Guest blog written by Eleanor Sarpong
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.
My first reaction when I was introduced to the course on IPP via email was hesitation- “Really how different will this course be to others on implementing public policy?” I asked. I was particularly anxious to know how to navigate the political minefield that often hamper public policy implementation. So, I applied for this course with high hopes to understand what new ideas I could adopt to help me with delayed policy implementation in my role as an external advisor to governments on ICT policies and strategies.
What I received in this course however, was eye opening and surpassed my expectations. From the outset of the course, I was challenged to think differently with the concept of the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach. The cherry on the cake was the wonderful classmates I met, all of whom are working on some remarkable but complex policies and projects such as establishing a Ministry of Peace in a country emerging from years of near autocracy and recent civil unrest, to fighting land grabbers in the Amazon, or getting politicians to understand the impact of Brexit on the financial industry in the UK to implementing an investor drive for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in a Middle Eastern country.
I joined this course with preconceived notions about how public policy implementation should be – following the plan and control approach commonly used in projects. What I left with however, was a new way of looking at implementing policy through a problem driven iterative approach that was agile in its format. The entire PDIA process has been really insightful from looking at problem identification differently, and unearthing the underlying causes of a problem which are often multi faceted. In reality I’ve learnt that the policy implementation process is not a logical process. One can go back and forth on each stage but the learning or iterations is what makes this approach more engaging. An interesting part of this programme was applying the knowledge of the 5whys to the develop a fishbone diagram which gave me visual representation of the underlying causes of my chosen policy problem of poor and inadequate broadband in many parts Ghana. The next stage was searching for entry points based on the Triple A framework – Ability Authority and Acceptance. I’ve learnt to navigate the fine balance needed between legitimacy (measure of how the public perceives or accepts the policy and often judges the policy’s effectiveness) and functionality (the measure of the “what and why” a policy intervention is being pursued and to what extent that policy intervention resolves the problem or objective identified) and I know that it is not a linear process but zigzag in reality. Another powerful takeaway I took from this course is knowing the power of negotiation and having humility to confront difficult decisions and biases. I still remember vividly the day we were taught how to confront the problem of discrimination and inherent biases that rear up in some policies and how to tackle these through tactful negotiation and smart concessions.
This programme challenged me to redefine my policy problem and to focus. I discovered something new about my policy challenge during the problem construction and deconstruction phase of the process when two representatives from the regulator (who were directly linked to my challenge) pinpointed trust issues as an underlying cause that needed to be addressed. Subsequently I have been working with them to tackle this problem. Our review of the Everest Case Study amplified team roles and responsibilities in a way I had not considered. It forced me to evaluate the team I had assembled for my policy challenge and reassign roles. The process has however not been easy. One of the hardest part of my policy implementation journey has been managing the stakeholder relationships and ensuring continuous motivation for those who are part of this process, to stay on course. One complaint I continue to receive is that this process is too involving and time consuming. While I’m self-motivated, getting my internal team to continue to support this new way of approaching policy was a challenge. When my internal team started losing momentum as the process moved slowly I knew I had to step in. The modules on motivation, follow up group conversations and Anisha’s blog on motivation helped me realise this turn of events was nothing new. I’ve tried to build a safe space by encouraging individual members of my team to candidly share what is working in our process and what is not. One common thread was the lack of time to pursue the iterative learning with our external stakeholders because we worked remotely. E.g. attempting to have calls with key stakeholders in poor bandwidth areas was frustrating. After we listed all the problems we collectively tried to find solutions or new ideas to address this challenge.
I’ve been motivated by determination to succeed. I had to revaluate my problem definition at a point and change tactics when I realised at a point that an authoriser wasn’t fully on board as she should. My team had heard so much about the PDIA programme and as I imparted this knowledge It hit me that having invested so much time, resources and effort into this process, I had to ensure this new approach yielded some good output. So when we agreed on an entry point to tackle our identified problem and finally received the buy in from our internal authoriser, my team was excited as they had seen a practical outcome of the learning. I noticed they were also more keen to contribute to discussions as I had created a safe space for iterations. One takeaway from this programme is the need to consistently follow up with stakeholders, particularly the authorisers, beneficiaries and team members and not be afraid to make changes from the learning picked along the way. If a process is not working, it is ok to pause, re-evaluate, and even stop to pursue another approach.
I have infused the PDIA approach into an Eskills4policymakers training course my organisation piloted this year to mainstream gender into ICT policies. Although my supervisor was unsure if introducing this approach will work, I managed to convince her to allow me to take participants through this process. During the training, I explained the PDIA approach, particularly the problem construction, deconstruction phase as well as negotiation and using the ladder of influence. Pleased with the feedback from the participants who particularly found the process of defining their problem to settling on policy options very useful, my internal authoriser gave me the go ahead to incorporate my learnings into future training and our public policy work.
I must admit however that the regular check in process that makes the PDIA unique has not been easy to follow through given time constraints. Nevertheless, I have learned to persevere in my application of my policy problem by grit and motivation. My inspiration comes from conversations with other colleagues in the cohort facing similar challenges and hearing about their progress with their individual policy problems and implementation. Members of my cohort and the wider PDIA community of practice have and continue to be a formidable and rich source of support.
Matt shared some thoughts in his final video to the cohort which sums up this course and expectations: – that, “the PDIA process is hard, it really does need grit and motivation.” In my line of work, I’ve observed that authorisers (particularly politicians) care about timely impact and legitimacy and they can be impatient. As good public policy practioners we need to keep looking for the right opportunities to reiterate the importance and impact of the public policy challenges we work on and the progress being made (however small). We need to continuously remind our decision makers, authorisers and teams about the publics for whom we develop our policies and keep justifying our work with facts. We also need to be candid about the hurdles we face along the way but be ready to change tact, try alternative solutions and keep learning. My experience from working in tense environments is that one needs to manage what is within one’s control e.g. emotions, reactions to situations and limited resources including people. Don’t be afraid to seek help from others and stay humble.
Finally, if we are to succeed as practioners we need to take better care of ourselves, rest as much as we can and encourage our team members to do so. We can achieve more impact when we are in the right frame of mind.