The Importance of Entry Points in Long Term Policy Problems

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Guest blog written by Jacob Lestock

After a little over a year working from home during the pandemic, I quickly realized that returning to ‘normal’ was still far from sight in a professional sense. Virtual work has become the new norm even in public policy settings. Many of the benefits of living in a political hub like Washington, DC with its excess of work events, meet-and-greets, and policy happy hours to network with new people from various public policy fields had abruptly ended. I realized I would need to be more proactive in looking for new opportunities to help advance my own professional development and learn from others about new ways to work on public policy challenges. It was around this time that I came across HKS’s Implementing Public Policy Program and thought it would be a perfect opportunity to fill that void.

Coming into the program I was uncertain of what I could expect as I had little knowledge of the problem driven iterative adaption (PDIA) and how a course designated for public policymakers across the world in the public sector would intersect with my policy problems working for a trade association representing the private sector. On top of this, it was both inspiring and intimidating to hear from my colleagues in the program who are working on such impressive/important public policy issues across the world. Once I was able to catch my bearings, I came to find that there are a set of key concepts and strategies that one can use to help break down any complex public policy challenge. While numerous strategies and concepts have proven helpful during the 6-month course, here are a few that proved particularly useful with my challenge.

  • Appropriately defining your public policy challenge

The first step in the course is appropriately defining your problem. While this seems like a straightforward task, I found myself falling into what I later learned were common problems with properly defining a public policy challenge. Initially, I focused on one particular problem we were working on as an industry rather than appropriately defining the long-term problem we have been struggling with on numerous occasions across the board. I fell into some of the common pitfalls of problem construction, including “flawed problem definition” and “solution confirmation” pitfalls. I was looking to sell solutions rather than solve problems. Professor Lant Pritchett had a great way to determine whether you were falling into this pit by asking professionals to make sure you can imagine at least three alternative solutions to your problem. If you can’t do this, it is likely you have defined the problem as a lack of your solution and there is a deeper problem hiding somewhere that is at the base. This helped me understand that I needed to dig deeper to find the core of the problem and look at the big picture our industry has been facing.

  • Dissecting your problem and mapping ‘entry points’

Once, I felt like I had a better handle on the core problem I was working on, we learned the next crucial step in the PDIA process – deconstructing your problem. Here we broke it down into smaller pieces so that even with the largest challenges you can start attempting to address smaller subsections of the problem. As I zoomed out on my problem definition to address the larger problem our industry was facing, it was intimidating to try to figure out where to start. This is where the “fishbone” (or “Ishikawa”) diagram comes into play. Here, mapping the reasons for each of the “sub” challenges visually helps us to determine various smaller causes that can be addressed. Asking why at least five times helps to explore the cause and effect relationships underlying a particular problem and break down the problem into smaller contributing factors. This technique allows you to go deep into the causes of the problems so you can address the root rather than the manifestation of the problem. Through asking these questions and then mapping it in the fishbone diagram you reveal options for where you can start attempting to address portions of a complex challenge. As we discover these “entry points” and work to solve smaller sub challenges that contribute to the problem, we make advances in addressing the problem as a whole. While doing these, one can also unlock new entry points, find new sources to gather information and understanding, and increase one’s knowledge of the issues and understanding of the unknowns.

  • Continually building support and engaging new stakeholders

While this point seems rather obvious, it served as an important reminder that while solving any complex policy challenge you should continually be engaging with new stakeholders and perspectives. I think quite often in the public policy field, especially within the private sector, stakeholders think they already know all that they need to when working to solve ongoing problems that have been around for decades. Especially within our industry, technology is constantly evolving, and the thought process around the technology should evolve as well. There are limitless new contacts and perspectives within the industry and outside of the industry that should be engaged. This part of the course helped remind me that one never knows enough about an issue and you should be continually striving to learn from others. In doing so, you are not only going to gain additional knowledge and insight on your problem, but you’ll also start building new relationships and support in the process. This help you better address the complex policy challenge you are working and multiply your connections and build your relationships in your own professional journey.

  • The importance of systematically reporting on your ‘learning and leads’

The iterative action process can only take you so far if you aren’t consistently communicating and reassessing your work. The iterative process where you experiment with these various entry points to learn and take actionable steps to turn the many unknowns is at the heart of how you are working to solve these complex challenges. Although it’s important for you to remember that while you are doing this it is equally important to report your ‘learning and leads’. It’s important to look at what you are doing in your iterative action process and to continually communicate who you are talking to and what you are learning – to yourself and others. This will help you maintain your own motivation as well as building authorization and support. A series of questions Professor Andrews asked in one lesson was “What is it that you did? What is it that you learned? What is it that you’re struggling with? And have you asked anyone for help? I think these are key questions to continually ask yourself and report back to others so that you can better assess how the process is working. If you answer these questions and openly communicate them with others you can recognize that regular small wins, especially centered on learning and relationships, are key to addressing demanding challenges. If you can continually reassess your work and focus on the goal, you will find that over time your iterative steps broaden because the set of actions become more expansive.

These four strategies have greatly impacted how I look at the public policy challenges I am currently faced with in my industry and how I will plan to tackle future problems throughout my professional career. While I haven’t been able to go into detail the public policy challenge our industry is working on, I can happily say that I was successful in challenging the status quo on how our industry has been looking at a complex policy problem our industry has and will continue to grapple with in the future. By following these strategies, I was able to break down a whale of an issue into smaller sub problems that we have identifiable action items to continue to work on and have earned authorization, credibility, and support on the issue in the process.

I would emphasize to my fellow PDIA practitioners that you can always find someone to be a breath of fresh air on an issue that will teach you something new. You should continually strive to find others to help tackle a challenge, especially within the incredibly capable IPP Community of Practice going forward.

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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