Deconstructing policy challenges using the fishbone

Guest blog written by Yilma Melkamu Alazar

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.

I came across the “Implementing Public Policy” course by chance while scrolling through my social media links. Reading through the course objectives, I immediately thought it might help me to find a way to solve some of my struggles. However, I was a bit skeptical since my field of practice is somehow sensitive and often relegated to the bottom list of policy priorities as politicians don’t want to openly and directly address it despite it is a denominator for the success of most of their agendas. So I was not sure such a short course, a full course for that matter, would help me to make a dent.

Nevertheless, I went ahead and enrolled hoping that a quick and ‘gold standard’ remedy would be found.

When I wrote my expectation in my application, I remember saying “…I am interested to explore (and champion) how population dynamics could be considered as one of the key policy and programme priorities for developing countries…the legislative and executive bodies neglect this important ingredient in their short and long term agendas…”.

The content and methodology were not what I expected. I expected complex and flashy PowerPoint slides, motivational speeches supplemented by policy implementation successes with A+ ratings etc.   However, it didn’t take me much time to realize that the course is not to spoon feed and give quick fixes but to gradually empower me to be able to visualize the breadth and depth of my policy challenge from various angles, especially to be conscious of the unknowns which influence or often determine the outcomes.   

I quickly learned about ‘plan and control’ and its limited role in solving complex issues such as my policy challenges.

The most important and useful learnings for me were:

  1. The unknowns: an important lesson was understanding how the ‘unknowns’ influence policy implementation. Using the tools provided, I quickly discovered that the unknowns are actually numerous. I remember listing more than ten issues instantly and concluding that my policy challenge is a complex initiative than I thought. Although my policy challenge is unprecedented and progressive, it was formulated in a top down fashion without proper consultation and buy in from downstream stakeholders who often play critical role in implementation. This contributed to increased level of unknowns. I also learned that seeing implementation of policies through to final results (impact) depends on how much the policies and implementation plans are integrated/institutionalized in existing enabling systems and processes such as budget decisions and accountability structures from top to the grassroots.
  2. Progressive and ambitious policies won’t easily fit to the traditional ‘Plan and Control’ approach to public policy implementation – extensive planning, lock-in/approval, mobilization of resources, implementation as per the approved plan and evaluation/audit largely assuming we are dealing with things we know and control. Plan and control is through a predetermined processes using restrictive tools in accordance with guidelines set out generations ago. No enough space and flexibility are provided for ongoing review and course correction through analyzing emerging issues that could affect the plan in the course of implementation. Because of the strict ‘lock-in’, the main drivers (the implementers) lack the capability (authority) to make the necessary adjustments as and when required.
  • Leadership and learning team: Another significant lesson was the importance of cultivating multi agent leadership, not only about the individuals at the top (authorizers). Complex policy implementation requires a collective contribution of leaders at different levels. These leaders should be those who are motivated, have the authority and convene groups to take risks and achieve a common goal. All are leaders – authorizers, motivators, conveners, connectors, problem identifiers, ideas people, operational empowerers and implementers. In addition, having multi agent learning team is important. In my case, I learned that the group who championed policy formulation included highly skilled and renowned people in the field of population and health. However, groups that are expected to champion implementation and accountability at different levels were not clearly defined and engaged.

Unlike the traditional leadership languages such as vision, goals and total focus on the leader, I found the 4Ps focusing on in-depth understanding of self and others through evaluating our perceptions (and biases), how we project our understanding/vision, how we treat people and pay attention to process details. I found these to be very practical elements which emerge in any intervention/policy implementation and should be carefully considered as success factors. The 4Ps take into account, not only the leader’s understanding of issues but pay attention to how stakeholders perceive issues which paves way to common understanding and having a shared vision. It emphasizes that framing our story by projecting in the right way matters for success. Most importantly, a leader has to pay attention to the emotional aspects of people who matter in the process. In policy implementation ‘process’ we need to consider learning and adaptation, key stakeholder engagement and understanding who to leave out. Another important aspect of the 4P model is that each of the Ps have internal and external dimensions which apply to the leaders as well as the followers (and beyond) emphasizing the need for constantly working on ourselves as leaders while cultivating authorizers and followers.

  • Deconstructing the policy challenge to the root causes: Using the fishbone diagram, I was able to deconstruct the policy challenge to identify root causes. This helped me to uncover some overlooked key challenges. I then moved to analysis of each proposed intervention using the AAA estimation to identify my initial entry points.
  • PDIA: this was the most important aspect of my learning. For a complex policy initiative to be implemented in a structurally and politically complex context, definitely a Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) is the best way to go to allow continues learning and adaptation. As most of the ideas/proposed interventions in my policy challenge are new or no clear documented strategies on how to solve the problems, learning by doing is a must – action learning methodology. Learning through experimental iterations, starting with entry points and demonstrating quick wins (or quick failures) would help in addressing/understanding the many unknowns. It also facilitates the emergence of solutions which can motivate the implementers and authorizers to do more or to try new things by applying learnings from failures/successes. Starting small by selecting a relatively easy entry point and building a good narrative of progress to garner support from authorizers and motivate other stakeholders. The iterative process would help in securing and maintaining authorities support by showing results generated step by step. By providing regular updates, sensitizing and involving them in the process as and when necessary it would be possible to make the authorizers interested in the learning process and make it a culture overtime.

Overall, I learned that breaking problems and tackling them ‘bone by bone’ and celebrating and learning from each step would eventually lead to enjoying the ‘fish head’.  I strongly recommend this course for those who struggle implementing complex policy initiatives especially sensitive ones (such as mine) which require endurance, inquiry, learning, compromise and adaptation. It provides hope and antidote for burnout.

Thank you IPP team!

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

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