IPP Journey: Though the flesh has departed, the spirit will be honoured

Guest blog written by Kagiso Maphalle

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.

“Hello, welcome to what will be some of your most difficult, but fruitful years of your career. We look forward to your leadership…”

Those are the words I remember when I think back on the day I joined the National Heritage Council of South Africa as the Head of Core Business. I remember these specific words because they stand out as a reminder of the indeed difficult journey that has been the past two years, but also as I come to the end of the IPP program, I note the fruitfulness which was referred to on that very first day of duty. After two years shy of a decade in the academia and research consulting industries, I made the leap and joined the public service in 2018.

Was it an easy transition? Absolutely not! But on each day, I saw glimpses of small victories which reminded me why it was a worthy change in career trajectory. I still bemoan my flexible working hours and dress code, but I digress. Let me take you through a little journey of what ultimately brought me in search of a program which has not only changed my thinking, but made sense of the challenges I experienced in attempting to do things differently within the public service.

Reality Check: Kindly find attached herewith your mammoth task

As Head of Core Business, one of the units under my portfolio is called the Resistance Liberation Heritage Route. This tongue-twister of a unit is tasked with documenting the heritage of South Africa’s resistance to colonialism and the liberation struggle during the apartheid era leading up to democracy in the year 1994. In a country as diverse as South Africa, carrying the painful history and legacies of the past, documenting the contribution of the old and young alike is beautiful for documenting stories and cementing them in stone for future generations. However, the key word here is pain; the pain of loss, the pain of suffering; the pain of accepting that life as you had known it prior to a specific date etched in your memory for ever will never be your reality; pain of lives that will never be lived; pain of smiles which will never be seen; pain of dreams which will never be fulfilled; and pain of unprepared for goodbyes and so-longs. The pain of those who gave their lives so that future generations can know freedom and democracy. Many of these lives, lost in far-away countries.

The thing about transitions of governments in countries such as South Africa is that car engine oil changes and wheel alignments are only attended to once the car threatens to stop moving. While it is still mildly functional, it is driven towards the unknown destination while the driver hopes it will at least carry him for the next 200 kilometres. I apologise if you are lost, the researcher in me tends to get carried away with figurative and hypothetical means of explaining a complex problem to an audience. And just my luck that I got to be part of a program which fitted right into my way of thinking. But again, I digress, but I think by now you should be seeing how the IPP Program was a perfect fit at the perfect timing for me! No? Well, stay with me… The car engine oil and wheel alignment here refer to policy needs, and the driver is the public service and government.

In October of the year 2019 I received the news that the Minister of Sports, Art and Culture had tasked the National Heritage Council (read me) with assisting the department to produce a National Policy on the Restitution of Heritage Objects and Repatriation of Human Remains. The country had up until that point, dealt with repatriations at an unsystematised, ad hoc basis without a set budget and teams with roles and responsibilities. I had to hit the ground running and find a way to make it happen, and after only two weeks of reading up on the research which had previously been conducted and a number of meetings with stakeholders, I knew that I needed a different approach to the problem at hand which would help me produce what was expected in the short period of time.

One beautiful morning, I checked my emails to find the Kistefos Fellowship for Africans in the Public Service being advertised for the Implementing Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and I thought to myself, this is my solution! Fast-forward to the application process, Covid-19 disruptions, and the first day of the programme and first assignment and I was literally jumping up and down in my chair. There I was being asked to work on my exact policy challenge, in real time, with reading materials which were an aha! Moment for me in so many different ways. I had not expected that I would be working on this actual time-pressured challenge, but here it was and I was now feeling more energised to tackle the problem.

Every single assignment I submitted pushed me ten steps closer to finding solutions for the repatriation policy challenge. The reading material and practical examples given helped me see the challenges which arose daily more clearly. I was now a forecaster of note when it comes to identifying possible gaps and setbacks, and if I thought I was flexible before I joined the programme, the PDIA processes showed me that I had so much untapped potential to not only extend my flexibility but also think on my feet.

Three key things stand out for me during my time participating in the IPP programme:

  1. Have an open-minded, teachable, and flexible perspective to policy-making. The experience has taught me that perspectives can shift and it is ok because you might just find out something you had never thought possible or even considered. Do not cast your views in stone!
  2. People are important. This is a lesson I will pass on to every person I encounter in both my personal and professional life. The stakeholder consultation processes showed me that words on paper mean nothing if they do not consider the lived realities of the people they will mostly affect.
  3. Start small while aiming big. The PDIA process helped me to not get overwhelmed because I got to break down the big challenge into smaller tasks, and each time we recorded small wins I felt more empowered to take on the much bigger tasks.

I am happy that at the end of the IPP program, we have a draft policy that is on its way to Cabinet for approval. The car has finally received its oil chain and is booked in for wheel alignment. We await to see how we will do in the next session of driving it once it is approved, and we hope to positively impact the lives of those who lost their loved ones in the liberation struggle and give them their much needed closure.

I keep going back to my file of reading materials and re-learning all of the lessons and imparting the knowledge to my team. I am grateful for the enriching professional friendships I have gained through the program; amazing individuals doing great things in their parts of the world and staying committed despite the odds against them.  I am excited for the next cohort of IPP participants who will experience the joy and exhilaration of going through this program. And to all of them I say:

“Hello, and welcome to what will be some of your most difficult, but fruitful years of your career. We look forward to your leadership…”

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

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