Guest blog by Boris Owona, Senior Civil Administrator at the Cameroon Prime Minister’s Office
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 started this IPP program after completing the Emerging Leaders and Public Financial Management programs with a solid foundation of what public policies can look like in a bureaucratic setting. In fact, coming into the course, I felt quite satisfied with my own policy-making abilities, but I was still looking for a more practical insight that can be helpful to explain the causal strains that explain why Government fails or succeeds in each context and what could be the solutions on the way forward.
Now, I have come to realize, pursuing these ideas of legitimacy and functionality that we need first to frame the problem, and then to find the tools useful to solve it, according to the actual level of complexity that we are facing. My assumption about the course was that it would be a tremendous professional development experience applied to a policy intervention for which I care the most, the National Development Strategy (NDS) of my country. Learning from the failure of the past, it was mandatory to establish NDS, that will pave the way for Cameroon, standing as an emergent country by 2035.
The context that prevails for this new course of actions to be successful is characterized by the need of structural and institutional reforms, in order to improve the competitiveness of Cameroon’s economy. Despite the COVID-19 sanitary crisis that oblige us to go online for the full duration of the course, it was very interactive, fact based oriented. I gained learning on the go from my IPP colleagues in their various field of expertise. I am eager to keep pushing the things forward with the community of practice
The Key Takeaways
Within the Public Policy Literature that we learned at HKS on this course, it is worth considering that Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) compared to the traditional Plan and Control approach to public policy implementation is more effective in an environment fraught with unknowns. This is based on the fact that PDIA is intimately related to the delivering of the actual outputs or the final products or services needed by the citizens on the ground, taking into account the constraints (people, time, money, process) faced by public authorities.
The key takeaways of my learning journey deal with the purpose of PDIA, to learn, grow and adapt from each iteration and experience. They can be listed as follow:
- Deconstructing my problem narrative into small and easy tasks to undertake allowed me to find the entry points that could address the routes causes identified by the early NDS diagnosis and situational analysis made by the Government. The fishbone method attached below was particularly helpful to break down and dig my big developmental problems into few main item/concerns.
- Facilitating emergence methods like PDIA helps Government to deal with very complex challenges fraught with significant unknowns. The PDIA approach is well suited to achieve efficiency, especially when we do things that we don’t know, as well as non repetitive or innovative tasks.
- Creating an environment of psychological safety, listening and empowering people toward people, projection and perception is key for the success of any policy intervention based on the multiple leadership agency approach.
- Blending ‘teaming and ‘team-building’ in my context. That’s what PDIA is about! There is no right way but what fits your context. My approach of teaming with the land ministries or finance or economy when I was facing issues, create shared goals and hopefully helped to resolve issues;
- Government bureaucracy context and multi-level approval systems have an impact on organization empowerment culture and the subordinates, especially as they knows that it will go through many stages for review and approval;
- Decoupling development conversation and capacity building than evaluation conversation helps to increase motivation and reduce burn out and stress on the work place;
- PDIA helps to manage perception and therefore, the ability to enter into difficult conversations, avoid errors in social judgment, partisan perceptions and cognitive bias that create often conflicts and result in a lack of legitimacy in the implementation of our policy intervention.
- PDIA helps to manage process and therefore to voice the explicit and nonpartisan ways of organizing the learning journey in order to avoid sub optimal outcome and achieve our policy challenge.
- PDIA is a purposeful step-by-step process of learning that builds functionality and support and then offers key progress indicators to log and communicate in the quest of successful policy interventions.
My Implementation Challenge
My policy challenge was related to the implementation of the National Development Strategy in Cameroon. It was at the frontier between being predominantly complicated and possibly complex at the same time taking into consideration the context and other factors.
The Cameroonian Government has identified the problem as the lack of interdependency of the multiple sectoral development plans, coupled with the relative failure of the Growth and Employment Strategic Paper (GESP) to reassemble those planning tools as a unique comprehensive and bidding package that oblige stakeholders to take action when it comes to financial programming.
The problem matters in the quest of consistent and persistent inclusive growth rates especially to modernize and diversify the economy, accelerate the decentralization process, reduce extreme poverty in rural and peri-urban areas, develop the infrastructure portfolio, promote human capital, rationalize the bureaucratic structure of public organizations and empower the private sector to join the global value chains.
The problem will look like solved with an average growth rate of more than 5.5 percent and inflation target over the next decade contained to less than 3 percent, a private sector investment of at least 50%, an indebtedness threshold less than 70% attached to a sound import substitution and export strategy, a bunch of more than 70% above the poverty line, a road construction program of more than 20.000 kilometers, a youth rate of unemployment of less than 30 % with high intensity and decent labor initiatives, a business climate perception improved in the doing business, an effective implementation of the legal framework on industrial parks to create clusters economies and boost local transformation especially for the public tenders, a transparent public governance strategy to tackle issues of corruption and public funds embezzlement.
Progress and Insights from my Action Journey
Using PDIA, we have mapped out a comprehensive but contextualized strategy for Cameroon that :
- learns from the mistakes of the past;
- requires a reliable delivering unit to coordinate the various line ministries and public bodies involved in the pursuit of public policies;
- demands agile internal and external supports to sort out discrepancies and adapt the learning curve through both the implementation and the execution stages.
In my government’s structure, we only meet to validate action plans, laws and other administrative vehicles and very often on the road map fixed by the hierarchy on a planning and control way of doing things.
Even though the first strategy for the period 2010-2020, was drafted in a participative approach, this time this new NDS 2020-2030 was more iterative, building on small progress a supportive authorization system and a common ground that both foster the active engagement of all the key stakeholders.
This course has inspired me to propose to my hierarchy that the new strategic plan has to be bind in a law setting the general rules and provisions of the modernization of the economy, and the major guidelines on the National Development Strategy sectoral plans to be put in place. This goes along with a more flexible and agile way of evaluating and follow up small progress to fight unemployment, increase growth speed and alleviate poverty.
Last but not least I have proposed to my Government to use this PDIA tools on the new USAID cooperation mechanism with the USA named ‘Roadmap to self-reliance’ in a bid to open a new structured political dialogue between Cameroon and the newly appointed US diplomatic apparatus. The possible technical assistance of the Center of International Development of Harvard University will be welcomed building progress on the Cameroon eligibility to this initiative.
PDIA motivation and the way to tackle problems in future
What motivated me in using PDIA is that implementing our National Development Strategy, requires both “Teaming” and “Team Development.” Considering the central role of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and their perceptions of themselves as the “owners of the economic reform process,” we have tried to develop a culture of iteration and learning together on the go. That’s why it is important tackling problems in the future to identify the risks, to create an itch for the authorizers and to make other major stakeholders truly involved in the network of multi-agents in PDIA process, for developing a National Development Strategy that pursues the modernization of the Cameroonian economy.
PDIA for Future Challenges
- the “progress principle” got me to recognize that small wins, especially centered on learnings and relationships are bae to addressing demanding challenges such as preparing a national development strategy. In fact it is illusory to think that a development strategy will yield results by itself without take into account a pragmatic operational plan to go with it;
- Communicating on a regular basis my small findings trying to convince other people gradually with their own roadmap, especially those who are authorizing. The purpose is to engage with them for them to buy out the personal learning objectives that could have been found odd at the first place. Building this mutual understanding and common aspiration is key for the success of the policies interventions to be achieved on this learning journey.
- It might be useful also to define or to get a sense of what the key performance progress indicators so that when we stop and reflect with other stakeholders, we can make the difference between what we have learned and what new leads have been developed hence (new people, new content, new commitment new contact, new connection, new capabilities, new authorization). In fact “regular communication of learning and leads is key to build the stairway to heaven”
Words of wisdom to share with fellow PDIA practitioners
– PDIA allows public practitioners, not to be targets of change but agents of change. It can be hard at times with resistance of change especially from those who own the reform process. That’s why you need to learn, adapt and reflect in a fast paced environment in an individual, collective or organizational basis;
– In Cameroon, the challenge of ‘privileging’ and ‘excluding’ people in the implementation process is a big issue. Because, everybody wants to be involved in reforms, often in partisan way that might affect the success of some policy interventions. As, stated in this course, it is very important to iterate and engage all the stakeholders but we need to define Cristal clear and agile management processes and methods to avoid free-riders, and have a clear view of the capabilities that we need to address the risk of failure of our policy intervention.