Guest blog by Masood Ul Mulk
I lead a public service organization (nonprofit) working in the northwest border regions of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan, known for its turbulence, delivering development and humanitarian aid. The government presence is thin on the ground and service delivery in the region remains poor. Government policies change rapidly, as individuals and personalities change in government. Institutional culture is weak in the area and policy and implementation revolve around networks and social relationships. Conflict, space allowed to public service organisations, turf issues between civilian and military authorities, conservative culture, tribal values, sectarian divides, all add up to the uncertainty and complexity of working in the region. As practitioners we face the conflicting challenge of, on one hand meeting the needs of the poor and vulnerable communities in an uncertain and complex environment; while on the other hand satisfying policy makers and donors, who because of their training and accountability requirements design policy solutions which are rigid and linear to address these problems with little success. For us the challenge is explaining to them the complex situation on the ground and the need for an iterative, adaptive and learning approach to address the complexity. Reading about PDIA, had convinced me that exposure to the course on implementing public policy at Harvard will help me better understand where the policy makers and donors are coming from, and how I should be convincing them to adopt a radically different solution to the intractable problems on the ground which was based on responsiveness, iteration and learning. I also know that if I, a practitioner on the border regions of Pakistan, say this it will carry very little weight, but if I have the Kennedy School to back me up it will be a different proposition altogether. In this sense the course was of immense help to me and to my organization. It clarified concepts and gave me the tools to address such issues in a better way.
The course helped me understand why policy implementation is such a big failure because at most times we treat the “solution as the problem.” The nature of the policy problem is such that it is very difficult to identify it with clarity at the policy design stage. The information is simply not there. Once the problem is poorly defined and a policy designed on those assumptions and budget prepared, it is locked in. During the implementation process there is very little scope for adaptation to the new knowledge that emerges from the field. The accountability system which makes you report against rigid goals and targets leaves little room for innovation. But how do we define the problem so that we are not beginning with a solution? Once we have done it, how do we through a process of learning, iteration and adaptation, incrementally work to solve the problem. This calls for experimentation and willingness to accept mistakes. It calls for a new mindset that is capable of understanding different perspectives, delegating authority, building teams and winning acknowledgement from the authorizers. The course gave me a very good conceptual understanding of the challenges of policy implementation in uncertain environments. It explained to me how to define a problem, divide it into small manageable parts, understand the different aspects of the problem, the perspective of different stakeholders and addressing the issues of accountability when the goal posts keep moving. The course did this through an action research in the field which was a very enriching experience.
The government of the province is investing Rs 13 billion into micro hydro electricity production through Provincial Electricity Development Corporation (PEDO), a body that functions under it. In the past PEDO had concluded that it is uneconomical for it to manage power houses that generate less than 2 megawatts of electricity and had handed its dysfunctional power houses to non-government organizations. However, the interest of the Prime Minister of Pakistan in generating electricity to support its policy of expanding tourism in mountain regions and availability of funds for it has made PEDO jump into this sector once again. Unfortunately PEDO only sees the projects as a brick and mortar projects. NGOs have demonstrated that if innovative models of community management are made part of the project they can be made financially and socially sustainable. The problem is how to convince the government to make these projects community driven projects and take steps to put this new system of management in place within PEDO to make them sustainable.
It looks like a simple problem but actually turns out to be a very complex one. There are a number of stakeholders in this. At the top is the Prime Minister’s office with its interest in promoting tourism and generating hydroelectricity in remote locations, tapping the slopes and water that these mountain regions offer. A success in the field will win the government lot of points and demonstrate its capacity to solve problems. However, being based at the federal level means that while policy initiatives are taken, there is little follow up. The provincial government is overall responsible for the project where the office of the Chief Minister who heads it faces similar pressures as the federal level. PEDO, which had given up setting and managing small micro hydro units, suddenly jumps into the fray again because of the resources this new policy is making available. But it is unwilling to see them beyond brick and mortar which raises serious issues about their sustainability and the possibility that instead of winning the government laurels they could become the “dinosaurs” of development. Besides internalizing a community driven approach within their systems, PEDO also has to think of providing technical and mechanical support for this technology as it is adopted in remote and dispersed regions. The NGOs are another player. They have demonstrated the successful running of these projects through communities. They are also contractors to the government in setting up these projects. However until the issue of who runs them once they are built is decided they are classified as incomplete and payments are not made to the contractors. At the local level are communities who provide the water and land right to enable these projects to be established. There are also local legislature members and local governments each of which sees the project as good source of income with little commitment to their sustainability because that is a long run issue beyond the short time frame in which elected people operate. Solving the problem has been the challenge of bringing this disparate group often with conflicting interest together. In a world dominated by networks and relationship this has meant incrementally building ties and relationships to make this possible without stepping on anyone’s toes. Progress has been very slow but the problems are now fully understood at PEDO level and there is a genuine attempt to solve the problem. There is a realization that if the problem comes in public view it will cause great embarrassment to the government and conversely if it is solved it will bring laurels to the government.
I have seen 180 power houses producing from 20 kv to 2 megawats of electricity being built to generate about 20 megawats of electricity. In one place Kalam, there was no electricity for five years. This place has 129 hotels and over 2,500 houses. Within 2 years we rebuilt their power houses and generated 1.6 megawatt of electricity to provide them with electricity at very low rates. Similarly at another site Ayun within 2 years we are generating 700 kV of electricity to provide 1300 households electricity. All these projects are run on financially and socially sustainable basis. With this demonstrable model in front of us there is no reason why the government could not adopt the same approach to managing them. It was this conviction and the knowledge of the difference this approach would make to communities, businesses, health and education centers, and the environment which has pushed me to pursue the goal. It’s a long and difficult process but worth the effort.
I will use the approach to rethink the way we look at policy issues and I will also use it to convince policy makers to adopt a more flexible, responsive, learning, adaptive and iterative approach to policy making and implementation. With Harvard to back me, I can speak with conviction to policy makers about rethinking policy design and implementation.
As policy designers and policy implementers, there are many intractable problems we come across. The solutions we use to solve these problems are based on Newtonian science. We look at the problems in a linear way and try to solve them through blue prints and best practices which have worked elsewhere. We want to bring in consultants who would offer us solutions. But we have to understand that all problems are not simple. A lot of the policy problems that we confront lie in the realm of uncertainty. The relationship between the cause and effect are unknown and the solution will only emerge as we plunge into the water and try to swim. This calls a for a very different way to approach problem identification, designing projects, budgeting for them, accounting for them and evaluating them. We have to turn the world on its head to find a solution. What PDIA tells us is that it’s through experimentation, making mistakes, learning, iteration and adapting by which we will find solutions. They may not be perfect but are the best bet under the circumstances. This is a sea change in thinking and we must become its advocate.
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.