Feeling Excited, then Misplaced, then Overwhelmed, then Inspired!

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Guest blog written by Anna Doherty

Rolling up on day one at the Kennedy School, alongside a global cohort of policymakers, I felt excited and then immediately overcome with imposter syndrome. As it turned out, my fellow students were establishing peace ministries, tackling the inter-generational impacts of racial segregation, advocating for better healthcare and medicine, and developing unprecedented national legislation! There were members of parliaments, heads of public service departments, there was even a banker with a Rolex. I was just from a State Government in Australia – what could I possibly contribute?

It wasn’t until our first coffee break that I realized that many of the class were feeling the same way. And despite our uncertainty, we soon found we weren’t just there to listen to public policy experts and return home with a head full of theories but no road-map for applying them. We were there to work through and commit to our challenges, and this meant bringing them into the classroom to be dissected, to plan our approach, subject our plan to the scrutiny of others, and then build a better one.

There was barely any time to let the realization of hard-work set in before we were asked to confront the complexity of this task via the Ishikawa fish-bone – everyone’s favorite tool for understanding just how vast and intractable our chosen policy challenges were, and then empowering us with entry points to make a start. My chosen challenge was “how to encourage policymakers to adopt empirical evidence”, and the fishbone helped me understand how many structural issues there were inhibiting progress. 

Lesson 1. Find those already committed to the problem – they are your allies

Despite mapping this vast problem alone, I soon realized I was not the first, only, nor last person to tackle this policy challenge. We were taught the importance of investing time in finding people who were already making progress, and were encouraged to look for “positive deviance” that is, ideas already being acted on in your specific context. On returning home, I found an existing network of public servants from across several Government Departments, who were already mapping, consolidating and measuring academic-government partnerships across the Sector.

I also discovered cutting-edge University policy labs across Australia and internationally, some with sophisticated platforms and mandates to bridge Governments and academia. I found events and training courses on how to speak to policymakers (for academics) and how to engage researchers (for policymakers), and teams developing banks of rigorous evidence to improve Government decision-making – some behind closed doors and some in a public and engaging way. Mostly I found a vast consensus on this challenge, and an interest in tackling it from a range of angles. 

Lesson 2. Look especially for allies with authority, ability and acceptance

Looking back on my fishbone, one of the main deterrents for me was that didn’t feel like I had the ability, acceptance or authority necessary to act. This initially made me feel overwhelmed, but coming across positive deviance in my own context, I realized that there were others already working in these spaces – and from their different positions, they had different levels of acceptance, ability or authority that I could align with. 

Lesson 3. Be willing to adapt your vision and your actions

PDIA recognizes that policy implementation has phases – sometimes you’re demonstrating the efficacy of your ideas with real world implementation, and other times you’re communicating with decision-makers about what you have already achieved and could achieve in the future – if only they would support you! These phases are vital to maintain traction, but they don’t need to be done at the same time and probably shouldn’t be. Iterative adaptation means being flexible, willing to change and pivot, adapting to new developments, and being strategic about where and when to focus your efforts.

When feeling stuck, often when trying to secure the right authorization, I looked to how others shaped their narratives and achievements. This may mean compromising on your vision (or letting it take shape with the views of others), but it is also empowering and liberating to feel part of a larger effort. It makes the work feel more manageable, provides solidarity, and gives you a sense of progress that is bigger than yourself. 

Lesson 4. Celebrate the small things

Part of this compromise for me was to recognize that I needed to incorporate my work on this policy challenge into my ‘day job’ – and that meant redefining success.

Policy implementation is hard and there are endless set-backs, so it’s important to celebrate small achievements along the way, even if they are not as significant as what you had initially planned. This can help remind you of your progress and bolster your sense of purpose. A couple of small achievements from my team over the past few months:

  • Developing and releasing a guide on ‘how to test policy interventions’ using research methods, such as randomized controlled trials, to help agencies to apply and generate new evidence to inform policy. This guide has already been used by teams to start testing new ways to communicate with citizens.
  • Launching a network of practitioners across the Health sector applying or interested in applying findings from behavioral science to their work. This aims to foster collaboration, sharing of ideas and lessons, including evidence of effective interventions to tackle common challenges (such as getting people to turn up to their hospital appointments!) 

Lesson 5. Keep talking

In addition to finding motivation in all of the new people and practices I have come across, I am grateful to my fellow PDIA practitioners for keeping the momentum of the WhatsApp group and calls going. Usually us Australians are fast asleep when the chat happens, but when you’re on a similarly challenging journey but spread across the world, having a stream of motivational messages or supportive problem-solving turn up on your phone each morning was a big help. One of the first lessons during our course was that policy implementation is hard, and that new intractable challenges will keep arising. Committing to a career in public policy is accepting you will never be satisfied, or finished.

As we continue to face unprecedented and expanding public policy challenges, especially in the face of a quickly changing climate, it helps to know there are dedicated, compassionate policymakers like my fellow students in the world. I am also grateful to now be equipped with a framework like PDIA to make a very small, but evolving, contribution. 

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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