Reflections on using PDIA to drive policy reforms during political turmoil

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Guest blog by Ana Iorga, IPP 2021

When I joined the Implementing Public Policy (IPP) program of Harvard’s Building State Capability, I had flashbacks of my MBA program from a decade ago. I was both thrilled and scared at the same time—thrilled to be interacting with and learning from so many brilliant people from all over the world and scared of the unknown journey ahead. 

The program went beyond my expectations, especially regarding the implementation side. I was expecting the course to be loaded with theoretical concepts but was impressed by how actionable and practical those concepts were. Looking back, I realized I’ve learned so much in such a short time! Some of the aha moments that have stayed with me were when we learned about double-checking the authorization we receive, finding allies outside of our teams, and looking out for what you don’t know.

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Developing a policy is a complex task. There are many variables that constantly change, sometimes unpredictably. Additionally, there are many stakeholders and constituents that are affected by the policy. Oftentimes, after drafting the roadmap and actions that we intended to take, we found out about new variables that were rendering our efforts useless. So we had to go back to the drawing board. That’s where the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach became very useful. It showed us the importance of repeated iteration and taking small steps. 

For IPP, I chose the problem of tackling parking taxes in urban cities. My City Council planned to limit chaotic parking by increasing the parking tax in the city center and some central and crowded residential areas. The policy aimed to reduce traffic by encouraging residents to use public transport when traveling to the city center. When I started working on the policy, I assumed that things would have developed in a linear fashion, much as in the private sector: once we decide on a roadmap to follow, everyone jumps on their tasks and starts working towards achieving the goals. I didn’t take into account the political factor and the fact that authorizers might change their agenda (or might have their agenda changed by external forces), sometimes in a very short time. What I’ve learned is not to take the green light for granted and to constantly check if the authorizers are still backing your project or not. 

Unfortunately, we made little progress in the past months, due to external political factors. The country was run by 3 parties (2 large ones and a rather niche party) that had the Parliamentary majority and formed the government. The same 2 large parties had the majority in the City Council. Around one month ago, the political coalition between the 2 major parties broke and that sent ripple effects at all political levels, freezing everything, as members from both parties did not want to collaborate on any project anymore. As I was writing these lines, the government was ousted through a no-confidence vote and we were waiting to see which parties will form a new coalition and what that would look like. Needless to say that all policies were stalled at that point. 

In the duration of the course, I’ve learned to be more tactful when approaching people, especially the ones higher in rank, that did not share the same view on the implementation solutions or directions we were proposing. I can’t help but compare it with the private sector, where we were paid to express our opinions directly and clients were expecting us to give them the best advice we had. I have contradicted CEOs of client companies many times and by bringing sound arguments was able to win them over on our side. But in the public sector, things are entirely different—if you challenge the authorizers, they might take it personally and might block or derail your project. 

I have already started applying the Fishbone Approach into other complex problems that I am tackling. This is a great tool to deconstruct complex problems into more approachable bits and identify underlying causes that can be addressed faster. 

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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