Can PDIA become a regular part of how a government works?

Guest blog written by Peter Harrington

Recently I have been engaging with a government in a middle-income country which is using PDIA methods to tackle some of their thorniest public problems. As one would expect there have been successes and failures, and lots of learning. But in addition to this, leaders in the government want to ‘embed’ PDIA permanently into the way their government works. This raises some interesting questions for PDIA – can the methodology be institutionalised as part of the way a government works? If so, what does this look like? And what is required to make that successful and sustainable?

The government has decided that it wants to embrace more innovative methods of getting things done, and governments through the ages have had similar ambitions. There has been a recognition that existing ways of working leave some problems unsolved, and a good place to start is to understand why this might be.

Governments by their nature function in routines. These are established pathways which, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the government’s capability, serve a range of functions in maintaining the operations of the state. These functions are well established but can also change, adapting to new conditions and new social or economic needs through shifts in policy, legislation, new services and new ways of working. As such governments can be understood as complex adaptive eco-systems which are themselves embedded in and interacting with a larger complex adaptive system: wider society.

As functioning (or dysfunctioning) systems, governments get an awful lot of things done. To borrow an analogy used by Matt Andrews, the amount of coordination it takes to make a streetlight switch on at a specific time each day is actually quite extraordinary. But as systems whose configuration is a response to and reflection of their societal context, governments are by their nature unable to solve every problem through their regular operation. Some problems are complex, and/or emergent, and require different types of know-how to solve. Some of these problems may arise directly because the machine of the state is configured in such a way as to neglect, exacerbate or even cause that particular issue. Think of a robot vacuum cleaner: they are pretty smart these days, programmed to trundle around your house hoovering the floor space and capturing a lot of dirt. When it’s done the floor looks pretty clean, but anyone with a Roomba knows that it can’t catch dirt gathering in the hard to reach corners, and it may have even pushed extra dirt into some of those corners. Getting into those nooks and crannies requires something different – probably a human, using a different tool.

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Using PDIA to Improve Public Education in Brazil

written by Salimah Samji

São Luis, Maranhão, Brazil – December 2021

In August 2021, we began an engagement with Instituto Sonho Grande (ISG) in Brazil to build the capability of public servants working in secretariats of education in the states of Maranhão and Paraíba.  

In this virtual action learning program, 60 public servants working across 11 teams, learned how to use PDIA to solve locally nominated problems, through action-oriented work.

The teams in Maranhão worked on the following problems:

  • Low learning in Mathematics
  • High teacher turnover
  • School dropouts
  • Age-grade distortion
  • School feeding programs

The teams in Paraíba worked on the following problems:

  • Low learning in Portuguese and Mathematics
  • Vacancies for Teachers and Technicians
  • Data for strategic decision making
  • School infrastructure
  • Clarity of roles and responsibilities
  • Budget execution
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Apply for our Implementing Public Policy Program!

Are you a public policymaker frustrated with the limited impact of your government’s policies? Do you see many policy ideas starting out with promise but ending up incomplete or ineffectively implemented? Are you trying to improve implementation? If so, you are not alone.

Join with peers from around the globe for a dynamic, highly engaging blended learning format of Implementing Public Policy (IPP) offering a combination of both online and in-person learning, as well as applied action learning —where participants will have time to work on their implementation challenge, apply their learning to their own context, reflect on their experiences, share and learn, and become part of a global community of practice.

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Can the private sector help to pave the way to tackle complex challenges in the Northern Triangle of Central America?

written by José Eguigure and Daniel Barjum 

A few weeks ago, Vice President Kamala Harris, and other top officials, including Samantha Power, Administrator of the United States Agency of International Development, and former professor at Harvard University, attended the inauguration of Xiomara Castro as the first female President of Honduras in its 200 years of independence. According to several sources, including the New York Times, this is a clear statement of the U.S. foreign policy on strengthening its ties within the Northern Triangle of Central America, and represents a good opportunity to pave the way in tackling complex challenges in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Can the private sector help to deliver on this cause? How?

Vice President Harris launched “a Call to Action to the Private Sector” last year to join government efforts to increase economic opportunities within the region and “address the root causes of migration” to the United States. Twelve companies and organizations such as Bancolombia, Microsoft, Mastercard, the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, among others joined this effort back in May 2021. Recently, seven new partners have joined including Grupo Mariposa, Cargill, PepsiCo, and CARE International, and all together “have invested more than 1.2 billion dollars.” Although this is a promising initiative supported by the nonprofit Partners for Central America, the major challenge now is how to deliver on this promise, allow for stakeholder engagement, and give agency to local communities. Finding the right approach or blending of approaches will be crucial for the implementation of this strategy. 

The first question we need to ask ourselves is how much do we know about the problem and how different do stakeholders frame it? Then, how do we get high levels of legitimacy among local communities and sustain it across time? How can we overcome countries’ binding constraints, in Honduras for example, its low ease of doing business? Since there are a lot of unknowns and ambiguities, a good way to start these conversations is by engaging and building trust with key stakeholders in each country. Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) can be a useful methodology to complement current efforts. PDIA is a “learning by doing” approach that empowers stakeholders to breakdown problems, identify potential solutions, iterate, and build capabilities while learning throughout the process. PDIA poses a unique and effective approach to development, borrowing ideas from both private and public sector initiatives and experiences around the world.   

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Apply for our Leading Economic Growth Executive Program!

We are offering Leading Economic Growth online again from February 28 – May 6th 2022. Application deadline is February 7th, 2022.

Stimulating growth is the top economic priority for many countries and localities around the world. Yet many are trapped, lacking the productive capability to solve problems and expand to new industries to drive development. New growth strategies need paths, processes and organizations to address this problem.

Sophisticated Tools. Practical Approaches.

In this ten-week program, you will learn how to develop a set of policies and tools to define your growth problem, detect constraints to growth, and design solutions to unlock growth. Through peer learning groups and live class sessions, you will apply the frameworks and tools to your own economic growth challenge.

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Managing Public Finances for the Future

Written by Matt Andrews

I have been part of a creative team teaching an executive course on public finance for over a decade. This team has spent lots of time discussing the changes we have all experienced in the world in recent decades, and what the main objectives of public finance might be now—in what is an ever-changing world.

Out of this discussion, I propose what I call the Pillars of Public Finance Performance in Our Changing World—the objectives we should be paying attention to when determining how well our public finance systems are working:

  1. How does the system impact equity?
  2. How does it foster fiscal sustainability?
  3. What about the way our public finances impact environmental sustainability?
  4. Do we have a high level of effectiveness in the system?
  5. Do we foster inclusion in the processes and products of our public finance system?
  6. How is our public finance system impacting innovation and growth?
  7. You add yours…
  8. Does our system promote accountability, of politicians to citizens, and bureaucrats to politicians and citizens, and current citizens to each other and future generations?
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African Soccer and a Country’s Capabilities to Compete

written by Matt Andrews

I wrote a blog post earlier this week asking if an African country has what it takes to win soccer’s World Cup. Some people asked why I chose that topic—and especially why I took the time to write this longer paper about it! 

The reason is simple. I work on public policy, mostly in developing countries, where many governments try to improve their peoples’ well-being by helping their economies compete better in the world, especially for things like talent, capital, and market access (for exports). These governments are trying to develop the capabilities to compete and I am constantly asking what those capabilities are. 

Soccer gives us a window into identifying the capabilities needed to compete. Like economic policy, sport has a public good feel to it, brings nations into regular competition, and is the subject of many officials’ promises to win. So, I wondered if a view on how well African countries have been competing in soccer could help shed light on the capabilities needed to compete (in any international competition). 

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Will an African country win the soccer World Cup?

written by Matt Andrews

The Africa Cup of Nations soccer tournament began in Cameroon this week. It has already provided the excitement fans were hoping for. While watching, I wonder how African countries will perform in the World Cup tournament at the end of the year. Is this the tournament where an African team wins, validating those who have predicted such victory for decades?

Predictions of an African world cup win are like the vision statements governments across Africa pen that see their low-income economies becoming competitive high-income ones by 2030, or 2040 in some instances. Such vision statements and predictions engender hope. But is this hope warranted? Is there really a chance that these amazing things will happen?

My new working paper tackles this question using African soccer as an example. I posit that African countries will only win the World Cup if they can compete with the world’s best countries (Hence the title, ‘Can Africa Compete in World Soccer?’). This requires that they compete as both ‘participants’ and ‘rivals’ in the world context, gaining and retaining access to the most consequential contests and competitions and winning regularly in these engagements.

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Where know-how and action were missing

Guest blog written by Molebogeng Amanda (Tshoma) Mazibuko

For five years, I have had a vision to help a specific group of people; a relegated and prejudiced gender with immense potential to create positive economic impact.

I have written strategic documents and struggled to match them to executable plans; either because of authority or know-how related challenges. As noble my intention was to help, I just did not have the know-how and had no idea of how to accumulate it.

My ‘laundry-list’ approach led to an aggregation of factors to a point where the real root cause was hidden under a symptom.  

During my journey on PDIA through the Leading Economic Growth with Harvard Kennedy School I identified multiple flaws which implied that my level of know how was a limitation to advance the project’s intention. PDIA made me question formerly held principles in understanding and driving change. I managed to identify key functional asymmetries and learnt to measure progress via functionality-legitimacy practical framework. 

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Decentralization in Lebanon

Guest blog written by Pascale Dahrouj

When I first registered in this program, I never thought I could get that much insights on how to work out a complex problem by identifying entry points, root causes, possible solutions, authorizers and teams. I just thought it will be a learning journey filled with readings and videos that might help me with some ideas…But no…It was much more. 

The first part of the program was indeed an introduction of the entire concept of public policy and its implementation. But the most important part of the journey was the week course at Harvard where we spent intensive hours in learning about PDIA and doing our fishbone. A fishbone? I laughed at the idea first but when I ended up doing mine, I never felt more concerned and understanding of my problem. I am working on a public policy that will change the entire system of the Lebanese Republic. Decentralization… Moving from a central strong government control power to a decentralized functioning of the state. And guess what? My policy has not yet been ratified by the parliament. My work has a double shredded effort: getting the policy ratified and then implementing it. 

PDIA is a new concept for me as I had never heard of it before that week in June. Now, it has become part of my daily thinking. It is a guiding dynamic tool: it gives you all the necessary to help you think outside the box and do things yourself. You are the center of this entire approach. You have to know well the problem, deconstruct it and then construct the points, identify the authorizers and whom to approach, and mostly build your team so that your policy can get to a realistic end result. 

During this course, I enjoyed so much learning from other students and getting to know their problems and how they envision to solve it. The group sessions that we did also made me realize how vague my problems were …. I kept on narrowing them down… I kept on redoing and changing my fishbone based on feedback from my group… That learning process was the best part of it. You think that you grasp the context, but you come and hear the comments from your group or class, and then you have to do it all over again. Oh and not to mention the professors and directors of the program; They all added to me in different ways. The Pascale that went in June to Harvard is not longer the same Pascale… It is a different version equipped with hopes, prospects and determination. 

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