The luxury of long-term planning in a predictable environment has outlived its shelf-life

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Guest blog by Puneet Balasubramanian

I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.

– John F Kennedy (1962)

The current global crisis caused by COVID-19 has once again brought into focus the deeply complex business of policymaking. The unprecedented and unanticipated impact which the pandemic has caused has unsettled even the most competent policy-making mechanisms of the world. But the real challenge would be to recover from the battle wounds, once the dust has settled.

Just like how different countries have responded differently to the pandemic, achieving diverse results, the future too hinges on efficient and contextual policymaking. Policymakers and their advisors, therefore, need to accord adequate attention to the rebuilding strategy – which is going to be a much bigger challenge than the passing-through one.

Among many things which the current crisis teaches us, is the perfect manifestation of what former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously termed as the “unknown unknowns”.

What we need to therefore acknowledge is the fact that no longer can the classical approach to policy-making deliver the desired results. The luxury of planning for the long-term in a stable and predictable environment has outlived its shelf life and needs to be discarded. Instead, in these ambiguous times, when the operating environment itself is highly dynamic and uncertain, policy-makers need to demonstrate agility in planning, right from the design stages until its implementation.

The Need to Get Implementation ‘Right’

Among the several challenges we face in todays’ times, Climate change is a burning issue and much effort is being accorded to study its potential impact on global, regional and national levels. But still, a lot remains unknown and even unknowable when it comes to the future patterns and trends of climate change. Also, it is quite difficult to garner this knowledge from existing resources or agents. As we have seen from several examples worldwide, policymakers tend to overestimate their knowledge of climate change and its potentially devastating impact by pretending to know more than they actually do.

I was fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity of joining the IPP program of the Harvard Kennedy School as I worked on this challenge.  The programme has broadened my understanding of the multi-layered complexities associated with policymaking as a whole. Its well-rounded and comprehensive curriculum allows one to develop a solid foundation in the otherwise ‘shaky’ world of policymaking, from a real-world perspective. My thoughts on implementation challenges and mitigating strategies have undergone a complete transformation during this engagement.  I see the implementation challenges from a much-informed outlook; better equipped to analyse and forecast their impacts against the metrics of anticipated and unanticipated outcomes.

The course has made a strong argument that adaptive methods like PDIA are key to managing through this kind of challenge. This is the time to work collaboratively, and to be human, and to delegate thoughtfully, leading with the 4Ps, build psychologically safe environments for those around us, and more. It is also the time to recognize that effective solutions are only achieved through the continuous accumulation of ‘small wins’.

Speaking specifically of the PDIA approach, its primary objective of “helping organisations build their capability to address complex challenges while they actually address the challenge” is something we can all benefit from. And more importantly, it also allows a greater understanding of “why things were not working” and address them iteratively through accessible steps.

In particular, I found the “Next Step Approach” of PDIA very helpful in designing an accessible step-by-step intervention, rather than something which is too linear or broad-based. I see this as an important enabler of realistic and time-bound policy making, which synergises “capacity” with “policy objectives”. It also helped me in understanding whether the problem we set out addressing has been solved or not. This is very important from the perspective of Climate-change because only when we have quantifiable metrics to measure progress, will we be able to take repeated action until the problem is fully solved.

Another highlight for me was the focus on leadership. IPP taught me that when dealing with complex policy challenges, leadership comes from many agents. In fact, it highlighted that when dealing with complex policy challenges which are fraught with unknowns, leadership involves many different agents, doing many different things. As complex problems are evolutionary and change with time, different people may act as leaders by leveraging their differing skills and experiences.

By using the analogy of raising a child as a complex problem, the program effectively illustrated the role multi-agents play in managing it. Just like how there is no single actor who single-handedly can claim to raise a child, complex policy challenges too are about multi-agent groups and not single-agent autocrats.

A Key Enabler to Optimal and Sustainable Outcomes

IPP is a key enabler for efficient policymaking, especially from an implementation perspective. It offers several advantages, especially under resource-constrained and resource-contested environments, like the one we are facing in the wake of the COVID crisis.

First, it helps in balancing the inter-linkages and inter-dependencies of various stakeholders and interests to achieve optimal outcomes, which furthers the overall strategic policy vision. Without such a coherent approach offered by the PDIA, an isolated or siloed approach would only yield sub-optimal policies, with no real potential for achieving holistic development.

Second, the program foster the involvement of partners and stakeholders for creating an enabling atmosphere. This is particularly important when faced with complex policy dilemmas, such as those involving growth aspirations vis-à-vis climate-friendly practices. More so, if such an atmosphere is created then sharing of ideas and cooperation in terms of implementation and overcoming boundaries in policy development could also be achieved.

And third, it promotes the idea of generating sustainable solutions, which meet the needs and aspirations of maximum stakeholders. It does this by maximizing opportunities, and minimizing potential negative impacts and risks, by finding the most optimal trade-offs.

Why is IPP more important than ever, now?

COVID 19 has undeniably challenged policy-makers world over. One can easily observe the unsettling impact it has had on each stage of the policymaking cycle, especially through the spill-over outcomes of one policy domain onto another. The unanticipated and unintended consequences of several policy decisions further add credence to the challenge. In dealing with some of the grave challenges caused by the current crisis like public health, education, unemployment etc., there is an urgent need for policy practitioners to think holistically about policy problems and crucially, see their connection to broader cross-cutting areas.

The right approach to policy implementation is more  important than ever in the current times, to overcome, what Prof Matt Andrews of the Harvard Kennedy School calls the ‘public policy futility trap’. This happens when past policy failure experiences erode the confidence of citizens and officials to deliver in future, which undermines the potential for positive future policy results, which in turn reinforces the view that government cannot ‘get things done’, and on and on.

In sum, IPP is an essential enabler which synergizes and helps policymakers achieve optimal outcomes, from their policies. The PDIA approach taught during the program also allows practitioners to better appreciate policy effects in terms of unintended second and third-order interactions. Most importantly, it not only enhances the efficacy of individual policies but rather, enables the crafting of mutually supportive and reinforcing policies.  This indeed is the ‘need of the hour’.

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.

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

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