Formin’ Normin’ and Stormin’ – My IPP Journey Through Pandemics and Hurricanes

Guest blog written by Liana Elliott

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 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

When I began this executive education course – in the middle of a pandemic, while still recovering from a cyberattack – I was expecting to get some dry, Harvard-y lectures and maybe some good business-speak tools, and join the network of HKS practitioners around the world. 

I was NOT expecting to work my ass off for 6 months. I did NOT expect to try and tackle one of the most insidious problems of New Orleans’s economy – again in the middle of a pandemic, cyberattack, and now fiscal crisis – and I did NOT expect to actually get traction or buy-in from any of my non-wonky colleagues. 

I expected a refresher course to revisit the basics of public policy that I learned in graduate school, now fading from muscle memory as the pace of life quickens, the stakes rise, and the crises compound. What I received from this course was intellectually stimulating, thought provoking, and practical policy support – but I also received professional coaching, therapy, a support group, and a whole new vocabulary and perspective on how I approach my work. 

The work that I do is invisible, it doesn’t have a photo op or ribbon cutting at the end. Since no one really knows what I do, it feels like my efforts are inconsequential and unimportant. I was feeling frustrated at work – I was FULL of great ideas, processes, and policies but they always seemed to get stuck on paper, and I felt like I was failing to ever get anything launched that could survive beyond my own massive investment of time, energy, and focus. I felt my colleagues become similarly frustrated with yet another “good idea” they would get roped into, and nothing would come of it after a few weeks or months. Other colleagues seemed to breeze through projects, make things happen with the wave of some magic wand that I just didn’t have. I attributed this to my own deficits as a leader and policymaker, and I wanted to do better – for myself, but more importantly for the people of New Orleans. 

The Universe of Complexity

Within the first readings, the distinction was drawn between the complex and the complicated – a fundamental difference that is often confused, or too mind-boggling to face. This completely changed my perspective. I recognized that my universe is one of complexity and the vast universe of unknowns.

The colleagues that I was comparing myself to aren’t smarter or more effective than I am, they just work with things that are complicated. I don’t know how to build drainage infrastructure projects, administer billions of dollars in FEMA money, or set up an emergency shelter in 2 hours. I could probably figure it out, but that’s not what my job is. And I am incredibly grateful for my colleagues that keep those roads getting built and those dollars getting spent, because I don’t think I would be happy in that role. Instead, my universe is everything else that’s too nebulous or too massive for anyone to tackle. I don’t know where I am going or what I am doing, and that’s actually a strength – I’m comfortable wandering into the mist of a policy fog. If I knew where I was going, this would be just complicated and I would be bored and unfulfilled. I accepted that I don’t know what I’m doing – not succumbing to imposter syndrome – but taking ownership of the inherent vast lack of clarity or direction.

So in a very on-brand move for me, I bit off WAY more than I could chew in hopes of actually make a difference in the world. On top of managing the Mayor’s Office pandemic response (dozens of committees of external stakeholders and internal task forces), I decided that an appropriately sized issue was utilizing the crisis of COVID-19 to transform New Orleans’s tourism, hospitality and service industry into one that is sustainable, resilient, and equitable. What could possibly go wrong.

A Moment For Change

What I learned from Hurricane Katrina is that in a crisis there is a primal instinct to put everything back the way it was and to recreate the “before” times, but that strategy is both fatal – and dangerous. Small, inconsequential decisions made early on in a crisis and recovery can alter the trajectory of history for hundreds, thousands, millions of people. If you aren’t thoughtful and intentional with each micro-decision, you will end up realizing along the way it isn’t where you wanted to be, and wondering how you got there. Conversely, awareness and intentionality in the midst of an unfolding crisis opens opportunity for transformative change for the better.

The truth about the “before” times of COVID-19 hospitality and service industry in New Orleans were not a surprise to many of us, but it was now finally obvious even to those who had willingly (and intentionally) turned a blind eye to the real daily lived experiences of the hardworking people that make the magic possible. In my early assignments, I described this problem with grandiose phrases like “right-sizing the tourism industry” and “elite power structures” and how “past efforts had been short-lived, rife with schism and suspicion, or actively undermined by industry” – while technically correct, not very actionable.

My Policy Challenge 

What I saw was an opportunity – the way we did things “before” wasn’t going to work. It didn’t exist. It might not exist again for a really long time. A carefree weekend in New Orleans would have been potentially life threatening.  How are we going to adapt and survive such an economic loss? How are we going to double-down on safety and quality? How can our people matter just as much – or more – than the tourists that wander Bourbon St looking for Mardi Gras beads in July? How can we show the world that we take safety seriously, not just for visitors but for our residents too?  How can we ACTUALLY take safety seriously, not just for show?

I had thought through the intricacies of this problem so thoroughly that I saw evidence and solutions everywhere I looked, and explaining my project in virtually every conversation I was having to the point where I couldn’t keep track of who I already talked to about which part of the project or problem. I realized that I was still stuck in “all talk no action,” a familiar stalling point for me. People knew about the project, but I hadn’t actually put anything into motion yet.

The more I learned, the more complex it became. At some point I had a snowflake of fishbones.  

Thankfully I stopped myself at the point of emojis, but I did end up with three completely different problem statements and fishbone diagrams. Clearly, I was procrastinating.

Reality Check – Using What You’ve Got

The lesson about the hero complex resonated, specifically the unhealthy instinct to just do something ourselves, all on our own. I realized that if I wanted to see any kind of real lasting change, I was going to have to get out of my comfort zone, and start bringing people into the fold. This is the point where I usually falter – when my ideas needed to jump off the page and into reality, the scariest part. 

I realized that everyone was too overwhelmed with work to be able to take anything else on at this point. I knew I needed to recruit a team of colleagues, I knew they wouldn’t say no because they care about this too, and I knew that it would be one-thing-too-many and I would be actively contributing to their burnout. 

Around this time, our original COVID Advisory Panel of external stakeholders was falling apart. We formed and stormed, and the norming just wasn’t happening. It was time for a reset, and to give this group something specific and juicy. So I made a public policy Trojan horse.

The COVID Advisory Panel Policy Challenge Trojan Horse

I proposed restructuring the COVID Advisory Panel to pivot towards recovery,  and the Mayor approved. This utilized an existing structure of external stakeholders and project managers to tackle pieces of my array of fishbones, with entire Working Groups tasked with causes central to my project including:

  • Business Pivots – Labor and Business Operations (how to adapt your business model to survive post-COVID)
  • Business Pivots – Facilities, Rights of Way, and Public Space (rethinking our relationship to streets and transportation in the name of social distancing)
  • 2021 Events – How to have X safely (What does a concert in the Superdome look like if we are in Phase 3? Phase 1? What if there’s a vaccine?) 
  • Safety Certifications (How can we actually BE the safest place to live, work, and visit? How can consumers make educated decisions about risk?)
  • Workforce –  (“low skill labor” is exploitative and degrading; effort to change culture of employment so job seekers and employers understand and value the actual skillsets needed for a job)

With the revamped Advisory Panel Trojan Horse launched, I turned my focus to convening a team that would serve as my “partners in crime” – a short list of like-minded colleagues that work on some component of this on a daily basis. The idea is to coordinate our work so it aligns strategically, and sharing lessons and insights with one another in ways that wouldn’t happen organically. I made it clear that what I wanted from the team was not their time, but their thoughtfulness. I want them to keep these themes and insights in mind as they convene meetings, chair boards, and administer programs. This team launched in November, and have begun our bi-weekly PDIA check-ins.

My Leadership Journey

Ultimately, I am proud to say that I got the ball rolling on this effort in a way that is (hopefully) sustainable. During the six months of this course, I was quarantined 3 times, we faced second and third waves of COVID-19, closing and opening of schools, a major municipal fiscal crisis during budget season, and interruptions by several hurricanes, including a direct hit from Hurricane Zeta. Managing the COVID Advisory Panel was already taking up nearly all of my time, and I have been on the verge of total burnout several times (but always managed to pull back just in time to recover and recharge).

The tools that I learned through this course were indispensable to getting me through this time, especially the 4Ps and the mechanics of Teaming. The moments of reflection that are built into PDIA and the 4Ps helped me stay focused on improving how I communicate, staying action-oriented and focused, and improving on how I form and manage teams. If nothing else, these tools provided comforting  reassurance that what I am experiencing is completely normal and expected.

My motivation ultimately came from the urgency and unique moment in time where real change feels possible. IPP and PDIA gave me the tools to accept that I was going to venture into the unknown, because that’s where the real solutions are.

I still struggle with the discipline to revisit concepts and tools, and I still haven’t figured out how to find real time for myself or regular journaling (for work or personally). But I am practicing taking the baby steps to take action, to stop overthinking things and just start doing – what’s the worst that could happen? (lol just kidding please no more crises).

I sincerely hope that one day in the future, some game-changing innovation can be traced to the conversations we are having today. I have given up the idea that I will be able to create and implement something massive and transformative that will alter the course of New Orleans’s history – at least not right now. But even if I can nudge the narrative – even just a little – towards justice, equity, and resilience, that will be worth it.

Learn more about the Implementing Public Policy (IPP) Community of Practice and visit the course website to apply.

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