solve is the actual problem or otherwise!
In addition to constructing and deconstructing a problem, iteration of a problem all the way during its journey for a solution (if there is one at all!) was great learning. By constructing problems we mean to analyse a situation as a consequence and then work back into the reasons for such a situation. Data about such situations are gathered and again analysed to find a systematic pattern of such observations and thereafter finding the common ‘binding thread’. Further, constructing a problem not only means constructing the main problem alone but also the branches thereof that may appear to be ‘little’ things but such ‘little’ things go on to build the ‘big’ thing – the problem! The ‘fish-bone’ structure appears akin to such a construction of the problem. Finally, even constructing a problem from the given situation / observations requires analytical skills so that the ‘appropriate’ problem is constructed to be responded by a specific and contextual policy intervention.
I was hopeful that the IPP course that I joined would certainly guide me in implementing my public policy challenge effectively so that I could find a purpose in my job. I am amply rewarded – the lessons learned at the Kennedy school opened my eyes to new terminologies but fixed certain values and norms that I espouse. Further, I realized that there are an umpteen number of public sector workers who have a common motivation about their jobs although addressing different problems in their respective workplaces. It is this shared problem solving attitudes of my peers that is my permanent takeaway from the programme. Finally, it is the similarity of approach that I am familiar with in my workplace that has still kept my motivation sustained – learning a new approach, etc. While iteration of the problem and PDIA stood out as the biggest takeaway yet balancing legitimacy and functionality in the course of iterations is a great lesson. On the role of iteration vis-à-vis continuous authorization (legitimacy), again I am convinced that every deviation that one wants to adopt from the straight line that is not possible because of new hindrances creeping up time and again. This is when the going gets tough. Often you fail to live up to the expectations of your authorizers. Seeking authorization continuously at every point of iterating the problem is hardly easy.
Other takeaways include leadership decisions to be clear and well-conceived, recognition of imminent and long-distance threats and steering the team successfully; taking calculated risks on the way. Also, that teams should not only be cohesive but build trust within. Decision of each team member ought to be in line with the decision of the team in order to avoid conflict / disagreement within.
While I already had my problem, yet attending the IPP at the Kennedy school provided me with insights about how to view the problem not only through my eyes but also through those of the other stakeholders. With my small team of 3 officers of the Department helping me with my efforts in constructing and de-constructing the problem, I felt frustrated at times with the approaching deadlines to commence the vaccination programme at the threshold. Also, sharing the programme’s draft guidelines with the relevant State departments to understand the situation on the ground was on. Increasing outreach was one of the crucial concerns.
As I had mentioned about iteration of the problem to my team as well as conveyed the deconstructed problem to the state department (nodal persons), I realized that building teams always needed an effective buy-in and especially, when future team members’ job responsibilities are broader. Building trust takes time. As we moved on from getting adequate funds, we were also tying up loose ends like finishing jobs that would play an important role in validating the outcomes – real time disease reporting (also trying to address the pitfalls of reporting!).
I often wondered that who is my authorizer? The one that actually authorizes me and guides me to adopt a certain strategy to work towards a particular public problem or the one who is the overall authorizer in the Ministry – the Minister himself! However, it became clear that the concept of multiple authorizers looms large in respect of a public problem. Not only one’s immediate superior buts also the Minister in charge of the Ministry is an authorizer. In fact, the ‘messy’ diagram as that turned out to be in Matt’s video on multiple authorizers is actually so – my personal experience while working with the problem of alleviating the particular animal disease (FMD in livestock) opened my eyes to this aspect. The Finance Ministry’s role in approving the budget for implementation of the programme is important as without its authorization i.e., without funds, there can be no implementation on the ground.
As we introspect our workplace behavior and more so, our attitude towards the problem that we are trying to construct or deconstruct, enlightens us that at the end of the day we are followers. Whether the authorizer perceives the problem as we perceive it may be same or different – situations when there may not be convergence of thoughts yet there is general agreement on the broad contours. While we may agree to address a problem yet there may be differences on the ‘how’ and ‘steps’ as different people may prioritize different courses of action. Authorizers ‘with an itch’ can, to my limited understanding, also be created by the very own followers with a positive attitude and capable of convincing the authorizers with scientific and a logical rationale. Unless there is a definite buy-in from the authorizer, the vision would hardly be shared so that there has to be shareable authorization.
In fact, in my own case, the going was slow as the strategy to be adapted had lot of hindrances staring at the face – about not getting the requisite budget as there is no expenditure till date. How could one commit expenditure unless claims appear justified – public funds cannot just be thrown down the drain! However, authorizers demand early action of expenditure but scared of the looming picture of ‘sunk cost’. Animal vaccination in a country like India is difficult because of the landlocked states with more of administrative boundaries rather than geographical ones where animal movement gets restricted. To commence vaccination in one part has to take into account the boundary villages of the neighbouring state which often becomes blurred as these may be on continuous fields or paths where animal trespassing can hardly be detected – not economical. I was trying to garner information from the different states on the infrastructure and trained manpower gaps and analysing their needs. Also, my efforts at addressing possible hindrances continued. Finally, my efforts at building supportive teams succeeded.
While I realize that coming out of one’s comfort zone is easily said than done, yet, it is an important aspect for a sustained effort, riding on the shoulders of motivation. Focussing on the problem and concentrating on the ways, both conventional or otherwise, helps. However, I have realized that unless there is passion beyond comfort, carrying out any task effectively, is not possible.
We often give up things / work that appears stressful or where we perceive failure even at the commencement stage. However, it is said that unless one catches the bull by its horns, he cannot be a successful matador. Similarly, it is from my experiential leanings – be it as a student grappling with difficult academics or a worker burdened with hard tasks, motivation plays an important role to successfully see one through. A recent experience was the meeting for my proposal of the new scheme put up before the Ministry of Finance. My immediate authorizer, having joined the Department in the recent past, was able to get authorizations of the Finance Ministry and literally pass on ‘the itch’. The lessons of the power of conviction flew – that was the real takeaway, the motivation despite all odds!
Further, I have learnt that perseverance leads to passion only in a healthy atmosphere. Unless one takes care of one’s own self and listens intently to one’s body, staying healthy both in mind and body appears a distant dream. The second aspect that I realize from the blog and the video is that one has to be detached from the immediate worries and work towards one’s objective in life. But then that is not at all easy. We realize our fallacies when there is hardly any time for redemption. A second innings is not for everyone! Yet, one has to be relaxed mentally and understand that different job responsibilities may come and go but clinging to one’s particular job responsibility to prove oneself is foolish. It is like a mirage in the desert that is always elusive. Completeness of a person in mind, body and spirit is an eternal thing which one needs to aspire for rather than remain with mundane ups and downs in work life. The perfect work life balance is the ultimate aim for all of us. Life is not permanent!
Anyway, coming back to my strategy for my public problem – I have been entrusted with other jobs relating to schemes to be prepared to tackle other economically important livestock diseases. My implementation challenge has now shifted!
While I share my experiences in my responses to the earlier questions, I want to share my thoughts that even working towards a public problem that would have huge ramification across the public at large needs an opportunity and it is not easily available. Hence, it should be utilized to its optimum. Secondly, there should not be any attachment towards trying to address a particular problem – it is only the right person at the right time who takes the credit for alleviating or assuaging any public problem. Hence, time matters. And finally, only sustained motivation leading to perseverance can bring out the best in a public policy implementor.