Guest blog written by David Sperling
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 was optimistic: I knew the course would be useful and would help me understand better, at least in theory, how one might best go about implementing a public policy decision. Little did I realize what a profound impact the course was going to have on my professional work. I never imagined that something like PDIA existed, much less that it would be applicable in a highly practical way to my own policy challenge, working as I was, and am, with agricultural pastoralists in the dry region of Turkana County in northern Kenya. The progressive practical application of new ideas and concepts throughout the course was invaluably useful. What I have learned far exceeded my expectations.
My key learning moments during the course came about because of its: 1) comprehensive deep analysis of the dynamic context of public policy challenges; and 2) the accompanying creation of “implementation capability”. The definitional ideas/concepts especially useful to me were:
– the core idea of deconstructing the “meta-problem” into its multiple dimensions and then pursuing a “problem-driven sequencing” solution;
– the ideas of “state capability”, “premature load bearing” and “isomorphic mimicry”;
– the distinction between “project completion and success” and “policy impact success”;
– the fact that there is an “authorizing environment”, not just authorizers, and that authorization needs to be maintained; it’s not self-sustaining or self-perpetuating;
– the difference between “functional success” and “legitimacy success”;
– the concept of “capability taxonomy” and the “organizational capability” needed to implement public policy;
– the “triple-A” factors of authority, acceptance and ability that characterize “change space”.
Other key learning moments came about because of the specific questions like: “What did you manage to do in these last few weeks? What questions do you have moving ahead? How have you managed up? What did you learn as you did this work? List the new people you have met and engaged with in the last three weeks”. These questions needed action-answers. No waffling! The Assignments were most helpful. They required me to be hard-nosed and specific in assessing progress and planning for the future, and more accountable to myself, constantly asking real-life and real-work questions about past progress, present initiatives and future planned action. I wasn’t used to asking myself such questions. The course has helped better define, and raise the standard of, my self-accountability.
The ideas and concepts referred to above gave me a better understanding of how to analyze my policy challenge and led me to think through the changes and new practices I needed to adopt in dealing with my staff, my authorizers and my beneficiaries. Effectively, I changed my whole approach from “plan and control” to PDIA. This meant, first and foremost, bringing my staff and working colleagues on board.
On the 3rd and 4th July I spent two days with my five key officers, explaining the PDIA approach to them, getting them to construct and deconstruct their own fishbones, and discussing among ourselves where we might best enter the fishbone. This was nothing less than a revolutionary change to the way we had been doing things up until then. Together with this new internal PDIA attitude and approach to our policy challenge, I moved to engage more actively with my key authorizers, realizing – thanks to PDIA – that I shouldn’t take authorization for granted.
Assessing personal motivation is complex. My motivators? I wanted to make the most of the course and to do well in it. I also quickly realized, once back from campus and working in the field, that by sharing what I had learned with my officers and by applying PDIA together as a team, we had been able to identify and focus on specific manageable aspects of our policy challenge. As a result, we had progressed in a way we had not been able to do before.
I foresee being highly motivated to continue to tackle problems using the “PDIA Way”. Though a trite saying, “Success breeds success” expresses reality. Success breeds self-confidence and is self-reinforcing. Positive results – and the positive feedback that such results bring – lead someone, implicitly and unconsciously, to trust the process used to achieve those results. PDIA is a proven effective trustworthy WAY. Even if you paid me a huge sum of money, I wouldn’t abandon it now!
Pro-active engagement with my authorizers has, hopefully, become an embedded habit and feature of my policy challenge work. During my most recent visit to Turkana County (two days ago), I contacted and asked to meet with the County Minister for Agriculture (a main authorizer) so I could brief him and bring him up to date. Yesterday, 6th December, I met with the Minister for over an hour during which I told him of my progress and my future proposed plans. During the briefing he asked several questions and clarifications. I could tell he was delighted with what I had done and was planning to do. He took extensive notes during our meeting, gave me explicit guidance on priorities for the future, encouraged me to continue with my work and told me that he would be seeing the Governor of the County later in the day and would now be able to brief the Governor fully on how my project was going. This is all happening thanks to my PDIA training on the need to maintain an authorizing environment.
The questions about “building a supportive team” and “speaking to new sources of know-how and beneficiaries” spurred me to strengthen the capacity of my team by leveraging the knowledge of persons who are highly experienced with the pastoral agricultural communities of Turkana County and by seeking new sources of funding and support.