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.
“The flow of life envelopes everything. That’s life: it heats up and cools down, it tightens and then loosens up, it becomes calm and then unrests. What it wants from us is courage”.
João Guimaraes Rosa
1. An act of courage
The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) program Implementing Public Policy (IPP) is an act of courage. It is so from the day you decide to commit to six months of action learning in the middle of a global pandemic to, today, as we end this journey with 142 peers from 47 countries and the HKS team, and we’re moving ahead working on pressing challenges we care too much about to let go.
The good part is that every ending is a new beginning.
In early 2020, I was lucky enough to be selected into the Harvard Kennedy School’s executive education class, “Implementing Public Policy (IPP).” I was thrilled that my supervisors at work had shown the confidence in me and interest in my development to make this opportunity available. Even more, I was excited to spend a week in Cambridge with a diverse group of professionals from across the country and the world. The experience would be enriching . . . and a few good meals in Boston’s North End would be pretty nice, too.
When I got my first job in the field of economic development I started reading everything I could about it. I started noticing a stark difference in the rationale and methodologies proposed by the books I was reading. After a while it was possible for me to separate what I was going to read (even before I got deep in the book) into two categories: strategy/marketing books and development economics/economics books.
In my professional life I had my fair share of experiences with marketing and the readings of Porter, Kotler and Chernev. So the second category was the one that disappeared quickly as I learned interesting new things from the thoughts of economists like Acemoglu, Mazzucato, Duflo and Moretti. And, of course, from the usual suspects like Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Joseph Schumpeter. I felt ready for my first day of work.
Well no plan survives contact with reality. The struggle in the regions I was working with were real and the resources that people had available to deal with their challenges did not seem appropriate. Pre-packed solutions from consultants abounded and nobody seemed to be talking about economics when trying to understand the root cause of their problems. Lucky me. I met a Senator from my region with an economics background and working experience with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), World Bank and the Inter American Development Bank (IDB). There was so much to learn from these experiences.
A great thing about this programme is that it highlighted that context matters for an economic growth strategy and that unique and differentiated approaches that fit the specific context are needed. On the other hand, another great thing is that the lessons and principles of Leading Economic Growth can be applied across various economic growth and development challenges and within a national and subnational context. Looking at the economic challenge of inclusive growth and jobs I have experienced both as part of LEG 2021 and as a member of Group 11 where I was fortunate to collaborate with a great group of peers over the course of the programme, I am sharing 11 of my lessons and insights. These lessons and insights inform my thinking and practice within the economic, policy, strategy and innovation space.
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:
How does the system impact equity?
How does it foster fiscal sustainability?
What about the way our public finances impact environmental sustainability?
Do we have a high level of effectiveness in the system?
Do we foster inclusion in the processes and products of our public finance system?
How is our public finance system impacting innovation and growth?
You add yours…
Does our system promote accountability, of politicians to citizens, and bureaucrats to politicians and citizens, and current citizens to each other and future generations?
I entered IPP Online Course with excitement and with the expectation that guidance would be provided to simplify the proposed ‘public policy challenge’ facing myself and my colleagues. The timing was great, as my colleagues and I had recently committed to the design and execution of a coordinated service delivery model of human services. The authorizing team of 12-15 human service leaders, including myself, made a firm visionary statement (“if not now, when”), affirming the commitment to get this done. I was sure that a guidebook would assist the team to develop an outline that would lead to an immediate solution. Essentially, an opportunity made simple and I believed that we, as a diverse team of providers, had all the pieces in place were for immediate action: 1) strong partnerships, 2) a common vision and goal, 3) motivated supporters, 4) County Chief Executive Office support, 5) consultant resources, 6) diverse group of champions, 7) community commitment to pilot the model in four communities and 8) a project timeline. It became very clear in the first two week of lectures and the introduction of PDIA, that our team did not have a clear understanding of the complexity of our problem, nor did we have a concise problem statement reflective of the intended goal. Early on, it also became evident that PDIA offered the Fishbone Diagram as a tool to map out the known and unknown factors. The input of the technical support and from peers on the fishbone identified additional gaps in knowledge, potential missed entry point opportunities and critical stakeholders. In addition, the diagram generated input from the larger stakeholder group which subsequently led to further clarification on the resource gaps and small win opportunities. The use of the Fishbone Diagram promoted an expanded thought process, strategic thinking about the actual problem at hand and extensive consideration of cause and effect influence within both the planning and execution of response to a complex policy challenge.
When I signed up for the Harvard Kennedy School Implementing Public Policy programme, I thought I knew quite a bit about my policy challenge! I was applying to the programme basically to figure out new concepts and get new tools that would help me as Director of Planning for Nigeria’s Blood Services agency implement those ideas my organisation already had about solving Nigeria’s blood safety problem. You see, my country has a population of over 200 million people and for decades has been bedevilled by a frustrating lack of ready availability of safe blood to meet the country’s needs. This gap has contributed immensely to high maternal death rates, and the large number of children who die before the age of five. As an organisation, we had some ideas in our toolbox to address this, and I hoped IPP under Matt Andrews and the HKS faculty’s guidance would provide the magic bullet for implementation. I was not prepared for the level of insight that the course would provide.
Governments across the world are struggling with the many policy challenges wrought by Covid-19. While this pandemic is not yet over, many are already thinking about the recovery to come. Governments will undoubtedly be needed in this recovery process, helping people get back to normal or charting new paths to better normals—what some call ‘building back better’.
I fear that governments are set to fail in their efforts to provide such help, however, because of limits to the budgetary and policy prioritization space needed to address post-Covid needs.
Will we have enough money to build back better?
Covid-19 hit the world at a time when many public finance experts were already commenting on the large role governments have turned out playing in their economies. Government spending as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was at historical highs in many countries prior to the pandemic given decades of growth in budgets across the world. Consider the following graph and examples of such growth in countries as varied as South Korea, India, South Africa, the USA, Spain and Italy.
Figure: Government spending as a share of Gross Domestic Product, various countries, 1850-2020
These budgets continued expanding in response to Covid-19, fostering record debt levels across the globe. A Brookings paper written last year notes, for instance, that “In 2020, global government debt increased by 13 percentage points of GDP to a new record of 97 percent of GDP. In advanced economies, it was up by 16 percentage points to 120 percent of GDP and, in EMDEs [emerging markets and developing economies], by 9 percentage points to 63 percent of GDP.”
As a Special Assistant to the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Nigeria, I have experience working in a large, complex bureaucracy and I decided to take this course to learn how to deliver results within a space where state capability has been weakened over the years and where competing political interests often negatively impact the organization’s capacity to produce positive outcomes. I came into the course with a number of assumptions about who holds authority within a structure and I was happy to learn how to challenge traditional notions about the usefulness of top down approaches as well as plan and control methods. My expectations were thus met and mostly surpassed: our supportive team of instructors made learning thought-provoking and fun drawing from global examples of building state capability.
This IPP journey was the unexpected deus ex machina which enabled me to remain productive and hopeful during the COVID 19 pandemic. Despite these unprecedented and incredible circumstances, I gained a real boost by absorbing new tools and perspectives. Some key learnings for me were the “4Ps” (perception, projection, people and process) because this helped me deeply connect with the core of what I needed to do: disappoint political elites at a rate they can absorb and enable a more inquisitive mindset in my work environment so that new stories, new viewpoints and narratives can be heard, instead of the usual practice of allowing ourselves to be locked into one fixed way of thinking.