Guest blog by Juan Gonzalo Jaramillo Mejia
As a Social Protection officer at the United Nations’ World Food Programme, my work has aimed to help countries accelerate progress towards zero hunger, supporting the implementation of governmental policies that ensure people’s ability to meet their essential needs, such as nutritious food. However, throughout the years I have recurrently encountered the challenge of translating people’s enhanced physical and economic access to food into positive nutritional outcomes mainly due to shortcomings in policy implementation.
I have realised that not only are the approaches addressing the hunger problem often anchored in assumptions that are out of sync with people’s realities, but even if greatly designed and funded, policies fail to translate ideas into actions due to weak functional and technical capacities. Moreover, I have witnessed first-hand the limitations to think outside the programmatic toolbox containing pre-packaged solutions hindering home-grown development.
In light of this policy challenge, I decided to join the Implementing Public Policy course at Harvard hoping to better analyse these issues in my work and become fully acquainted with alternatives approaches to traditional policymaking and implementation. Approaches, that seemed to not work as effectively as expected, in the face of complex challenges as those posed by global hunger and malnutrition.
I was particularly drawn by the Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach that originated at Harvard, had already proven to be useful years ago to understand why sanitation policies were failing to curb open defecation and its associated public health issues in India. I was by no means an expert, as I would later reconfirm, but I was willing to know more and see how I could become more effective in the provision of technical support to governments and integrate a fresh new look to capacity building initiatives I am spearheading across the developing world to increase policy-makers and practitioners’ ability to deliver better food security and nutrition outcomes through social protection.
Being part of the Implementing Public Policy course, every week I learned something new, not only about my policy challenge but also about myself. I was mistaken to initially see the course as just an opportunity to expand my technical knowledge about the art of policymaking and implementation and not as a journey of personal growth. During the length of the course and every single one of its 22 weeks, I felt constantly and gently challenged as well as amazed by the way in which I continued to have deep personal realisations about my leadership style, ability to team with others and my approach to both defining and “solving” problems, which when complex, have often felt like a moving target.
The methodology to build, revisit and refine the policy problem through an Ikishawa Diagram or “Fishbone” was one of the greatest learnings in the course. At first, I couldn’t understand why such an emphasis was given to the problem definition and the identification of its many dimensions. Later, as I increasingly shared the diagram, I realised it substantially improved from the interactions with the other experts and stakeholders, who provided me insights from their own technical angle and experiences in the field. More importantly, it showed me that as the policy problem isn’t static and rather subject to rapidly evolve; it was a great tool to bridge and capture divergent understandings that were considerably out of sync with the pace of complex change. The latter, which was a problem in itself when hindering the ability to find common ground and define mutually reinforcing actions between key national actors.
As mentioned, the course made me challenge essential assumptions about leadership and my own role and style when working with others to find solutions to my policy challenge. It made me debunk the myth of the heroic leader and rather adopt innovative frameworks like the 4P’s and the Trust triangle immediately at work during the challenging circumstances of a global pandemic. These frameworks readily helped improve my relations at work, my ability to delegate as well as to build multisectoral coalitions in an unlikely venture with an African King, three national ministers and a dozen experts from all over the globe.
It was the course, indeed, what fueled my impetus to build such an extraordinary coalition after reflecting on the lack of progress and well-thought understanding around my policy problem. I realised that what I needed, was to expand the legitimacy to act, building the change space by fostering the joint analysis of the food security and nutritional challenges hindering the effectiveness of social protection responses to COVID-19 in a global event where other key stakeholders – beyond the usual suspects – felt called to act.
Expanding the acceptability and authority around the policy problem, as I had learned throughout the IPP course, was critical to galvanise efforts to forge the programmatic synergies across different sectors, well beyond food and agriculture, as many initially thought and suggested.
Heavily stimulated by the IPP course, the interactions with my classmates, the live sessions with the faculty and quality of inputs provided by the teaching assistants, I was able to build a coalition, run a successful global learning event but more importantly, gain the support and attention to more decisively advance a food security and nutrition-sensitive social protection agenda within and outside WFP. A series of knowledge and communication products were developed and globally disseminated around World Food Day as a result. Moreover, one magazine article and new technical materials dedicated to enhance the national capacities of national policy-makers and practitioners in this field are in the making, in which I will integrate the lessons learned in the IPP course, with the support of donors and key research institutes.
Yet, I am sure that the profound impact of the course in me and in how it has helped me advance my policy problem is still to be seen in the years in to come and not only in the impressive achievements it has helped me make in the last months. It is on a day to day basis, that I continue to find greater understanding of the 4Ps and how am I building the trust with the people I am working with. I am still reflecting and holding lively bilateral conversations with classmates around what it means for us to deal with unknowns and leave aside the old ways of planning and controlling what is complex and often elusive. I am still finding ways of teaming up with others and giving me and others the space and patience to challenge the narrative and assumptions that lead us to a given problem or solution.
The IPP course provided an opportunity to grow with and for others and strengthen my vocation for public service. My advice for fellow IPPers is to remain flexible and curious, allowing the course to constantly and gently challenge you to think out of the box, endlessly fine tuning and learning from your policy problem, your leadership style and how to work with others in a way that you can be a catalyser for growth.
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.