Guest written blog by Okechukwu Daniel Ogbonnaya
In 2016 I was privileged to sit in a high-level government meeting where the policies and strategic direction of the government were discussed and decisions taken regarding the immediate, medium to long-term solutions to the challenges facing the country and the opportunities thereof. This meeting was a memorable but also puzzling one as part of my work in the international development environment is to support member governments in their policy planning and execution. The puzzling aspect of this meeting were the striking similarities to the agenda discussed and the challenges in the related sectors which were part of the same issues discussed when I visited the country for the first time in 2011. It was puzzling because I had the feeling that a span of 5 years is good enough time for any of these challenges to have received some sort of solution. This is bearing in mind that lots of resources (budget, time, and skills) must have been put into finding solutions to such challenges. Sitting through the meeting listening to the same argument made 5 years earlier to the same problems was a bit unsettling but also eye opening as I pondered the sort of support I was meant to provide as an adviser. I knew something was missing since the progress made by the country in the last 5 years when it comes to development from an economic, social, or environmental perspective are very visible and could be seen both from new infrastructural development and better means of living for the citizens.
Thus, when I started my journey for continuous education at HKS in early 2021 and was introduced to the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach to finding lasting solutions to complex problems, it dawned on me that my expectations to broaden my knowledge on how to build capacity within institutions was on the right track. My initial concern of the possibility of getting immersed into classroom theories and concepts were relieved as the PDIA approach gave me and my colleagues (most of them friends today) the opportunity to put to action what we are already doing in our daily work. Moreover, the opportunity to listen to and interact with students across the globe from diverse disciplines was one I could not trade for anything as we debated, reflected, disagreed, and agreed upon the different ways challenges could be taken care of when implementing public policy.
The opportunity to examine problems using different tools that support “evidence, analysis and action” were the highlights of my learning as Professor Matt Andrews and his team expounded on how to “Build State Capability” using the various real-life experiences and cases to drive home the need to look at problems from different lenses and not to quickly jump into conclusions with some already pre-conceived solutions to complex problems. This opportunity meant that I had to unlearn the idea of speed when it comes to delivery of program or project tasks or set targets. It meant investing more time in understanding and reflecting on what has worked and why it has worked and not the others. This learning process involved scheduling time for self-reflection and after-action review meetings with my team in different iterations and settings. This gave me the opportunity to look at two real-life policy implementation challenges using the PDIA approaches, one focusing on sustainable management of municipal solid and hazardous waste and the other on youth employment.
I will focus on my IPP challenge that posed a question on “what would it take for Municipal Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste Management in Rwanda be sustainably managed?” This policy challenge as stated went through several iterations using the PDIA learning approach. This is also one of the implementation challenges that has for years remained the subject of many policy decisions with varying solutions proffered by different actors both in the public and private sector domain. However, utilizing the learnings from this course has helped with my contributing to an ongoing project that is utilizing an experimental approach with demonstrations and multi-stakeholder participation to finding sustainable solutions to waste management in the country. This project needed a lot of collaboration and authorization at different levels for it to kick off.
Understanding the problem at the onset took some time as there were different iterations within government and my team to truly understand the type of response needed for this policy challenge, the persons or institutions involved and how we could measure functional success in finding solutions to the challenge. One of the biggest questions we investigated is the place of the approach we are proposing within an existing policy environment where ideas are usually generated from a top-down approach with implementers carrying out orders in a plan and control environment. A good example of that was the initial feedback from the mandate institution and authorizer that our proposed policy implementation approach and project intervention is “… too little to bring solutions and scale to the challenge, and that there are already plans in the pipeline to build a bigger and better facility that will cater to the problem of waste…” However, within the third iteration of presenting the problem, it was easier for the authorizer to understand the need for utilizing an experimental and incremental approach to finding solutions to the problem rather than assuming everyone knows the solutions in such a complex sector. Finding an entry point in a situation that has challenges with behavior change, policy and time was not an easy one. However, teams are already set up and working within the mandate and subsidiary institutions on the subject as well as within focus groups from a multi agent arrangement to advance the implementation of the policy challenge. This in my experience providing this kind of support to member government is a great success.
The exercises to determine the entry point to deconstruct the problem using the change space analysis was a rewarding one as the team and the focus groups had the chance to compare their existing methodology with the different tools used in PDIA. For example, the debate on the shortcomings of the logical framework to truly represent issues like behavior change were made easier using the analysis as shown in my fishbone diagram. The most important learning from these exercises which included crawling the design space and the Triple A space analysis is that each brought with it some sort of answer what the other tool did not deal with. It was, however, not an easy task as some of the team members still struggled to see some the tools make sense to them until they were trying out some of these in their daily work within government and coming back with some excitement but also more questions. It was indeed a great learning journey which is ongoing as this policy implementation challenge continues.
My motivation to take the IPP course was from my initial exposure to PDIA approach under a different course on Leading Economic Growth (LEG 2021) taught by Professors Ricardo Hausmann and Matt Andrews where I would say I got the ‘appetizer’ to the use of the PDIA and the beginning of my yearning and desire to get a deeper understanding on building state capability when it comes to development. I am happy that the IPP cause would not end with the classes as I look forward to continuing learning and contributing in the community of practice.
Today, the agendas in those high-level government meetings and most times discussions are still the same. However, I am no longer puzzled as to why this is so due to my clearer understanding of the complexities of these issues that solutions to them does not have an end as society and government evolves. What has changed is my knowledge and understanding of the underlying principles of the actors and systems within the institutions that manage those meetings and the decision-making process. Continuously huge progress has been made when one looks at other policy documents that detailed the implementation results from those big agendas both from backward- and forward-looking exercises. My support has also become more meaningful both in the advisory support and in supporting building the skills of the officials who develop those agendas to ensure it represents the progress and not be shown as constant. It is obvious that the complexity of the challenge governments makes it difficult for any one person, group, or institution to wake up and wave a ‘magic wand’ and declare mission accomplished to these policy challenges. The problems will continuously evolve and would be solved in an incremental level as they are better understood and the learnings that comes with those to build capacity. Having patience is the key to building the lasting relationships amongst different people that would support building your authorization and ownership as well as communicating your learnings in a continuous way.
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.