Improving Food Safety Standards in Ukraine

Guest blog by Kateryna Onul

The COVID-19 crisis has coincided with reform within my organization and an urgent need to find new approaches to working with the public sector in different parts of the world. I was looking for tools that could help me continue working on improving policy and regulatory frameworks in the food safety sector despite the turbulence of the environment in all dimensions. 

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, it became clear that as economic ties changed and new political forces and scientific paradigms emerged, the need for new approaches to the development and implementation of public policies became acute. The COVID-19 crisis has become a catalyst that clearly shows areas where traditional approaches to implementing public policies are no longer efficient. I have read many times in various sources about the PDIA approach, which made it possible to find solutions to problems in the political dimension when there are many unknowns and uncertainties. I understood that completing the IPP Course would give me the opportunity to study PDIA both in theory and practice. Unfortunately, due to the intensive work schedule, I did not have the opportunity to leave for six months and immerse myself in student life. I took the opportunity to take the IPP Harvard Program Online as great luck that I did not miss.

Every session was interesting to me. I perceived each task as an opportunity to find solutions to the problems I was working on in real life. Real cases from Albania, Sri Lanka and other countries allowed me to see how PDIA helps to identify the main problem and how to deal with a situation where PDIA tools showed that the main problem was identified incorrectly.

Before this program, I had not thought of how helpful self-reflection questions could be in building your comprehension. During the first weeks of the program, I did not always focus on these questions, trying to spend more time reading the recommended literature. Yet, everything changed when we started to study the topic of Leadership in Complex Policy Work. Self-reflection questions helped me understand what the PDIA team should be like to work on my challenge and how different it should be from the traditional one, typical for plan and control policy organization. It was an insight. From that moment on, I started to pay special attention to self-reflection questions. Moreover, I began to use this technique in my work, which had a positive impact on the results. It became easier for me to analyze the issues I was working on and see what was impeding the process.

As I work in many countries, I have had the opportunity to analyze the feasibility of applying approaches considered in the IPP, taking into account the specifics of different cultures. I feel that everything related to the creation of the PDIA-team, open discussions with public officials and business, as well as the involvement of international experts, should be considered from the standpoint of the cultural specifics of the country where PDIA work is planned.

From this point of view, I was lucky with the choice of my challenge. I have chosen the successful completion of food safety reform in Ukraine for this IPP. In this country, people are open to communication, and they freely express their opinions, discussing problems in any field. At present, I am based in Ukraine, and I was a part of the team that started food safety reform a decade ago. I am Ukrainian and the mother of a wonderful girl. So for me, this challenge is both professional and personal. I want the national food safety system in Ukraine to be one of the strongest in the world. I want the people of my country to be sure that the food they have on their table is safe and healthy. However, the problem is that the question of completing the reform has steadily taken a back seat. An institutional reform took place, and the line agrarian ministry was abolished. People who stood at the origins of the reform and understood why and how it must be completed either changed their places of work or retired. In addition, the COVID-19 world crisis reduced the importance of completing FS reform in the country for policymakers, but it is still significant for the population.

Gradually, studying the components of PDIA and applying them to my challenge in Ukraine and taking into account the events taking place in the country, the challenge itself has transformed from “the need to complete the reform” into “the weak understanding of the role of a strong and transparent national food safety agency in agricultural export of Ukraine among high-level policymakers”. This transformation, as well as communication with experts involved in the reform from different groups (business, FS agency, consumers, developing agencies, mass media), very clearly showed me the need to forget the word “obvious” when discussing policies or considering any problem, as each of us views it from our own perspective. Accordingly, what is obvious to me is completely not obvious to another team member. The constant communication and application of the enquiring approach make it possible to hear another person and look at the issue under consideration from their point of view, and perhaps see a solution that is on the surface but has not been noticed before. For me, the rule that “there is nothing obvious” has become an insight. I feel that many difficulties could be avoided if it was followed when developing and implementing public policies. My example from Ukraine confirms this. Having worked on food safety issues around the world for more than 14 years, I would not have thought that in a country that is undergoing food safety reform and has been working on market diversification for agriproducts for many years, not all high-ranking decision-makers from the government see the link between food exports and having a strong national FS Agency. To me, this connection is obvious, but to those who have recently become involved in politics and have not previously been engaged in food safety, this connection is completely unapparent. Since they are involved in decision-making about the activities of the FS Agency and the course of the reform, it is necessary to constantly conduct information campaigns explaining the significance of one or another element of the food safety system for the country.

During the IPP Program and while working on my challenge, I managed to actively cooperate with the FS Agency and one of the most popular websites that forms public opinion. Together we started an information campaign about the need for a strong FS Agency in the country, its link to better consumer protection, development of the food industry, and food export facilitation. This step helped to draw attention to food safety issues, which have been overshadowed by the COVID-19 crisis. The FS Agency has initiated a number of online meetings with the business as well as several educational events. Now I actively cooperate with the newly appointed Head of FS Agency in Ukraine by sharing experience and lessons learned from other countries, including those kindly provided by my IPP Program colleague from the Republic of Ireland. I have already applied this experience while working on similar projects in other countries.

I am currently working on the evaluation of food safety systems in several countries. Thanks to the IPP Program, I see clearly when the problem deconstruction can help me and how to use the enquiring approach when talking to the public officials or food businesses. Using an active approach that includes experimentation, learning, and discussions has substantially increased in my work now. Also, I have become a great fan of a basic triple-A change space analysis, as it helps a lot to understand whether focus should be on specific issues or others with large change space. It has saved time and helped to clearly define the issues.

Another insight for me was the need to break down the main goal into small achievable subgoals. That turned out to be very important. It is very typical for work on reforms to focus on big goals and not notice small victories made along the way. Achieving a big goal can be very long and exhausting. That can be the reason why reform teams give up and lose their motivation. However, if you approach the process of evaluating the result differently and break the process down into multiple stages, noticing even the smallest achievements, this will provide positive feedback and will motivate the team. Now I use this approach at work and teach it to my schoolgirl daughter and the rest of my family. The mood, both in my professional team and at home, has changed, and this, in turn, motivates and gives me the resources to achieve new goals.

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.

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