Implementing to design better: Clean energy transition for islands

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Guest blog by Ana Laca

I work primarily in foreign affairs and regional development, but as a side passion project, I have been actively working on islands’ energy transition. I work for a European institution on legislative procedures, following particular files as they pass through a legislative train until their final adoption.

For my action learning process, I focused on islands’ energy transition as my project for this course. My policy challenge was to tackle the energy dependence of islands since they have an abundance of natural resources that could be used for renewable energy.

This is my most tangible project as I authored or co-authored three successful pilot projects approved for financing from the EU budget. Their purpose was to provide technical assistance for islands and rural areas, to start and guide them through their clean energy transition processes.

My incentive to apply and my first expectation was to learn more about the implementation process. I hoped to gain theoretical and practical knowledge on challenges practitioners face while implementing their policies, to take that with me and apply it in my work – which is legislative work. I wanted to learn about implementing public policy to cover the link I frequently think is missing in the institutions when we design public policies. I feel that we design without really having the perception of the policies’ implementation and outcome. To my (positive) surprise, this class was more practical than theoretical. 

During the program, I spent a couple of weeks on a small island, engaging with the locals, trying to understand the challenges from the bottom-up, why the production of renewable energy is an exception rather than a standard. I visited some successful projects to learn what the conditions were that enabled those. To my surprise, after that research on the ground, my perception of the challenge changed significantly. I identified some bottlenecks I was unaware of before, engaged with different stakeholders on the European, national, regional and local levels. Though I did not change the definition of my challenge, I changed almost everything else in the process.

In my view, climate change is not only a matter of the environment; it is also a matter of economic and social change. The economic, social, and territorial disparities may be exacerbated by climate change and its long-term consequences. The biggest challenge is how to design concrete policies combating climate change that would enable economic cohesion (with sustainable growth and green jobs, respecting the needs of the different sectors), social cohesion (with a just transition, social fairness, an understanding for energy poverty and special needs) and territorial cohesion (with an understanding of the different needs of the regions, especially insular regions). 

Without any doubt, this program exceeded my expectations. From session one and lessons on defining functional and legitimacy success, I knew I was in the right place. Failing to address these aspects while drafting and implementing public policy on the clean energy transition of islands would significantly affect its legitimacy success. One of my critical impressions on the ground was that the expectations from the process are shallow, and constructive information sharing was one of the first challenges to address.

It seems relatively simple from this perspective, but another core lesson for me was to actually learn how to determine the complexity of the problem and address the level of certainty of different parameters that affect it. Pitfalls of the problem solving complemented this greatly, especially when defining the entry points to act.

Throughout the process, the Agile/PDIA approach was instrumental for my work. Small steps, often reflections and iterations, were a new concept, and I soon realized its value. This approach applies to almost every challenge imaginable and is one of the most valuable lessons I take after this class.

Two other vital lessons were on the leadership and motivation of yourself and the team. I appreciate the term purposeful risks because I believe that only having the courage to take risks is not sufficient to be a leader. Being a leader means pursuing the purpose in the face of uncertainty while taking responsibility for mobilizing others to join you in this process. I truly believe that the policies have a much bigger chance to succeed if you care about the challenge, so you are ready to take the risk.

Readings on building authority were eye-opening for me and made me stop and reflect quite often on my professional life. I tried to reflect on some past situations where I could have relationally engaged more, thinking from this perspective how it might end with a more desirable result. I genuinely believe that you increase the power by sharing it, but what I lacked in some situations when working with colleagues was reciprocity – when in a different position with the same person, the power is not shared back. These readings helped me think this situation through and reflect on it from a different angle, continuing pushing through even when the experience is unfavorable. Being more approachable, disclosing more, and expressing interest in others, their opinion, and sometimes their private lives affected my work environment in a very positive way.

But perhaps the most valuable lesson that I learned and want to share is how to appreciate the small victories – to focus on the process, not only the outcome. Most of the challenges we work on are complex challenges, and almost as a general rule; there are no simple solutions for complex problems. Often we need to create new solutions and develop a new approach to addressing specificities of that particular challenge. This also means involving more agents that we will need to lead. That takes time, that we usually do not have enough at the beginning. In order to build authority, gain more time if needed to address the challenge truly, we need to present little successes. Moreover, we need to communicate them clearly as progress indicators. Not only can they help us gain authority, but they can also increase our self-confidence to lead and the self-confidence of the whole team.

In general, class readings made me reflect beyond the challenge I was working on. They made me observe and interpret other professional and personal relations entirely differently. Some of the most valuable lessons were not only valuable to address this challenge more efficiently; they also helped me to address my other personal and professional challenges better.

What I ended up doing, and I am very thankful for it, I got out of my comfort zone, I started exploring my authority outside of the hierarchy I work in, I learned by doing, and I did by learning. This program gave me confidence and encouragement to build my authority in an environment where I thought this would not be possible due to the hierarchical structure.

The program also made me work on changing my professional and personal norms. It gave me new reflections, taught me to work with challenges, and think of implications of my actions while designing the policies, and this was the missing link I was searching for. I already see some small steps of change that will hopefully lead to great successes, both personally and professionally.

The IPP program enables all to take what they need and give back what they can. I am very thankful to all the staff and colleagues, especially my 007 Public Service Agents, for their professional work, valuable insights, and giving us a sense of community that will be our go-to forum and will guide us further. The change has just started.

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.

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