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Adventures in Public Policy Implementation: Confronting a Hero Complex in the Quest for the One True Goal

6 mins read

(aka The One with the Giant Marshmallow Monster)

Guest blog by Mario Ivan Martija

“Select a policy you would like to implement in the next six months” said the IPP program’s instructions. Easy. Having previously led programs that benefited a few Baja California’s industries, choosing another program for a successful short-term implementation would be a walk in the park, especially that now I would have the added-value and glamour attached to a Harvard methodology.

Or so I arrogantly thought.

First step was to frame the problem. Easy again. In past years we led efforts to grow some industries like Information Technology, Wine, Craft Beer. So I would just select a new sector that had some buzz around it, and adapt the past experiences to it. How about creative industries this time? It would be entertaining to interact with artists, movie productions, videogame design…and the spotlight would be even greater due to the industry’s nature to excite public interest, getting authorization would not be complicated, the problem would be to try to keep people off the bandwagon once the program got under way and everyone wanted credit and to share the spoils of victory.

So there it was. “Developing the Creative Industry” was my objective, and reciting arguments to justify it was simple: “We’re neighbors with California! We are just a two hour drive away from the entertainment mecca of Los Angeles! There is local talent already developing organically!”. All it was needed was someone to swoop in, organized them and -boom!- Baja California’s creative industry would flourish exponentially. Thank you very much, it was my pleasure.

During the IPP program’s first weeks, everything was flowing smoothly. I planned how to get authorizers on board, gathering data to support the program’s importance, I started visualizing a dream team of actors to get involved, and defining what role I would take in the whole ordeal.

I started engaging with participants in the creative industry, generating excitement for the new program, getting feedback and ideas of the scope, potential mistakes to avoid, and inevitably creating great expectations.

But when the turn came to put my problem into a fishbone diagram, some of the realities of my approach started to be reflected back at me. Something was not quite right.

Then came selecting entry points for the program, measuring Authority, Ability and Accountability, approaching engagements from an inquisitive perspective more than an advocacy one. I found myself shoehorning my findings more and more into my already established framework. “Could it be that my approach was not really holding up to scrutiny?” Nevertheless, I kept going forward.

We came up with an identity for the project, “Baja California: Frontera Creativa”, we designed a logo and we selected entrepreneurs from all over the state that were innovative and creative in their business approach and were being successful. Then, we filmed a promotional video with their stories that we then used in our meetings with new allies and in promotional efforts. We also started incorporating “Creative Industries” as a topic in FDI seminars and the interest level shown was on par with the most traditional topics. I was incredibly happy with how things were turning out.

However, my feeling of uneasiness was not subsiding.

In the beginning of the course we were given the advice that even if at first we were uneasy with some of the ideas, we should at least “rent” them, give them a try. This notion made me approach the course with an open mind and more than that, to give the process a genuine and honest opportunity.

Having signed the lease with the PDIA ideas, they moved into my mind and I reviewed my problem statement and my diagram yet again.

Yep, there it was. I had fallen into one of the pitfalls of problem solving:

I had come up with a specific solution (developing the creative industries) and framed it as problem. Then I had worked backwards in trying to justify why my problem was a crucial one to solve while ignoring that the actual problem laid elsewhere, and its causes ran a lot deeper.

By using all that we had learned so far about PDIA, I approached the policy again as a blank slate and then a much clearer picture appeared. The problem actually was that “The state’s economy is too dependent in Foreign Direct Investment and there are no formal mechanisms to develop alternative local industries”. Sure, creative industries could be one of those alternative industries to develop, but so could many others (like IT or craft beer had been in the past).

I was halfway through the IPP program, the deadline was approaching, and I suddenly was not only back to square one, the real objective of developing all types of local industries as an alternative to FDI was an even bigger and more ambitious goal than the one I initially had stated.

Now what? Should I start over? Just soldier on? What about the video and the program’s branding? What about the expectations we had already created?…

…Then…

…an epiphany from the most unlikely of places: A Giant Marshmallow Monster.

For some reason I remembered that the creator’s commentary track of Ghostbusters (1984) said something to the effect that while writing the script, was that they had to build the suspension of belief slowly, that if they had started with a huge monster made of marshmallow, people would have called it silly and walk out. So they started with a single “traditional” ghost, then several, then spirit possessions, demon dogs, and so on, hence when the Stay Puft monster appeared it seemed like a natural progression.

Also the heroes, the Ghostbusters, went through the same small -step journey as the audience: sloppily catching their first ghost, then being more professional each time, so when they faced the big bad monster, they were confident in their abilities and in their methods.

This approach had a lot in common with PDIA.

The rented ideas showed me that there was actually a lot more behind implementing public policy than just following a strict methodology with a given set of tools for the purpose of scoring political points.

Now everything made sense.

Through the PDIA lens I realized I did not have to face the Giant Marshmallow Monster at the very beginning, I could start with small accomplishments, growing confidence and gaining on the problem with each iteration.

Like in an airplane emergency where we need to put our own mask first so we can be more effective helping others, neither me or the team would be able to function without taking care of our well-being.

And by meeting periodically with different people, we were building implicit support for our initiatives and avoiding the common errors of dictating policies from a desk from an “expert” perspective (what I was attempting in the beginning) and were being more democratic and participative with our stakeholders.

I started over. The problem was reframed as “Developing a strong local industry is a great balance to attracting FDI and makes the economy grow better, with lower vulnerability and more inclusively”. We started meeting with other actors from local industries beyond just the creative ones and listening closer.

In one of these new meetings, we sat down with a local Economic Development Commission and exchanged ideas about what success would look like. At the end, on the way home, the solution appeared clearly: Concentrate first in one city instead of the whole state and have the EDC be the entity to lead the project. This would help first, in securing funding (which the EDC had more access to), in having more hands on deck, and by constraining its launch to one city and then eventually scaling it through the state with the lessons learned in this pilot, the whole process would be more manageable. I only had to put my ego away, share the lead of the project and let the process flow naturally.

And indeed that resulted to be the best course of action.

In the weeks that followed, we made tremendous , we launched an online platform to register local industries and their capabilities, we verified the information with visits, we learned about their strengths, opportunities and their growth potential. We now have data that will help us promote the more mature industries more effectively and data to help us develop the ones that need a little extra push.

At the same time, the first round of work with the creative industries had planted a seed, and now other entities in different cities have started their own programs to develop and promote the creative sector. We are not directly involved in these news efforts, but it still feels like a victory nevertheless.

In the end, the person with the hero complex that thought he would singlehandedly save the economy, let the rented ideas take permanent residence.

I surrendered “my project” because I realized it was not mine to begin with. It was never about me at all.

The true goal of public policy implementation has no place for egos, control issues or protagonist syndromes. It is to take care of ourselves and our teams and foster an environment where we are fully able to apply our abilities to a goal bigger than us.

EPILOGUE

Being part of a peer group was one of the best aspects of the program. Agreeing on a meeting time that was accommodating to everyone was a challenge due to our geographic dispersion and different time-zones, (and the eventual established hour of 5am my local time on Thursdays, was not exactly up my “not-a-morning-person” alley). Still, it soon became a space where we all could talk about our progress with people who were going through the same process and before we knew it, we were giving and receiving invaluable, feedback, encouragement and advice.

IPP 2020 Group 18A: Growth Liana, Isabel, Oscar and Ivan.

Bring it on Marshmallow Monster! (Public Policy Challenges) We are now ready for you.

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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