Guest blog written by Rose Riley
I was encouraged by my CEO to sign up for the IPP course. He had completed an economic complexity course at Harvard in 2018 and had shared some of the approach with me at that point. He was aware this approach would align well with my existing way of thinking and working. I was unsure about the online format for the course, not having studied formally through an online approach and not having enjoyed smaller, online training courses as much as a face to face format. I was curious about how the course would be ran with so many people from around the world with varying degrees of shared language, differences in organisational cultures and government systems and such diversity of policy challenges – how could there be an approach that could work for everyone? My position is focussed on my own State and region (Western Australia) and I do not have much knowledge or experience of international policy perspectives or implementation, except the two countries and three states that I have previously worked. I was surprised that there is such a body of organisations, institutions and people working internationally on policy implementation as a specialism – I think this is an area of research, study and training focus that is perhaps lacking in Australia in certain areas. I think we are particularly average at evaluating our policy success, or lack of success.
I was hopeful that the IPP course would bolster my interest in policy issues and problem solving and provide ways to improve my engagement with others in what is such a fascinating area of government but also so important. I was hoping IPP and PDIA would have some techniques for ‘shaking’ people (government public servants) out of their comfort zones and getting them to really listen and understand the problem and take on a role, not only my current policy challenge, but be open to future engagements and collaboration on emerging problems. In my work, I have found it takes a long time for those in other agencies or departments to listen and understand the problem presented to them and that there is a reluctance to act without authority from a very senior level, sometimes only the highest level, and I’ve always found this difficult to accept. What would help empower public servants at every level to do the job they are engaged to do effectively and be actively engaged in meaningful policy engagement? How can they connect better to the people on the ground to listen and understand the problem and develop better policy solutions?
The course exceeded my expectations on a few levels. I was really impressed with the format and roll out of the course and how precise and well-ordered everything was. I was impressed with how the course content was structured to take us on the journey and that it really pushed you to think hard about so many areas of how you perceive the world, how you think, your personal style and approach to work, teams, leadership and crucially understanding complex problems and the PDIA approach to ideas and solutions. It is a really well presented course with lecturers that really know their stuff from lived experiences and examples. I was surprised that the course worked so well online. Although the timeframes are difficult to meet around work commitments there is a lot of flexibility built into the program on how you can engage with the content and to what extent.
My key learnings are most definitely around deconstructing the problem, small steps and the power of growing and maintaining a network to progress ideas and solutions. None of these concepts are completely new to me, or probably to most participants, however the way the concepts are linked and built over time through the course to become a legible framework and set of tools for use, is pretty spectacular when you’re taken on that journey.
My implementation challenge is the shortage of available, affordable rental and workers accommodation in Western Australia – a problem that is creating increased homelessness, financial stress and social wellbeing issues, as well as business and industry issues relating to shortage of materials, labour and accommodation to meet industry demand.
The PDIA course assisted me to re-examine, in detail, my policy challenge to get right to the source of the problem and its causes and to have confidence that I understood the problem from many different perspectives to then reengage with local and state stakeholders on policy solutions. Prior to the course, I was finding that, even in conversations with the most senior of community and government leaders and sometimes authorisers, that they were talking (often publicly) about the problem without an actual understanding of what it was, what some of the terminology they were using meant and, in almost all cases, that they were jumping to solutions that would not assist to solve any part of the problem – indeed, they would likely exacerbate the problem ongoing and deliver no outcomes to the groups of people in our communities that most needed to benefit from a solution – lower economic income groups, those who were renters or received social housing from the State.
Having a toolkit through PDIA to take a systematic approach to establishing, deconstructing and reconstructing the problem provides both a personal evidence base and a shared insight as a team or group, on what the problem really is, before progressing to any ideas or solutions. This provides two things – one, personal confidence to develop a narrative around the problem and to engage better with authorisers and those in other agencies or the community, in order to better influence them about the problem and why it matters. Secondly, it provides a pathway to working collaboratively towards ideas, testing and solutions as a group or team, when the problem is collectively constructed and the progressive, small next steps are shared between the group.
My fishbone diagram on my housing challenge:
I was motivated most during the course, around reengaging with my stakeholders and teams and bringing new people together, as part of my challenge. I was really surprised how lovely this was for me to enjoy the conversations around the challenge and to both lead, listen and inquire as part of this process. It was very refreshing to take large chunks of time out of the working day to do this – it was almost a luxury to dedicate such time to it but this shows how silly organisational norms about being ‘busy’ and what is ‘productive work time’, are pervasive and can actually stop you from achieving real results – I really do believe the real results are the conversations, the leads and the ideas that emerge from these discussions, and then as trust and relationships build, many more outcomes result. I will ensure that when I’m working on any problem in future, complex or not, that I start with and maintain the people connection throughout and not is the standard, ‘consultation period’ type of way, in the PDIA way – continual, adaptive, open, inquiring and sharing. Reasserting that I may have knowledge and experience in policy areas but I certainly don’t have the answers or solutions without this engagement with others, is a fundamental learning from PDIA. I was open to this learning but I feel this would be a difficult element for many in positions of power or in strong, plan and control cultures, to grasp. Enabling my team to work in this way in future is a positive learning for me too.
I am using the fishbone diagram method and entry points analysis and I don’t think I’ll ever stop using this as a tool now, it’s so useful to help you and others see things more clearly. What I loved most about PDIA is how it gives you a framework to accept and be comfortable with uncertainty, unknowns and change. I’ve always been relatively comfortable with these things in comparison to my colleagues in government – in fact I often work much better in these scenarios – but having a framework that helps explain this – it’s very reassuring and gives me more confidence in my ability to deliver and in others to deliver to, if you can assist them into this new way of thinking and acting.
Through the course, I’ve made progress with my challenge. I have several forums or teams established working on the housing challenge collectively and in small steps. These are at a State and local level. I have been able to influence policy action in one area we identified in the fishbone process where I had also identified a large change space opportunity – this is State government land releases with a State agency, as a result of one forum, having now released land for housing development. This is currently being progressed and may not have been unless the forum had been formed, the research presented and the discussions held between stakeholders about the entry points for action. Other policy initiatives are being pursued at various levels.
I have also loved the weekly then fortnightly meetings with my peer learning group and the words of encouragement from my assessor – this was also a surprise! I thought it would be hard work having these group assignments online. I grew to admire and appreciate my peer colleagues and missed them when we didn’t meet. I was not expecting to be able to assist them much with their challenges but I found I was, simply by being able to encourage their discussions and our collective self-analysis. This is another positive element of the course and a bonus group of friends/peers to lean on as we move through challenges and life in general.
For other PDIA practitioners, I don’t have words of wisdom! But I would say that true courage is found in the smallest of actions and that we have a responsibility to act and be courageous towards positive change, both because of the positions we occupy but also because this approach has been shared with us and we are not alone. There is a whole network of practitioners to tap into now we didn’t have before and that network can be a starting point for the most difficult and complex of challenges, at times where we can see no other way 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.