When well formulated policies meet implementation roadblocks in Bangladesh and Vietnam

Guest blog by Sehyeon Baek

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.

1. What were your expectations of IPP Online when you signed up? 

I have been working in the private sector as well as the public sector back and forth for quite some time. In 2015, I was recruited by one of the Korean government agencies for the innovation and startups support. At the end of December 2017, I resigned from the agency although I was fully employed until I would retire at 60. In 2018, I joined one startup as COO and successfully led the investment raising, $21M, for the startup from Japan and Hong Kong. In 2019, I was recruited by the current organization with 21 member countries again. And I have seen so many great policies and masterplans to be formulated, and yet, when it came to implementing them, it did not seem to move forward at all.

I thought it was quite depressing to see those well formulated policies not being well implemented in the end. And yet, it looked like output was being confused with outcome or impact. After the fancy ceremony of the newly formulated policy or national plan launching, the follow-up has not been so strong. While we were celebrating the success of the formulation of the policies/masterplans, I always felt that it should not be called ‘success’ to be exact, since it has not even been implemented yet. It should have been just called ‘successfully formulated.’ I felt quite depressed, since I really took my job seriously.

So, when I found this IPP course, it was never about just getting a certificate of completion. I thought I could think together with the Professor and cohorts about the subject matter. How can we ensure the implementation? I might be able to find a correct answer necessarily by taking one course, but I might be able to get some insight on that? That was my expectation.

2. What were some key learnings from this course?

Learned so many things. To name a few,

  • The importance of the relationship with authorizers
  • 4Ps, especially, the importance of perception and projection resonates with me, since I have never seen the implementation problems that way.
  • The importance of reiteration
  • Small wins lead to a successful implementation in the end (evolution rather than revolution)
  • How to build a fearless organization
  • Three key lessons from Mount Everest 1986 (overconfidence bias, recency fallacy, sunk-cost effect)
  • The importance of leadership
  • Implementation is not just a single action; it is a combined action of many different factors
  • The importance of communications and capacity building

3. What implementation challenge are you working on?

Once output is produced, surprisingly, we tend to forget the thorough implementation of it. Based on what I learned from IPP, which is ‘Small wins leading to a big success in the end,’ I try to make the implementation happen gradually, no matter how sluggish it might feel, strongly believing in the implementation. Formulating policies has never been a problem until now.

4. What progress did you make or what insights did you have about your problem through this process?

Through constant communications, finally I had a breakthrough. Especially, implementing Bangladesh masterplan for productivity growth and the action plan for SMEs has been going well.

Lately, I am really committed to making positive changes in my personal life as well since it affects my work performance. More discipline with more workout and more researches, etc. And so far, it is going ok. Now I am trying to take another initiative for workforce improvement in our developing member countries, and it is being well received as well. The authorizers start to recognize my efforts and they try to be more supportive of me, which is a good sign and unexpected as well. It seems like the team for implementation is also going quite well. I think again it is thanks to the change of my attitude and mindset. Prior to taking the IPP course, I was quite obsessed with power and control. But now I focus more on building reputation and influence, indirect ways to influence people without wielding raw power directly or without trying to build power itself.

I met the tentative implementation team from Vietnam for the newly formulated masterplan for productivity growth. They were very passionate and ready to implement the master plan as soon as it is approved by Prime Minister. Thanks to my experience with Bangladesh, this time, the implementing in Vietnam can be more efficient and effective. Lack of sleep has affected my performance badly, which I did not realize before until one of the medical experts pointed that out, so I am trying to get some enough sleep for better performance and for better concentration. Even just for one week I tried, I feel that my performance is getting better and better.

5. What motivated you and how might this approach change (or not change) the way you tackle problems in the future.

I learned a lot from this course, really. This course has been of great help, thanks to all the reading materials as well. I have been reading a lot regarding this subject. This helped me to gain more insights. Prior to taking this course, I was always thinking about the authorizers being unfair or not right, without thinking of myself and of my approach. I realized that implementing the polices or national plans is not just about formulating good policies. It is a combination of so many other factors such as good leadership, good relationship with authorizers, engaging the stakeholders, motivating them, communications, consultations, etc. With this in mind, let alone continuous improvement, to put any positive dent to the world, implementing good policies should continue to be pursued, no matter what. This keeps on motivating me.

6. How are you using or will you use what you have learned in this course?

I am trying my best to apply all I have learned from this course. This year, I got a cash grant from Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan to formulate the action plan for creating innovative business environment for SMEs in Bangladesh as well as National Productivity Masterplan for Vietnam. Now I can use what I learned when I implement these two plans in Bangladesh and Vietnam. I have already participated in the implementation meetings with all the stakeholders, and when I shared what I learned from this course with many others, it was well received and well appreciated.

7. Do you have any words of wisdom to share with fellow PDIA practitioners around the world?

Implementing the good policies is not just about techniques. Formulating great policies is not rocket science. The devil is in the details of implementing it. One of the eye-opening learnings from this course was about the importance of having good relationships with authorizers, understanding the different perceptions of stakeholders, and engaging all the stakeholders for successful implementation.

Besides, we need to be clear about the distinction of outcome, output, and impact. In my experience, I have seen many government policy makers be mistaken in thinking having output is already successful. However, having an output is never a success, nor is a great achievement until it is all well implemented. So, let us not be complacent with having output and be mistaken to believe it is an outcome.

Implementing policies is often and easily affected by politics. No matter how good the policies might be, politics play an important role. In this case, politics also means the politics of your organization. In politics, there is no right or wrong. There is only about whose interests. That is all. So, it is important to know that some authorizers really do not care about implementing the good policies necessarily. I have seen some of the good policies just being wasted or disregarded after the power shift. It seems like beneficiaries are just forgotten in the process.

In the name of taxpayers, those who oppose the implementing good policies will use all the tactics to make you lose. All those who do not want certain policies to be successful due to politics will always try to find reasons to stop the implementation. To defend this, it is critical to engage with stakeholders at all times, not to mention maintaining good relationships with authorizers. I have experienced many setbacks, mainly due to my inexperience or naivety, believing that, as long as I have good intentions and the policies are good, everything will be alright, which is never the case. So, please, be mindful of all the possibilities that can go wrong. The worst nightmare is, good policies are thwarted only because of politics. Be prepared for the worst and always try to find solutions, without being stuck with problems only.

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