A Bridge to Sustainable Development in Panama begins with Purpose

6 mins read

Guest blog written by Lorena Fabrega

After 25-years-experience in the private sector, steering the course of a professional career towards public service is challenging.  Implementing Public Policy came to me at such a moment, when I knew I cared and was willing to take risks.  

Knowing I had the ability to make a difference was enough to seek serving my country to achieve sustainable development goals.  However, nothing had prepared me foray into the public arena, and the Executive Program at Harvard’s School of Government seemed the perfect starting point. Searching for purpose, guidance and legitimacy, I luckily joined the 2019 IPP cohort.

Being a lobbyist for sustainable development policies had been my dream job since the beginning. But building a team, when I was in between jobs, and pursuing a specific policy proved to be my biggest challenge: I did not find it. It chose me in the unlikeliest of moments: the pandemic.

To focus on the problem, not the solution

Less than a year before the pandemic (B.P.), in May 2019 professor Matt Andrews asked us to define Public Policy Implementation; our first assignment into the course, I was reluctant to focus the definition on the problem, and so I declared that it was the design and execution of a response to further the public’s best interest.

It took at least two days into the on-campus part of the program for me to accept the value of focusing on what, for many years, most managers ask their teams not to do: you may not present me with problems unless you come with at least two possible solutions!  I even gave them “the face” when they came up to me with an issue, and they quickly turned back on their steps to figure out a possible answer to complicated and even complex problems on their own. I asked that they jump into possible solutions, without examining the problem in depth…without deconstructing it.

The basic switch on focus, to examine the problem and not the solution, is the biggest and most impactful of the theory behind Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). Constructing the problem, which is to make it visible to those that matter, or those that it should matter to, is easier when you have mapped out why the different authorizers care or should care about it in order to secure resources: abilities, authorization and acceptance.  This triple A combo sums up the capabilities on board, or the lack thereof, to achieve successful policies.

But the easiest thing, almost instinctive, is to jump towards a solution or solutions for problems we have not deconstructed, an exercise needed to understand actions or responses that will be tried out. When deconstructing a problem, we understand the impact of such a problem, its ramifications, and why it needs our intervention.

Solutions create new problems

Halfway through the on-campus part of the program, reading that complex problems are not solved but managed, and that our policies create new problems made me stop. I mean full stop.  I breathed deeply and wondered if it was all worth it… maybe I should stick to the private sector.  Policies are ongoing, never finished, evolving continually and indefinitely. 

Knowing that most problems that require our attention are complex, not complicated or simple, is one of the reasons previous policies have not been successful enough. This realization makes one grasp the difficulty of the path chosen: those who stick to it have faith that caring is contagious, and that others who also care will adopt these tools and take the leap with us

My favorite comparison of simple, complicated and complex was also provided during the course.  A recipe is simple: follow instructions and achieve results.  Building a bridge is complicated: it requires a set of technical skills and knowledge, but most variables are known or can be found out, and the context is not ambiguous. Raising a child is complicated: too many unknowns and variables…unchartered waters.  

Defining Successful Policy Making

I stuck to what has been embedded in my brain from the first weeks of the course: my favorite two-dimensional plane was introduced in the form of simple variables for successful public policies: functionality and legitimacy. 

Functionality, as the ability of the policy to make a positive difference in the public interest, works or prepares the path for future positive impact. Whereas legitimacy complies with some stakeholders’ and authorizers’ expectations in the short term and could allow functionality to take place but does not always procure it. 

If the policy makers do not gain legitimacy from stakeholders (their trust and confidence) the implementation of the policy will suffer; or functionality could be obtained but at a higher political cost. I believe policy success must always be obtained through functionality, because legitimacy could be obtained in the long term by the results of the functionality, proven over time.  However, not achieving legitimacy may interrupt the process or have an undesirable political outcome.

Functional success requires well established Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): results or impact. Of course, a policy should generate more positive impacts than negative ones to be successful and defining those KPIs, asking the question, what does success look like? is necessary to ensure that the policy being pursued will achieve the intended results. 

On the other hand, achieving legitimacy depends heavily on being a good salesperson. The functionality should be so obvious it sells itself, used to be my thinking.  However, functionality is not always obvious and we must remind and show stakeholders, whether they are authorizers or final users, what we have accomplished to maintain their support and faith in our work.

Hence, sharing knowledge, objectives and achievements with stakeholders, including media, and even involving some of them in the design of policies, throughout the implementation, monitoring and evaluation, can help policy makers obtain and maintain legitimacy to complete the task successfully.

Tools:  PDIA, Agile and the traditional Plan and Control

The familiarity of given tools and the newness of others gave PDIA an order to do things that mainly rely on execution, accountability and follow up…very frequent follow up.  The most attractive to me was Agile, mainly because I was new to the concept and the idea of trying-out, testing a product or a simple version of it in very short periods of time, and with little investment, seemed simple and practical;  especially because most organizations embark on a design, without testing it on the current context, and implement a linear timetable that is risky, costly and seldom achieves the expected results.

The marriage between the type of problem and the different strategies to respond to such a problem was also revealing to me. Different types of problems require different strategies or combinations thereof.  Accepting that there are many unknowns and that most of our assumptions might be revealed untrue is humbling.  Humility and the ability to accept that there is not a clear solution, but that we should be willing to learn and adapt in the process is a characteristic seldom found in politicians and one of the toughest transformations government agencies have to go through to accept this methodology for successful policy implementation.  

What’s next

After meeting with government officials, exploring different policies to implement, and joining forces with other professionals that care and want to take risks, I embarked in two different projects. I’m happy to say I applied PDIA in both, so I was able to try things out, at a low cost, learned from them and made valuable contacts in the process.  

While gaining legitimacy for one of these projects, PROMTUR Panama found me at exactly the same time the pandemic hit the Americas.  They collided. 

It is Panama’s Destination Marketing Organization, an NGO responsible for international promotion and commercialization of Panama as a tourist destination. It was recently created due to the private sector’s lobbying to take the management of Panama’s Country Brand out of government. 

Endowed with public and private funds, and with the objective of giving continuity and agility to the marketing strategies of Panama, which has been lacking for years because each new government tried out different approaches, PROMTUR Panamá works in alliance with the Tourism Authority and the Ministry of Commerce, as well as the private sector in the construction of Panama’s brand and marketing strategies for investment, exportation, tourism and economic sustainable development.

The policy

I am back at the drawing board, dissecting a new fishbone in the most ambiguous and unknown context we have experienced.  It begins.

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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