Implementing Public Policy (IPP) and the Art of Sticking with Problems

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Guest blog by Maurya West Meiers, IPP 2021

I began the 2021 Implementing Public Policy (IPP) online course thinking that I would come away with tools and approaches to solve problems. I knew that the IPP course is organized around the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach. Working in international development, I’m confronted every day with problems. I thought I can learn all sorts of tools to apply in my work. I did learn about tools, practices, and different ways of thinking about problems in my work at the World Bank. But a lasting memory from the course, and something that I did not sufficiently consider at the start, was the challenge of iterating and sticking with the problem. As I’m completing the course, this Albert Einstein quote resonates with me—“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

I’ve learned that sticking with the problem—testing, learning, consulting with stakeholders, iterating, and creating feedback loops is probably more of a challenge than understanding the problem, breaking it down into its component parts, and finding solutions. These latter challenges can often be done on an individual basis or with a handful of knowledgeable people. But problems don’t exist in isolation.  They are part of a wider system, and for problem diagnosis and solution determination to be successful, engagement and multi-stakeholder ownership are required. Without these, we risk non-acceptance and sustainability challenges, among other potential challenges. And this work takes time.

Another lesson involved defining what my problem should be.  Seems surprising, right? I mentioned above that I encounter problems every day.  And I do, a lot of them, and they are often big and long-lasting.  But the nature of my work is as a technical advisor working across countries. I’m often brought into larger and longer-term programs to bring my solutions to problems that have usually been defined by others. Sometimes I’m brought in more fully to work on understanding the problems, and find that more enriching and hopefully helpful in targeting my solutions. 

In this course, my biggest personal struggle was not in understanding the tools—and many were not entirely new to me. My toughest issue was settling on a problem and project to study. I worked on three different problems during the period of this course, eventually settling on a problem that was not related to my work. Instead, I worked on a problem in my community related to rapid development and its effects on public facilities, housing, transportation, and other issues.  

Bouncing around through these different challenges meant that I got a bit of a late start on the one that I eventually landed on. So I didn’t progress as much as I would have liked to have done. And trying to work through them during the COVID pandemic meant that I could not have those one-on-one and group meetings that would have advanced my work.  But as things start to return to normal, my community members and I will start having in-person meetings in November.  And I can share more directly some of the tools I’ve been using from the IPP course and be more focused on using them and planning with an iterative approach.

An important reflection from the class is that the readings—combined with lectures—in the early to middle sessions were especially useful. It’s been a number of years since I’ve been in graduate school, so I enjoyed the focused lectures and reading on topics that I found very practical for my work— understanding ‘plan and control’, PDIA and its components, complicated and complex, management practices, influence, leadership, teams, authority, and so on. This class has motivated me to carve out time in my life and be more dedicated to longer-term, focused learning. Just as problems require dedication, I’m reminded that lifelong learning takes commitment and that I need to be more selfish about prioritizing such focused learning.

Finally, the only thing missing in the course was the in-person component.  I had a wonderful small group from all over the world. It was such a privilege to get to know them and now I have new friends from Guinea, Nigeria, Peru, Saudi Arabia, and Peru. Our team’s TA, Daniel, was a close reader of our work and provided well-informed, thoughtful, timely feedback, always with a strong dose of encouragement.  Our program coordination team of Amber and Maddie were always available to address questions and head off any problems—the execution of the course was seamless.  And I know there were others behind the scenes working hard to pull together the program over its many weeks.  I wish I had gotten to know more of the other participants better, but I have a contact list and hope we will be connected more through the alumni network. Finally, I will have the memory of the enthusiasm for the work and the expertise shared by the guest faculty, Salimah Samji and Matt Andrews. I value highly that they so generously have shared their respective areas of knowledge and expertise with me and all the IPP students. Until we can all meet in person sometime…thank you IPP Team!

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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