Honoring the memory of a lost child: A father’s inspirational pursuit of policy change

Guest blog by Anjan Chimaladinne

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.

On August 13, 2016, my 16-year-old son passed away unexpectedly and suddenly. My wife and I have established scholarships in his name at his high school and the college he was planning on attending. For the 4 past years we rendered help to several other social causes. In the United States, suicide was the second leading cause of death for persons aged 10–24 from 2000-2017 and mental health is leading contributor for suicides. This issue has been bothering us for the past 4 years and we wanted to help and did not know how to. The Covid-19 and work from home situation opened time and helped me find and enroll in the Implementing Public Policy course. My initial expectation of this course was, it would certainly help me do something in honor of my son, Anshul, and save at least few lives.

Right from the first class (aka Live Q&A Session with Faculty), which was on June 23rd, 2020, till the last class, which was on November 17, 2020, “I learned a lot” is an utterly understatement. It was indeed a powerful evolution! In my professional life, as a Government Contractor, I have been implementing the IT Policies of several Chief Information Officers (CIOs) at different Government agencies. I never paid attention to how these policies were developed. The eye opener and self-intriguing questions like (a) what is your policy challenge/problem, (b) why does it matter, (c) to whom does it matter, and (d) what would the problem look like solved, helped me immensely to comprehend and structure my challenge/problem better.

I initially thought that I would work on a policy change for 60 Million students spread across 130K schools in the Country. However, based on the Live Q&A session inputs, I took a bite sized approach and reduced the scope to two school districts, where 13 unexpected teen deaths occurred from 2011- (June) 2020. Learning about the concepts and immediately applying to my policy challenge has been the core pillar of this wonderful program. I could never imagine the Political Support that I would need, what it takes for the Implementation Process, what kind of Budget is required, how to mobilize the resources, the Procurement, HR, Bureaucratic Support, Geography, Customs, Culture, etc. for the success of this problem/challenge; I was certainly bewildered to know the unknowns in my policy challenge. Trying to map and mobilize the multi-agents (e.g., Authorizers, Motivators, Conveners, Connectors, Problem Identifiers, Ideas People, Operational Empowers), to Facilitate Emergence was certainly daunting and at the same helped structure my problem/challenge. When the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) management method/tool was introduced, I was pleasantly felt comfortable as I have been leveraging iterative development methodologies like Agile/Scrum in my professional life.

It was extremely inspiring for me when we went through case studies around leadership definitions illustrating “leadership is about taking risks on behalf of something you are about and mobilizing/enabling others to take purposeful risks with you”. I concurred that Leaders cannot be risk averse, especially when they want to develop and implement a complex policy change that they deeply care about. Also, my problem narrative did suffer from couple of weaknesses described in the blog on “pitfalls of problem solving” – one the scope was too high at the Country level and two I was driving towards the solution of inculcating yoga and meditation into K-12 curriculum (“solution confirmation pitfall”; I quickly learned that the solution shall emerge iteratively and with the engagement of all stakeholders. Constructing and deconstructing my Policy Problem and strengthening the Problem Narrative was extremely useful. The following Fishbone Diagrams illustrative the learning process –

Initial Fishbone Diagram

Updated Fishbone Diagram (after continued iterations and adaptations)

As mentioned above, I had taken a bite size approach for my policy change and my first entry point was to approach the two largest school districts in my area (Northern Virginia, US). Based on advocacy from the citizen groups, parents, students, mental health care professionals, psychologists, counselors, etc. a topic will get onto School Boards meeting agenda. Once the School Boards vote on a particular agenda item/policy change, it will go to the Councilmen for review and approval of budget. Part of the Action Learning Process, I did (a) Research on data to strengthen my problem narrative, (b) Research on what is being done in our neighboring counties, and (c) Identify other groups that could help me in this journey. Learning from Rob Wilkinson’s 4P model of Leadership, Process is one P that I worked on for my policy challenge as I did not know how the ‘Process’ works in the County Administration and with the Local Elected Officials. As mentioned earlier, I reached out to the Councilmen and School Board via email’s and requested the Public via the Social Media about the cause I am fighting for. So far only 8/38 elected officials responded and very few private citizens responded to me. As professor Andrews suggested in one of the lectures to employ alternative communication strategy, I reached out, in vain, to make appointment with the elected officials to discuss my policy challenge. I also reached out Virginia Secretary of Education to discuss my policy challenge. He was very supportive initially and suggested that I make an appointment and come see him after before the General Assembly session that starts early next year. Another step that I had taken in the action earning process, based on what Professor Andrews suggested, I reached out to few folks that know these elected officials, and this actually worked few weeks back when I was volunteering at the Polls. I met Mr. Harris Mahedavi, the Ashburn School Board Member, who was also volunteering. He said that he would certainly get the item of reviewing what we the county must assess mental health issues to the agenda. If I get them to evaluate the effectiveness of mental health programs that are in place in schools in light of 13 unexpected teen deaths in the two counties, then that is a huge success for me.

I also learned that recognizing and considering the human and emotional impacts on the people I work with is the key step in implementing public policy. If I can tune in my emotions, then I could their emotions too. The folks who had developed the current policies, naturally have an attachment to them. When I approach them to evaluate whether those policies are effective or not, it will certainly have an impact on them. The concepts of Statement/Advocacy vs. Question/Inquiry play an important role here. Initially I was trying to make a statement that the current policies are not working and trying to advocate for change. I will mend that now and will take the approach of Inquiry and see how it goes.

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

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