IPP Program Journey: Engage with the People in the Place

Guest blog written by Julia Martin

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.

PDIA is about engaging with the people in the place.” If I think back to the last few months, this line from Matt’s blog strikes a chord. Coming into the course, I really had a serious case of the “not enoughs” – not enough experience, not enough expertise, not enough authority, not enough intelligence, not enough importance. I scanned the resumes of my classmates and hoped they wouldn’t look me up on LinkedIn and see my short, much less accomplished resume. When I arrived on campus, I realized I didn’t have to have as much experience or be as smart as everyone else, I just had to be curious. As a general society, we try to dissuade curiosity because it can slow down a process, because people are threatened by change, and/or because it creates more work. For whoever needs to hear this: you don’t need to be the smartest, loudest, or best at data analysis, you just have to have to have an unrelenting, genuine curiosity for whatever you are working on. To me, the core of PDIA is being curious in every forum you are in. You have to examine a problem and take the time to think about a) who impacts (or is impacted by) the problem b) where do you find these people c) how do you have them be an active participant in creating a solution. Being curious in every forum means meeting, listening, talking, sharing coffee, or doing a walk-through with the people in the place.

My problem centers on decades of purposeful, legal, and systemic racism in Charlotte, North Carolina. Within that almost incomprehensively difficult problem, I carved out a space to specifically look at increasing the availability of Accessory Dwelling Units or ADUs. These are small, separate dwellings that can be placed on a lot with an existing single-family home. They add gentle density to a neighborhood, can provide a space for aging parents to move in, or can be rented for extra income. ADUs also provide access to neighborhoods that were previously only accessible to wealthy homeowners. So many outcomes are linked to where you live – educational attainment, health outcomes, lifetime earnings. To me, in Charlotte, how we can start to break down decades of racially punitive policy is to create neighborhoods that are accessible to all our residents regardless of income (and race, because in America those are so closely linked).

An ongoing part of our project has been to, painstakingly, read through Homeowner’s Association (HOA) Deeds and Covenants. HOAs are property associations that often have additional restrictions, above city and state regulations, to create neighborhood standards around things like home height or size. After reading almost 100 HOA Deeds and Covenants, an overwhelming majority prohibit the use of ADUs. Similarly, our team is in the process of mapping HOA-owned land to get a better understanding of what percentage of Charlotte’s single-family zoned land is restricted under HOA regulations.

There are a number of barriers to building ADUs outside of HOA restrictions. In no particular order: stringent zoning requirements, confusing process, lack of contractors and builders, and lack of financial resources. Our team put out a survey to local builders and homeowners who built ADUs to better understand their concerns. After hearing from them, we developed a mock-up “How to Build an ADU in Charlotte” guidebook that succinctly described what an ADU was and how to understand if a property is eligible. We invited the builders and homeowners to follow-up session and observed them as they read through the guidebook to see what was confusing, what was clear, what can we improve on etc. Within the guidebook, we created a link to a mock-up 3-D sketch in GoogleEarth that enabled a potential builder to visualize what a detached ADU would look like on a property.

What motivated me throughout the work was every time we asked a builder, homeowner, member of the planning team to share their experience with us and be an activate participant in improving a process, they were so incredibly grateful that we wanted to hear their opinion. My teammates in this work, Rachel, Andrew, and Providence were also a constant well of encouragement and support. We were all balancing additional jobs, but held each other accountable to complete the work we committed to.

One thing PDIA has cemented for me is how critical it is to understand stakeholder relationships to the problem and to each other. And moving one step further, to recognize how, when, and why to engage with each one. The top authorizer might not care about the functionality of a software system, but the planning staff walking through building plans with residents do. Just like there is the fishbone for the “big problem” there are all these little mini fishbones throughout PDIA where you can get in and make a small change to create a big difference.

If I look back on the last year, again it comes back to “PDIA is about engaging with the people in the place.” My best advice is to leave your office, ask a lot of questions seeking to understand rather than confirm, do your best to find one or two people who will pick you up when the days are long, and to recognize you have to care about yourself as much as you do about your work.

Mapping barriers, both regulatory and non-regulatory.

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Mapping actors and end result in five post-its or less.

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Rachel Stark (City of Charlotte Planning, Design, and Development department) testing out the ADU guidebook with a local guidebook.

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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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