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Addressing Atoyac river pollution in Mexico

5 mins read

Guest blog by Santiago Creuheras

When I signed up for this course I was eager to learn from Matt Andrews and his team about implementing public policies. I was hoping to meet a group of high caliber students from all over the world willing to share their experiences. My expectations were high, and I am extremely pleased with this course’s outcome and results. The personal, professional, and academic quality of my virtual classmates was unique and impressive. Their experiences have built on my own. I am thankful for their support to redefine my challenge. Peer group exchanges have been one of the highlights of the program. Having an informal team of supporters and performing regular check-ins with each other has been very useful. It has kept us motivated and might be something we should continue doing going forward.

The key learnings from this course include:

  • Unknowns in the impact of a policy
  • Complexity and supportiveness of our challenges
  • PDIA approach might help to solve our challenges
  • Learning to navigate unknowns and define success
  • Role as connector to mitigate reputational risk
  • Enabling of agency
  • Facilitation of problem solving
  • Honest brokerage to contribute legitimacy
  • Risk of over planning and complexity
  • Risk to raise expectations without ability to follow through
  • More ownership of process by beneficiaries
  • Risk of “constant discovery” associated with continuous learning and adaptation. Where does this conclude. Can it be sustained?
  • Highlight local vulnerabilities, rather to focus on the worldwide effects so people can easily empathy with the urgency of the challenge
  • Present current and tangible facts, statistics in order to illustrate impacts on health or specific economic activities.
  • Use evidence-based solutions that have demonstrated effectiveness in similar contexts
  • COVID pandemic situation may accelerate the policy implementation as an opportunity to integrate health and climate challenges
  • The Ishikawa (fishbone) diagram was generally a well-received instrument that helped framing the conversation with our counterparts
  • Consensus building, especially from the perspective of authorizers and resistors
  • Engage and strengthen relationships with authorizers and building a team
  • Confirming and/or improving fishbone diagrams
  • Conducting focus and goal-oriented research
  • Creating periodic check-ins
  • Looking for potential sources of financing
  • Virtual platforms reliability may face communication/tech issues when organizing iteration meetings
  • Possible coordination issues with other offices within the office environment
  • Teaming and trust building concepts are very valuable for PDIA projects
  • Important to keep authenticity and own vision while experiencing and implementing iteration meetings
  • Possible buy-in issues with authorizers and other stakeholders
  • Possible language and culture clashes both in domestic and international cases
  • Dealing with bureaucracy in some contexts is not an easy task
  • Consider role of NGOs, foundations and philanthropists in projects
  • Use communication and communication policies as possible sources to make progress
  • Consider the impact of delegation, time management and burnout in the implementation of policy.
  • Delegation is subjective and depends on the organization and context. Nevertheless, delegation does not mean letting go. Hence, incentives could boost leadership and the delegation process
  • Personality of the leader reflects in the delegation process
  • What implementation challenge are you working on?

The Atoyac River is one of the most important rivers in Mexico. It goes through the States of Puebla and Tlaxcala. Its length is more than 2000 kilometers. Unfortunately, this river is one of the most polluted rivers in the country. Sewage, garbage and liquid waste of households, agricultural lands and factories are discharged into this river. These wastes contain harmful chemicals and toxins which make the water poisonous for aquatic animals, plants and humans. The river’s pollution started about 30 years ago. Its harm started with aquatic animals and plants as I have just mentioned. A couple of years ago the harm to humans has become an important issue. Children living nearby have started facing cancer and leukemia! The pollution to this river has to come to an end and must be sanitized as soon as possible. We must create a team to solve this awful challenge. We need a team that works together on the assessment of the problem, develops a strategy and implements it. Each phase of the strategy should be transparent and accountable. Our team must focus on the project and sanitize the river so our children do not get fatal illnesses.

The following picture shows the Ishikawa diagram for my challenge:

I made an important progress with my challenge. I worked on a first version of this diagram and the iterations helped me to improve it. I also learned that delegation mechanisms are vital to ensure that work is effectively distributed. Where these mechanisms fail, policies go un-implemented and authorizers and subordinates are left frustrated (and, often, exhausted). I believe it is crucial to delegate for success. Delegation IS NOT just letting go. “It involves identifying tasks, assigning these tasks thoughtfully to agents, supporting those agents in tackling the tasks, monitoring and offering guidance, and learning together. This is a THICK and time consuming process for both the authorizer and the subordinate involved in the delegation relationship. This is an important observation for both; delegation is not just giving orders and then expecting results. It is about highly interactive engagement between authorizers and authorized.”

I also learned we often underestimate the time it takes to implement (especially when the process involves learning as well). We should be asking, then, what kinds of time structures and norms do we create in our organizations and can we change these?

Organizational norms influence how we use time in many ways.

•           Norms commonly drive who we go to for decisions, and when and how we access those people, which has a direct impact on how long  it takes to ‘get to a decision’ (and thus how long we sometimes wait for such).

•           Norms commonly drive how work is allocated, and if and how we negotiate our workload (which influences how much work we have relative to our time).

•           Norms commonly shape how we engage with other people inside our organization – and outside the organization (which determines how long it takes to engage others, learn from others, etc.).

•           Norms commonly inform when we work during any given day, and what we do during that time (for instance, do we work after official working hours, or not?).

•           Norms commonly influence what we spend our time doing, and how much time we allocate to different kinds of ‘value’ (for example, delivering short-term products or investing in long-term learning).

We should consider what are our personal beliefs and biases about time and how do these impact how we use time. We should focus our people on performance by establishing trust-based organizations, where people feel heard and included. Norms of time use and time management are vital in establishing such organizational climate.

During this process I have had the opportunity to also exercise leadership in many ways. I have shared my challenge at a federal ministerial level, the governor, mayors and important actors. An important agreement was signed including all of the important actors and several follow-up meetings for implementation are being held.

I am honored to become part of the PDIA community of practitioners. I am thankful for this opportunity and I commend the creators of this useful framework. I have no doubt PDIA is the key to success in implementing public policies.

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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