Finding Family through Process Improvement in the U.S.

6 mins read

Guest blog written by Maggie Jones

Trey’s words hung in the air. Would you like to go to Harvard? A million thoughts ran through my head as I watched the unsuspecting traffic pass outside my office. Of course I wanted to go. I had to go. As soon as “yes” stumbled out of my mouth and I hung up the phone, my hand gripped the handset for a moment before I stared blankly at my computer screen. 

How am I going to do this?

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There’s something magical that happens when you walk into an HKS classroom with 48 students and staff from around the world with challenges and backgrounds as diverse as the names on the tent cards. We may have not known it then, but we would become more than HKS’ first Implementing Public Policy cohort, staff included; we would become family. Family with similar struggles in authorization, acceptance, and ability, but also filled with passion, strength, and determination that only comes with a love and respect for this work and for each other.

Over the past seven months, I’ve learned more than I have in a decade of public service; it feels like someone opened a window, fresh air pouring in. Although all of the learnings would certainly take up more than these words, there are a few key takeaways:

  • Failure is always an option. While the private sector may embrace failure, we are rarely given the grace to fall in government. The stakes are framed too high; however, what we seem to have forgotten is what the consequences will be if we continue our current course. If we are failing to meet the needs of those we’ve committed to serve, then we have only lost. We owe it to them – and to ourselves – to be better. We simply must be better.
  • Projects have completion dates; problems evolve. It is important to think about who owns the problem on a constant, iterative basis. As the problem changes, your toolbox needs to change, too.
  • You do not have to go at this alone; you need to find people to share it with. Period.

In my particular challenge (i.e. addressing performance of a federally-funded home repair program), we have finally begun to see a little bit of movement:

  • We were not marketing the right things to the right people. In the past, most cities would market the home repair program to their entire jurisdiction in their water bill, which led to a lot of people on the waiting list who ultimately did not qualify. One of our partner cities had the brilliant idea to use GIS data to isolate the homes that likely met several of our key requirements (e.g. home value under $195K, not in a flood zone, certain exemptions). We updated our marketing flyer and sent out that same flyer to approximately 200 homeowners by name. We even changed the address label to a softer font. Within days, homeowners started calling. Better yet, most homeowners that were pre-screened made it to the waiting list.
  • We have not been enforcing our home repair contracts. There are several provisions (e.g. fines for missing milestones, completion dates) that we have chosen not to enforce out of fear (e.g. fear of losing contractors, fear of being sued) since the program’s inception. Unfortunately, this seems to have lead to contractors not following schedules, project delays, and thus reduced citizen satisfaction due to low (or zero) accountability.
  • The real estate market is hot (and working under the “red tape” of federal dollars is not). We have been working with the same contractors for years, some decades and we haven’t done much marketing (or incentives) to attract new ones. Before learning about PDIA, we would try something and then when it failed we would just say, “oh well too bad,” or excuse the failure on some external factors out of our control. Now, we think about what we learned during the trial and how to move forward within our triple A space.
  • Our home repair application was written at a reading level too high for the exact people we were trying to reach. After talking with several residents, they were overwhelmed with the application and did not have anyone to help them fill it out so they simply gave up. We created a new application and began testing it with stakeholders.
  • Several homeowners did not complete their home repair application due to fear of being reported to ICE. This conclusion was heartbreaking. How many other citizens need our assistance but haven’t requested it out of fear?
  • The cost of construction continues to rise, even though our program limits have not. To be eligible for the program, the total cost of repairs could not exceed $24,000. We raised this limit to $32,000 after assistance to several homeowners had been denied. This meant we were spending a lot of time assessing homes and subsequently denying them.
  • Contractors have a tendency to underestimate contracts, specifically with foundation work, in order to win the project. We rely on low bids, sometimes at the sacrifice of quality. To combat this, we hired an engineer to review foundation work and sign-off on initial work write-ups, therefore reducing the ability of a contractor to add unnecessary work through change orders (e.g. additional foundation piers).
  • Our partner cities are ready and willing to help. They just need a little nudge. Several city partners offered to help citizens fill out their applications, pre-screen potential applicants, and help market the program, sharing the workload with us (and therefore invested in identifying ways to improve the program as a whole).
  • Little citizen requests go a long way. When we asked citizens what would make the program better, often times the answer was really simple. “Could the contractor cover my couch when painting next time?” or “Would you consider using LED lighting when replacing bulbs?” or “May I choose between paint colors?” We found it was much easier to meet reasonable citizen requests; all we had to do was ask.
  • Citizens found their voice (and we did, too). For years citizens accepted the “county way of doing things” and several staff members were hesitant to contribute ideas. It was hard and maybe even a little scary to admit that there was a glitch, that something wasn’t right, and we were responsible to do something about it. We hadn’t engaged because we hadn’t created the opportunity to do so – so we did exactly that.

We still have a ways to go and new ideas queued up to test, but our commitment to positive change remains strong. Little wins, like those described above, helped push us through. Even if we “failed,” we learned (and therefore, we won).

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Since change can be daunting and the majority of our team has been engaged in this work for a long time, I took a stealth approach in introducing PDIA. After walking through a fishbone, I simply started asking questions and encouraging others to ask them, too. PDIA wasn’t just a new approach, it was a culture shift. People who had not previously been at the table were at the table. People who had not previously been asked what they thought were being asked what they thought. Because PDIA is applicable to any complex challenge and so amazingly practical, it didn’t seem like a culture shift; it felt like getting things done – and we are.

There is no doubt PDIA has made its way into my toolbox where it will undoubtedly get more use than a trusty crescent wrench or flathead screwdriver. I have shared (and will continue to share) the PDIA toolkit with as many people as possible in the thick of public service, tackling complex challenges each and every day. The feedback I’ve received has been others have been looking for new methods, too, and they found it with PDIA. The way things have always been done simply doesn’t cut it anymore. The newest trend or best practice simply cannot be copied and pasted into each and every situation because each and every situation is unique – and thus the methods should be, too.

PDIA didn’t simply change the way I work; it changed the way I think about the world. Everything suddenly seems doable. We can’t do that has turned into what can we do? Challenges have evolved into opportunities – and I have grown, too.

Full speed ahead.

During the last session in Cambridge, many of us took home closing words that certainly landed on Post-It Notes and bulletin boards as a wonderful reminder:

Moving ahead be confident, but not arrogant. Be open to learning. Be respectful of those you learn from and with. Always remember there is a group of searchers with you here. And, thank you.

Thank you for this journey – and for all those to come.

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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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