Implementing PDIA for driving tax reforms in Switzerland

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Guest blog by Juan Pedro Schmid, IPP 2021

I knew about the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) process before as I had done the 10 weeks online course Principles of PDIA: Building Capability by Delivering Results. However, as time passed, I had not really applied the concepts and I did not have a full recall of all the details anymore. In the meantime, I also started a new role with the Government of Switzerland and wondered how I could apply PDIA in my new role. I manage the technical assistance programs remotely from Bern through multiple implementing agencies. I wanted to learn about the Agile method for Plan and Control which has now become fashionable in several donor agencies. 

My first learning started with the P in PDIA. I had always seen myself caring a lot about only doing demand-driven projects. So the discussion on the difference between a real problem versus the lack of a solution was a real eye-opener. In addition, the course made me more aware of not only thinking about the general problem which might still be government-driven, but also about the sub-problems and the solutions to those sub-problems. Breaking down the problems, getting stuck in the implementation, and asking the right questions in the iterations made me aware that even the exact definition of the problem requires several attempts (and a lot of work)!

I also enjoyed the discussions on the different implementation methods which made me more aware of the reasons why we work in a certain way (with plan and control) and in which areas there can be more flexibility. 

I also understood the sense of adaptive program management techniques (often focused on agile) that have become prominent with several development organizations recently. However, having learned the application for them, I do not think that they are relevant in most of the cases for development work. PDIA seems to be a much better fit, as unknowns are ripe and risks very high. Finally, there were very interesting sessions that go beyond pure program management on issues such as authority, delegation, and teamwork among others. They made me dive deeper into team issues and can be applied and tested at work. 

I started out with a large, complex project that intends to implement a tax reform over the next few years. As the reform still has to be developed, it is fraught with unknowns and I thought it would have been a great case to try to apply PDIA. However, I changed the implementation challenge as I realized that I would not have been able to progress much on this project, which already faced delays even before being a project (within my department). At the same time, one of my on-going projects had been stuck for a while and it was not clear why. The part that became stuck tried to strengthen subnational governments in managing their public finances. It was a problem with unknown causes and solutions, so it became my challenge. 

Using an existing part of a project as my implementing challenge gave it a fresh start. This also meant going back to the problem narrative, constructing and de-constructing the problem, and looking for entry points. We also quickly run into roadblocks, which meant that we had to take a step back, redefine the (sub-) problem, and find new entry points. Addressing these roadblocks has occupied most of my time since then but it also meant that a project that had been stuck is active again.

In terms of insights, unfortunately, I also learned that being abroad and working through external agencies makes implementing such a facilitated emergence approach much harder to implement. Especially at the beginning, meetings with a large number of actors had to be organized to start building some authority, which meant waiting for a time when the different actors were available.  

Despite the slow implementation, we managed to elaborate on a potential solution to the hold-up, which will be presented to the authorizers in the government soon. In addition, we realized that the way the budget and work plan are currently presented has led to confusion between our project and other areas that are currently being worked on. Another immediate action is to clarify the scope and focus of the project (which we fund), so that we can avoid misunderstandings on areas to work on and priorities.  

I found the realism and humility in the approach very refreshing, as it implies that we stop promising immediate results and instead agree on the direction of travel. In a way, this is already reflected in our projects as we are usually careful in committing to outcomes, which take time to be visible/measurable, and instead focus—maybe too much—on outputs. Additionally, I appreciated the focus on understanding and defining the problem and avoiding solution-bias. Finally, the course also showed the importance of keeping a certain degree of flexibility, also linked to an authorizing environment that is able to take decisions on the go.

My supervisor is extremely interested in these concepts. Therefore, I will continue to use what I have learned—for my projects but also support colleagues who want to apply them. There are also several specific lessons that I will be using. For instance, a major challenge in the implementation was the lack of an authorizing environment that is able to take decisions. As a result, lots of time is spent waiting for authorizers to meet. A small, motivated team that is able to take decisions would have made progress easier. Consequently, understanding the authorizing environment and getting authority early is an important lesson for me. Also, the physical distance to the project is a challenge. So I will try different, more flexible implementation modalities that allow for facilitated emergence, even in a bilaterally-funded technical assistance project.

I am glad to be part of a big community that tries to push the envelope on tackling developmental challenges all over the world and continues to improve the way public policy is implemented. I am especially grateful to be connected to practitioners that implement projects for their governments. They are the ones who often have the best insights into tackling some deep issues of policy implementations.

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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