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Assess your Authorisation, Acceptability, and Adoption while Implementing Public Policy

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Guest blog by Kingsley Emu, IPP 2021

I have taken four courses in the Executive Education Program of the Harvard Kennedy School in the last six years. These are Public Financial Management in a Changing World (PFM), Leading Economic Growth (LEG), Creating Collaborative Solutions: Innovations in Governance (CCS), and Implementing Public Policy(IPP)—the most impactful one for me so far. While all other courses were in-person and one week long, Implementing Public Policy (IPP) was an online-first, five-month long program. It touched upon the cores of myriads of challenges in the public sector where I have been an active participant and supervisor over the last 10 years as a Senior Policy Adviser. I was familiar with the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) framework that forms the core of IPP course from the Public Financial Management (PFM) course that I had taken earlier. However, once I dived deeper into using PDIA in the IPP course, it became an ‘unputdownable’ learning experience. By the end of the course, I was convinced about the potency of the tool to create solutions in any given context while strongly driving the building of internal capabilities of teams to implement those solutions.

After reading the content and context of the programme in the personal email from Prof Matt Andrews, I immediately felt that I finally had the guiding framework and learning support that I had been yearning for over the years while working in public policy. Previously, I had believed in PDIA as a methodology but doubted if it was practical in public sector. This thinking also informed the fluid nature of the public policy challenge that I brought into the programme. The IPP teaching team did a fantastic job of ensuring that the teams understood the concepts and practice the sequence and the process of designing and delivering interventions. Reflecting back, here are some of my key learnings from the IPP program.

Key Learnings

1. Construct the problems in ways that makes it urgent enough to draw sustained attention. Thereafter establish why it matters so much. Mild problem statements often have tendency for less attention.

2. Deconstruct problems into causes and sub-causes in such a manner that the causes don’t overlap and can be given thorough and unique attention.

3. Determine the spaces for driving change based on the degree of Authorisation, Acceptability and Adoption (Triple-A theory). This narrows down the search and sphere of operation and influence. If the change spaces are not determined, one can spend the entire time on chasing a wild goose.

4. Understand the entry point of engagement through inquiry and active listening with lot of empathy to gain trust and acceptability.

5. Extensively discuss Rob’s 4Ps of Perception, Process, People and Projection regarding the problem statement with your team and relevant stakeholders. This will help you understand multiple pain points of the people impacted by the problem.

6. Understand the concept of Team and Teaming. Effective action learning lies in your ability to select and manage the team members to deliver the desired results. Understand the processes of team formation and the stages of Storming, Norming, Performing and Rejuvenation. This will help in navigating team outcome and deliverables while team members experience various inter-personal dynamics with each other. Set targets, manage time, delegate functions, plan for feedback, and document results by regularly logging them in learning and leading form.

7. Manage obstacles to your ability to be empathetic. Spend sufficient time in active listening rather than being dismissive. Avoid taking phones to team meetings. It helped reduce pressure on me. I showed up as being more supportive and gained the confidence of the team.

Using the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) framework

1. The Mindset
My motivation to understand the A-Z of implementing public policy was influenced by my initial doubts that PDIA may not work in public service. Three weeks down the line, while framing the problem statement, it became obvious that it has to be contextual. Thereafter, I narrowed my focus to the State’s flagship programmes of human capital development among the youths. I picked the problem of mitigating the gaps in outcome of the intervention in youth empowerment programme in Delta State. 

2. Arriving at the Problem Statement
I arrived at this problem statement after several iterations and guidance. This program is important because it addresses youth unemployment. A lot of resources have been deployed in building physical infrastructure, upskilling, providing starter packs, and monitoring and mentoring facilities. The outcomes are decent at 65% . But it needs to be improved to minimise the 35% wastage.

3. Building the Team
The progress was gradually recorded by applying the PDIA principles. My team had a long and arduous journey developing the fishbone diagram to diagnose the problem. It required the input and concurrence of majority of the program team lead of the seven Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDA). Putting the fishbone diagram meant solving for the 50% of the problem. We now had a basis to continually learn to improve on the perceived challenge in a deconstructed form. Crafting the fishbone diagram started the team’s collaboration process. However, constituting the team to deal with the issues patiently and sustaining the authorisation and support at different stages was another key milestone. Building confidence in the team through coaching and active participation with respect and empathy was the greatest catalyst for progress. Individuals now had to think in groups instead of asserting themselves individually. This helped a great deal, built trust, enhanced delegation, and led to quality outcome. The greatest insight that emerged from the PDIA process was that we could build more enduring capabilities internally instead of trying to source some perceived solutions externally.

The greatest insight that emerged from this process was that we could build more enduring internal capabilities through the PDIA (despite the rigorous processes) instead of trying to source perceived solutions for capabilities externally off the shelf.

Fishbone diagram for gaps in the outcome of the intervention in youth empowerment programme in Delta State. 

Looking Ahead

I am inspired by the number of people who will benefit from this learning process. It can be applied to several contexts and the multiplier effect and cost savings for the organisation. The field of public service is unique because it requires spontaneous interventions that translate into policies of some sort. Here PDIA can be used to remedy or strengthen numerous weak policies. Formal training in public service is not taken seriously or even evaluated. It is a mere formality targeted at promotions. PDIA, a hands on learning process will help cultivate and deepen learning habits and internal capabilities. This course has finally provided me with a theoretical framework that will strengthen my processes of enabling public service officials to tackle the day to day challenges in our work. Although tough to practice initially, the overall outcome very satisfactory once you get a hang of the things.

My recommendation to my co-travellers and adherents of this model, is to use PDIA as best as you can and impact your sphere of influence by demonstrating the applicability of the model. It does not have to replace other methods. Instead, it can be used to complement and remedy the existing ones as evident in the problem challenges.


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 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

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