Understanding the problem is critical to policy implementation

Guest blog by Mustapha Samateh

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.

After 11 years of public service- 7 years at the Central Bank and 4 years as Director at Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, I joined the private sector a year ago serving as the Deputy Managing Director at the Investment and Commerce bank.  My experience in public sector made me believe that there is more than enough good public policy. The problem is implementation. This motivated me to take the Online Harvard Executive Education Program on Implementing Public Policy (IPP). My expectation at the beginning of the course was that I will learn a lot about public policy implementation. In the end, it surpass my expectations.

From the first day when Professor Matt Andrews said something that I will remember for life. He said during the introductory session that ‘’ you don’t have to buy our ideas. Our request is that you rent it for a little while….. Thereafter, if uncomfortable, you can drop them’’. Wow!!! I knew about buying ideas. The rental is totally new for me. This is just one example. This course has change my mindset in many ways.  I am now seeing and hearing things differently. Thank you to Matt and the team. Well done.

With 14 modules it was indeed very hard. In fact, for the past six months I did not have weekends. Due to my busy work schedules I use Saturdays to read the notes and watch the videos and Sundays to do the assignments and submit them. I have not had weekends with my family for a long time. It is stressful but a worthwhile investment that requires commitment of time and energy.

I have learnt that implementation is a course of action not necessarily executing a plan it can be the plan itself. Success is multi-dimensional. It must be functional and legitimate. Common vehicles used to implement public policy are (a) budget (b) projects and (c) delivery units. However, one should spend time to construct the problem. I initially framed the solution as the problem/ my implementation challenge. Problem construction and deconstruction is an incredibly useful tool and discipline to have. Developing the fishbone diagram helps a great deal in deepening understating of the problem or policy challenge. Depending on the degree of unknown, three approaches may be use to solve the problem, namely- (a) Plan and Control (b) AGILE and (c) PDIA.

Plan and Control is useful when we know what are doing and are doing regular things. It is about who we need to contact and how we contact them. As the unknowns increase use of the AGILE method may be considered.  However, for high unknowns (complex problems) PDIA is best because it facilitates learning.

PDIA is about engagement. Engaging with people and the problems that are to be solved.  How we learn from each other. People with multiple talents who can work together. The Snowflake model. I have learnt the virtue of patience and shared authorization. Always keep big picture in mind but act on the small things of consequence. Facilitated emergence is about building networks not delivery units. Learning lessons that are hard to learn. Some assumptions will be broken and it takes a lot of time and energy but is more fulfilling than paying consultants.

PDIA is not a consulting model. The problem are big and complex. During my first iteration, I discovered that the problem statement needs to be addressed again. PDIA is all about going back again and again consistently and continuously addressing the problem. In the process, I have also learnt important lessons about delegating, multiagent leadership, effective communication, 4Ps of strategic leadership (Perception, Projection, People and Process).

 It is important to create and environment to motivate and learn. I have changed my culture of lateness to time keeping. I now assess change space and communicate. I recognized that best practice is only useful when you have the best practioners- planting a tree in the dessert. I have learnt to create a community of practice. We now learn by doing and keep asking questions. We are constantly engaging with each other, part of something that is permanent.

Understanding the problem is the starting point at the beginning, I found out that the people that I need are not there. Spend time cultivating the problem with appetite for adaptation and change. Leadership is taking risk. Do you care enough to do this? Often times, there is a gap between policy ideas and policy implementation. Continue thinking about the problem. We should look for ideas rather than solutions. Entry point analysis. People have domains and those domains have doors. Authority is important. Acceptance is also important, what can we do with the people we have? What are the ideas we can act on? We want new ideas. Empower creativity in our people. We should act not just to solve problems but to learn. Implementation is not just about what but where, whom and how? Change space is where we can act. Design space is current practice.

The only way to deal with complex problem is engagement. Engage authorizers, implementers and potential users. We are dealing with unknowns and uncertainty. Have conversations. Relationships matter.  Do we care about the problem? Governments matter when policies fail. Office is learning space. Success is not just getting to the summit.

In conclusion, this IPP program has been an eye opener for me. It has given me a lot of insights, ideas and tools to tackle complex public policy challenges. Whilst my journey have started it is far from the finish line with the constant and continuous iteration. I strongly recommend this program for all public policy practitioners. 

I will like to take the opportunity to say a big thank you to Professor Matt Andrews and the team for the mentoring, guidance and support. It is much appreciated. Allah bless you all and stay blessed.

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

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