Guest blog written by Alexandra Ames
One of the greatest concerns of public servants in Peru is to achieve effective public policies, that is, that all the effort and resources invested become real results for the benefit of the people. But being involved in the policy-making process is not a simple task, we must recognize that the problems we seek to solve are not simple problems but rather complex problems, so a high level of complexity is required to address them. But this does not mean that the task is impossible. With the right tools and methods, it is possible to have greater clarity and better handling of complexity.
In the Implementing Public Policy course at Harvard Kennedy School, I learned about the “PDIA” approach which is very useful for solving complex problems. The first big step that every policymaker must do is to be clear about the problem they are trying to solve. Without this step, nothing can be solved. Although it seems obvious, when designing public policies, we forget that their fundamental mission is to solve public problems and if we are not clear about what we should attack, we will not be able to solve anything. This first step reminded me of a dialogue between Alice in Wonderland with the Cheshire cat where Alice, lost but full of passion and energy, like any committed public servant, asks the cat: “Which way I ought to go from here” and the cat answers Alice: “That depends on a good deal on where you want to get to.”
The first step to solving public problems is to understand what the problem is to be solved. Identifying the problem requires a lot of openness and reflection because not only does the problem define or structure, but we also must be able to deconstruct it. Only then can we properly identify the problem without placing it as a lack of something. This is a very common mistake that happens in Peru. We have a predetermined idea of the solution we want to implement without first having a good understanding of what to solve.
This is how the journey of understanding the process involved in designing and properly implementing public policies begins. Although I was already very clear about the complexity of these problems, what I liked the most about the course is that it is not a theoretical course but rather an actionable course. The graduates are not expected to be researchers on the subject but empowered public service leaders willing to implement a strategy that is being built week by week throughout the course. And there is no single recipe to properly implement public policies. And this is one of the most important and revealing principles of PDIA. It is not a matter of following a series of pre-established steps, but rather that once the problem to be solved is understood, special attention is paid to the capacities and legitimacy that one must take them to the field of action. For this, we must be aware that we cannot go from 0% to 100% in a week. You must iterate and reflect on the first steps taken.
The challenge I am working on is related to the construction of state capacities through the development of capacities for the implementation of effective public policies. In other words, in Peru, it is expected that we will have sufficient state capacities to later think that we will be able to implement effective public policies, but with the PDIA I realized that it is possible to achieve important results and the space for the exchange of reflections and knowledge between the different actors involved, it makes this knowledge institutionalized and allows the strengthening of the state’s capacities.
I must confess that, in the middle of the course, when I had to start designing the action plan to work on a specific public policy, I felt lost, because I understood that this was a challenge only for public servants who are currently working within the state. I had left public service two years ago and felt that I had no way of implementing public policy from outside the government. But the videos, classes, and readings that were very inspiring, accompanied me in this process, allowing me to be aware that it is also possible to influence positive changes from any position in which I find myself. For this, my challenge is related to betting on the creation of sufficient legitimacy and authorization to promote a civil service reform that includes the PDIA approach and the 4P Rob Wilkinson’s model of leadership and in this way develop state capacities, converting this new way of thinking and making public policies in a process that is fed back based on the knowledge and experience that is obtained and that this, in turn, allows the delivery of public policy to be more successful. It is like a virtuous circle.
Being aware of the level of Ability, Acceptance, and Authority that I have, allowed me to be aware of what my entry points should be and what equipment I should have. The latter is very relevant because it allowed me to understand that the team is as important as understanding what the problem is to be solved. Thus, thinking of people and process is key to make sure that we are involved in something actionable. This changed my perspective on how I intended to approach the design of the strategies necessary to solve complex problems. Building a team is not the same as teaming. And when we are involved in finding solutions to complex problems, the process becomes complex and can be very frustrating. Understanding people and keeping them in the right way so that they continue to motivate themselves is a challenge that is key to ensuring the bottom line.
This course motivated me a lot because it helped me understand that changes are possible only that you must learn to “surf” in complexity. All public servants committed to their country must take this course.
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 2021. These are their learning journey stories.