Rolling out COVID relief programs in Reno using the PDIA approach

Guest blog written by Calli Wilsey

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.

During one of our first sessions, I remember Professor Andrews speaking about complex problems and the need to address these issues with a new approach typically not used by public policy professionals and government agencies. As he described the problems he has witnessed with the traditional “plan and control” implementation method, I thought, “Oh no. If there is anything I’m good at, it’s planning. And I’m a control freak.” [Insert wide-eyed emoji and head-exploding emoji here].

Professor Andrews and the team invited us into the PDIA world and encouraged us to give it a try with open minds. Boy, am I glad I did.

As the course started, I was working with an internal team to implement a financial assistance program for small businesses that had been economically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the many uncertainties involved with the virus and the response to the public health emergency, I decided to use this situation as my implementation challenge.

Exploration of root causes of the problem was a key point in the learning process for me. I originally started with a narrow view, zeroing in on business support as the epicenter of the problem I was solving. But as I began to consider root causes and build my first fishbone diagram, the bones quickly expanded beyond what I initially considered. For instance, I couldn’t list business shutdowns without considering related causes – inability to pay rent/mortgages, increased anxiety, fear of health impacts, and childcare. As the fishbone grew, it became more and more clear that the economic problem was not solely related to businesses but was much broader. Factors such as whether students would be in school, mental health, housing stability, job security, and the response to the actual virus were all interconnected and causes of the economic problem we were facing.

Now, I did not arrive at this realization on my own. Listening to businesses and their employees, our local elected officials, staff working in various fields, and many others was key in identifying additional causes. Their stories, their concerns, their input – all of it helped to paint a broader picture of what our community was experiencing in the uncertainty of COVID. The overwhelming needs and passion to help inspired my problem statement:

Our community, collectively and as individuals, is facing far reaching health and economic hardships due to the unprecedented impacts related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including record high unemployment rates, unpredictable business closures, potential for increasing evictions, potential long-term layoffs, and spikes in mental health stress, anxiety, and depression. With assistance from our federal allocation of Coronavirus Relief Funds, we need to assist our Reno residents in weathering this public health emergency, help to stabilize our economy, and guide our community through this response and recovery process.

The latest iteration of my fishbone – it’s still changing!

The next key learning moment for me in this process relates to iteration and continuous improvement. Our team, which was focusing on business financial assistance, had never run a grant program like this before. In addition to figuring out the program requirements, we quickly needed to build the infrastructure to run the program – How would we collect applications? What information did we need to meet federal requirements related to the funding? What training did our staff need?

One of our team members quickly reached out to several representatives in our community who worked with small businesses from multiple perspectives. We held several conversations with those individuals to understand the biggest needs of businesses, the information they have available to them, the best way to collect that information, and more. This effort ultimately led to the approval from our City Council for a three-pronged approach to provide financial assistance to businesses. We focused on direct financial assistance to small businesses, women- and minority-owned businesses, and our local artists and arts organizations.

We took a multi-pronged approach to provide financial support to local businesses.

With our program approved, we moved to launch the application for the small business economic assistance program. Our first round of the program provided approximately $1.4 million in support to more than 150 businesses. While we celebrated the outcome, the results did not come without learning pains, all of which we used to make the second round of the program better.

Feedback from application reviewers, elected officials, and applicants indicated confusion among the questions, not a long enough application period, and lack of capability with the technological requirements for submission. Additionally, we realized at the end of the process as we were ready to cut the checks that the majority of the financial paperwork was inaccurate. Our team was not familiar with the financial requirements, and our normal accounts payable process could not handle the volume of applications at the same time. All of this caused a delay in applicants receiving their much-needed and critical funding.

As we learned of these issues, we quickly expanded our team to include additional team members, implemented a financial staff training, and provided a written procedure. Within a few days, the team was making progress and getting funding to the businesses. While it was stressful, I am proud that these issues did not stall the process completely. Our team was able to adapt and stay focused on helping businesses in need.

These learning moments helped us to improve the second round as well. We streamlined the application to fix confusing questions and remove unnecessary questions; we offered a longer application period; we ensured phone support was available for questions; we included instructions with the financial paperwork; and we revised our document review process. Our team actively sought feedback and shared ideas for improvement among the team members. While not perfect, the next iteration operated much smoother and quicker!

Another key takeaway for me is the importance of keeping your authorizers informed about progress. We provided multiple opportunities for our City Council to guide the direction of our implementation, but we also provided updates on their prior suggestions. We scheduled a series of presentations at our City Council meetings where we gave updates on the various programs and asked for input on adjustments to meet the Council’s priorities related to our response and recovery from the pandemic. Not only did we share success, we explained the issues we were experiencing in implementation and made recommendations for improvement. The open and consistent communication allowed us to build trust, authority, and support for the effort, with Council regularly approving staff recommendations.

The City Council discusses during a public ZOOM meeting the plans to help the community respond to and recover from COVID.

While this public health emergency is far from over as I write this blog post, results from our programs are showing positive impacts in the short-term. Here’s some specific examples:

  • We are expecting to assist more than 400 businesses and many additional artists with direct financial assistance by the end of this year, providing more than $6 million to stabilize local businesses. We’ve received numerous comments that the funding is helping businesses stay open and keep their employees working.
  • Nine community organizations are working to provide access to food for vulnerable populations such as seniors and college students.
  • At the end of October, we provided rental assistance to 135 residents, keeping them in their homes and avoiding eviction. The number of individuals supported has increased since then.
  • We secured an innovative contract with an online provider of tele-mental health therapy and counseling. Every single resident older than 13 will have access to these services for the next year.
  • We provided funding to our local school district to purchase 5,400 devices for students who are in distance education situations.

These highlights are in addition to work on expanding access to testing, implementing communications campaigns with the latest information about safety measures, and making operational changes to keep our employees and residents safe in this difficult time. Not every program we envisioned came to fruition, but we are learning to explore options, gather feedback, and make decisions based on what we learned.

I plan to use these lessons, and many more, as other complex problems come my way. I can already see a few in the near future – tax policy, social justice reform, and exploring a ballot initiative for parks funding are just a few of the discussions that I’m expecting in the next six months. I’m looking forward to using this approach to make a positive impact in my community, and learning the whole time.

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

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