Working on trade in Mexico from Sao Paulo

Guest blog written by Oscar Benitez

We all experienced the turmoil caused by Covid-19 in 2020. We will spend years trying to describe how it became a huge setback for every activity and economic sector. In my case, I spent several months putting on hold most of the projects of the year, to eventually seeing them fall down one by one. By May, we were more than discouraged: half of our yearly planning was already cancelled, and the other half was on the way to suffering the same fate. To make things worse, the end of it was not on sight. From every angle, 2020 was a devastating year.

But it was the year I went to Harvard.

My work in the Mexican Foreign Service is to deliver solutions to any problem that falls in my hands. I have done that during the last five years I have served in the Mexican Consulate in Sao Paulo. My work doesn’t have the glamour of policy drafting or high politics, and is more about identifying opportunities on the field, matching counterparts with the same interests and taking care of the mountains of paperwork that come after that.

Continue reading Working on trade in Mexico from Sao Paulo

Countering Radicalization in France

Guest blog written by Mer Carattini, Sasha Mathew, Imara Salas, Kishan Shah, Katie Wesdyk

The PDIA process taught us how to turn a ‘wicked problem’—a highly complex tangle of many problems with high uncertainty—into manageable components that we can begin to address. We learned a strategy for how to deconstruct an abstract problem with the fishbone framework. Most importantly, we learned that complex problems in unfamiliar contexts can be addressed through a structured approach. We had the chance to put theory into practice by working on radicalization in France.

There was a lot to unpack for the problem of radicalization in France. We had the opportunity to work with our authorizer, Raphaël, whom currently serves as a cyber security expert to the BNP Paribas Bank and Board members of think tank “Les Jeunes IHEDN.” His initial problem statement was to detect, react to, and prevent radicalization within private companies. However, it is very difficult for private companies to play a constructive role in the radicalization debate because of how sensitive the issue is and because there is a lack of dialogue even at a community level. But before we could start a conversation, we had to zoom out on the big picture to grasp the full complexity of radicalization. 

Continue reading Countering Radicalization in France

It’s about the P’s

Problem Construction, Perception, Process, People and Projection

Guest blog written by Cynthia Steinhauser

Over the course of 12 months, I was pursuing my public policy executive certificate through HBS when I came across the IPP program designed by Professor Matt Andrews and his amazing cadre of peers. The timing couldn’t have been better as my organization was working on a new initiative to create a one-stop shop for innovation in development services from three previously “siloed” departments. Our team is focused on one major task – to rethink our development services program and create an integrated, efficient process that results in a positive experience for our customers. I saw this program as an opportunity to assist with this effort. 

As someone with over 25 years working in local government, I often assist in strategic planning efforts for new initiatives or to “reset” existing programs to help get them back on track. I was usually brought in because something wasn’t working and had reached some type of impasse.  It was often my belief that many failed for one primary reason, they did not have a clear path forward i.e. a solid strategic plan. All it would take was the right person to shepherd them through a process to develop a plan that had a clear vision, mission, goals, objectives, assigned tasks, identified resources and a well-defined timeline. Once a plan was in place to hold people accountable, all would be good. While I have many examples of success using this approach, there are also examples of failures. However, when you work in the public eye, you don’t like to talk about “failures” because on face value they seem just that – a failure that taught us nothing and did so at the expense of taxpayers.  However, as PDIA (Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation) has taught us, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, I believe that is exactly where PDIA can be most useful and have some of the greatest impact (but that is for another blog). This blog is about my entire IPP learning journey.

Continue reading It’s about the P’s

Finding Family through Process Improvement in the U.S.

Guest blog written by Maggie Jones

Trey’s words hung in the air. Would you like to go to Harvard? A million thoughts ran through my head as I watched the unsuspecting traffic pass outside my office. Of course I wanted to go. I had to go. As soon as “yes” stumbled out of my mouth and I hung up the phone, my hand gripped the handset for a moment before I stared blankly at my computer screen. 

How am I going to do this?

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There’s something magical that happens when you walk into an HKS classroom with 48 students and staff from around the world with challenges and backgrounds as diverse as the names on the tent cards. We may have not known it then, but we would become more than HKS’ first Implementing Public Policy cohort, staff included; we would become family. Family with similar struggles in authorization, acceptance, and ability, but also filled with passion, strength, and determination that only comes with a love and respect for this work and for each other.

Over the past seven months, I’ve learned more than I have in a decade of public service; it feels like someone opened a window, fresh air pouring in. Although all of the learnings would certainly take up more than these words, there are a few key takeaways:

  • Failure is always an option. While the private sector may embrace failure, we are rarely given the grace to fall in government. The stakes are framed too high; however, what we seem to have forgotten is what the consequences will be if we continue our current course. If we are failing to meet the needs of those we’ve committed to serve, then we have only lost. We owe it to them – and to ourselves – to be better. We simply must be better.
  • Projects have completion dates; problems evolve. It is important to think about who owns the problem on a constant, iterative basis. As the problem changes, your toolbox needs to change, too.
  • You do not have to go at this alone; you need to find people to share it with. Period.

In my particular challenge (i.e. addressing performance of a federally-funded home repair program), we have finally begun to see a little bit of movement: Continue reading Finding Family through Process Improvement in the U.S.

Three Lessons of PDIA, or the Art of Public Policy

Guest blog written by Olga Yulikova

It is not surprising to anyone who is a part of the PDIA community that Matt Andrew’s book Building State Capability uses medical metaphors and examples to describe public policy. Like Matt, I too believe that policy-making is a form of therapy for society’s ailments. (Wouldn’t be great if all bureaucrats took a version of a Hippocratic Oath upon entering the service to build a person-centered practice?) And just like medicine, policy work is uncertain and difficult. And the more you learn, the more you understand your limitations. PDIA offers a way to make that task of healing societies a little less treacherous.

I decided to enroll in Implementing Public Policy (IPP) class because I was stuck. I was stuck and I was helpless. I was stuck and I was helpless and I was miserable. I needed something to fix my misery. Coming into the class, I had no idea what to expect. At first I did not really understand the language of PDIA. It all seemed too cerebral to me. My problem was about very poor and unskilled older people who are trying to get a job, any job and just can’t. They rely on the state’s program I administer to help them. The program has limited federal funding and can accommodate less than one percent of the eligible population. We do all we can to help as many as we can, but half the people we serve are just not getting the jobs, even when the economy is fine. Agencies that I work with ask me for more funding, but I don’t have it. All I can do is provide creative solutions to help them. And it is not a new problem for me – after all I have been doing my job for ten years – I simply ran out of ideas on how to solve the problem of chronic and persistent unemployment for this vulnerable population. After ten years of public service, I felt I was a failure.

IPP started with a bang for me – there were people from all over the world with the energy and enthusiasm unmatched in my day to day reality of a state office. They were all highly accomplished, driven, enthusiastic and yet everyone had a similar problem to mine, they all were struggling with their “problems.” Corrupt governments, indifferent agency heads, low budgets, unclear guidance – all familiar aches. We became a team in just a few days. We shared so much in common. Our individual problems became common problems, individual pains became a common condition. And the fantastic and practical PDIA team became our therapists, our mentors on our individual paths to alleviate some of the pain we felt for ourselves and the people we advocate for in our work. Continue reading Three Lessons of PDIA, or the Art of Public Policy

Views of public policy implementation success and failure: Sharing my thoughts

written by Matt Andrews

There are many views on what constitutes success and failure in public policy implementation. I have been chewing on these a lot over the last couple of years as I try to make sense of the challenges of implementation and of knowing when implementation is going well or not.

Here are some approaches I find useful in this work.

First, a large literature on project success is relevant in this discussionbecause many public policies are implemented through project-like processes (with some studies even referring to the ‘projectization‘ of various policy domains, especially in international development). The project management literature tends to emphasize different types of ‘success’ in the implementation process (if you want to read more detail,  I advise this article on the topic by Paul Bannerman):

(i) Process or project management success: the immediate performance of a project against its main design parameters—schedule (time), budget (cost), scope, and quality.

(ii) Product success: the extent to which a project delivered promised ‘products’, and if those products were used and considered useful by intended users (or beneficiaries).

(iii) Business or Strategy (or impact) success:  whether a project solved the particular problem that warranted it in the first place, and—even more expansively—if the project better positions the community  affected to address future problems or take future opportunities and benefits.

Another large literature on policy implementation offers related but also different ideas about ‘success’. A key article in this literature (by Bovens, ’t Hart and Peters 2001, which I cite below for those with interest) refers to two key dimensions of success: Continue reading Views of public policy implementation success and failure: Sharing my thoughts

How often do public policies really fail? A question to help you escape the policy futility trap

written by Matt Andrews

Last week I blogged about the ‘public policy futility trap’ in which countries get stuck when a negative feedback loop institutionalizes itself in the public policy domain. Experiences of past policy failure erodes the confidence (of citizens and public officials) to deliver in future, which undermines the potential for positive future policy results, which in turn reinforces the view that  government cannot ‘get things done’, and on and on and on.

I think many countries are stuck in this trap, where negative feedback loops frustrate effort after effort to improve government capabilities. Initiatives designed to help governments get things done tend to fail when no one (in the citizenry or government) actually believes government can get things done.

So, how do governments get unstuck?

This is the question we plan to address—in practice —through the forthcoming Implementing Public Policy executive education course (starting in May 2019). The answer we suggest is simple: challenge the existing negative feedback loop by promoting cases of implementation success that can become the basis of new positive feedback loops—that help citizens and officials believe that more is possible tomorrow than it was yesterday.

Continue reading How often do public policies really fail? A question to help you escape the policy futility trap

PDIA Notes 1: How we have PDIA’d PDIA in the last five years

written by Matt Andrews, co-Founding Faculty of the Building State Capability Program

We at the Building State Capability (BSC) program have been working on PDIA experiments for five years now. These experiments have been designed to help us learn how to facilitate problem driven, iterative and adaptive work. We have learned a lot from them, and will be sharing our lessons—some happy, some frustrating, some still so nuanced and ambiguous that we need more learning, and some clear— through a series of blog posts.

Before we share, however, I wanted to clarify some basic information about who we are and what we do, and especially what our work involves. Let me do this by describing what our experiments look like, starting with listing the characteristics that each experiment shares:

  • We have used the PDIA principles in all cases (engaging local authorizers to nominate their own problems for attention, and their own teams, and then working on solving the problems through tight iterations and with lots of feedback).
  • We work with and through teams of individuals who reside in the context and who are responsible for addressing the problems being targeted. These people are the ones who do the hard work, and who do the learning, and who get the credit for whatever comes out of the process.
  • We work with government teams only, given our focus on building capable states. (We do not believe that one can always replace failed or failing administrative and political bodies with private or non profit contractors or operators. Rather, one should address the cause of failure and build capability where it does not exist).
  • We believe in building capability through experiential learning and the failure and success such brings (choosing to institutionalize solutions only after lessons have been learned about what works and why, instead of institutionalizing solutions that imply ex ante knowledge of what works in places where such knowledge does not exist).
  • We work with real problems and focus on real results (defined as ‘problem solved’, not ‘solution introduced’) in order focus the work and motivate the process (to authorizers and to teams involved in doing the work).
  • We—the BSC team affiliated with Harvard—see ourselves as external facilitators of a process, and do not do the substantive work of delivery—even if the results look like they won’t come. Our primary focus is on fostering learning and coaching teams to do things differently and more effectively; we have seen too many external consultants rescuing a delivery failure once and undermining local ownership of the process and the emphasis on building local capability to succeed.

This set of principles has underpinned our experimental work in a variety of countries and sectors, where governments have been struggling to get things done. We have worked in places like Mozambique, South Africa, Liberia, Albania, Jamaica, Oman, and now Sri Lanka. We have worked with teams focused on justice reform, health reform, agriculture policy, industrial policy, export promotion, investor engagement, low-income housing, tourism promotion, municipal management, oil and electricity sector issues, and much more.

These engagements have taken different shapes—as we vary approaches to learn internally about how to do this kind of work most effectively, and how to adapt mechanisms to different contexts and opportunities:

  • In some instances, we have been the direct conveners of teams of individuals, whereas we have relied on authorizers in countries to act as conveners in other contexts, and in some interactions we have worked with individuals only—and relied on these individuals to act as conveners in their own contexts.
  • Some of our work has involved extremely regular and tangible interaction from our side—with our facilitators engaging at least every two or three weeks with teams—and other work has seen a much less regular, or a more light touch interaction (not meeting every two weeks, or engaging only be phone every two weeks, or structuring interactions between peers involved in the work rather than having ourselves as the touch point).
  • We have used classroom structures in some engagements, where teams are convened in a neutral space and work as if in a classroom setting for key points of the process (the initial framing of the work and meetings at major milestones every six weeks or so), but in other contexts we work strictly in the environments of the teams, and in a more ‘workplace-driven’ structure. In other instances, we have relied almost completely on remote correspondence (through online course engagements, for instance).

There are other variations in the experiments, all intended to help us learn from experience about what works and why. The experiments have yielded many lessons, and humbled us as well: Some of these experiments have become multi-year interactions where we see people being empowered to do things differently, but others have not even gotten out of the starting blocks, for instance. Both experiences humble us for different reasons.

This work is truly the most exciting and time consuming thing I have ever done, but is also—I feel deeply—the most important work I could be doing in development. It has made my sense of what we need in development clearer and clearer. I hope you also benefit in this was as we share our experiences in coming blog posts.

 

Why many development initiatives have achievement gaps…and what to do about this

written by Matt Andrews

Yesterday I blogged about Hirschman’s Hiding Hand. As I interpret it, a central part of his idea is that many development projects:

  • focus on solving complex problems, and
  • only once they have started does a ‘hiding hand’ lift to show how hard the problem is to solve,
  • but because policy-makers and reformers are already en route to solving the problem they don’t turn away from the challenges, and
  • so they start getting creative and finding ways to really solve the problem. Initial plans and designs are shelved in favor of experiments with new ideas, and after much muddling the problem is solved (albeit with unforeseen or hybrid end products).

I like the argument. But why do I see so many development projects that don’t look like this?

I see projects where solutions or projects are introduced and don’t have much impact, but then they are tried again and again–with processes that don’t allow one to recognize the unforeseen challenges, and rigid designs that don’t allow one to change or experiment or pivot around constraints and limits. Instead of adjusting when the going gets tough, many development projects carry on with the proposed solution and produce whatever limited form is possible.

I think this is because many reforms are not focused on solving problems; they are rather focused on gaining short-run legitimacy (money and support) which comes through simple promises of quick solutions. This is the most rank form of isomorphism one can imagine; where one mimics purely for show… so you get a ‘fake’ that lacks the functionality of the real thing…

Let me use Public Financial Management (PFM) reforms as an example.

What problems do these reforms try to solve? Quite a few, potentially. They could try to solve problems of governments overspending, or problems of governments not using money in the most efficient and effective manner (and ensuring services are delivered), or of governments using money in ways that erode trust between the state and citizens (and more).

Now, let me ask how many reforms actually examine whether they solve these problems? Very few, actually. Mostly, reforms ask about whether a government has introduced a new multi-year budget or an integrated financial management system. Or a new law on fiscal rules, or a new procurement system.

Sometimes the reforms will ask questions about whether fiscal discipline is improved (largely because this is something outsiders like the IMF focus on) but I seldom see any reforms–or any PFM assessments (like PEFA or even the assessments of transparency) asking if services are better delivered after reforms, or if reforms enhance trust between citizens and the state. I don’t even see efforts to systematically capture information about intermediate products that might lead to these ‘solved problems’. For instance:

  • Do we have evidence that goods are procured and delivered more efficiently (time and money-wise) after reform?
  • Do we have any systematic data to show that our new human resource management systems are helping ensure that civil servants are present and working well, and that our new payment systems pay them on time (and do a better job of limiting payments to ghost workers)?
  • Do we have any consistent evidence to show that suppliers are paid more promptly after reforms?
  • Is there any effort to see if IT systems are used as we assume they will be used, after reforms?
  • Does anyone look to see if infrastructure projects are more likely to start on time and reach completion after costly project management interventions?
  • Do we have records to show that infrastructure receives proper maintenance after reform?
  • Is there any effort to see if taxpayers trust government more with their money?

This is a long list of questions (but there are many more), and I am sure that some reforms do try to capture data on some of them (if you’ve measured these in a reform, please comment as such…it would be interesting and important to know). Most reforms I have observed don’t try to do it at all, however, which was the focus of a recent discussion on the role of PFM and service delivery Time to Care About Service Delivery? Specialists from around the world were asked whether PFM reforms improve service delivery and the answer was “we think so…we expect so…we hope so…BUT WE CAN’T TELL YOU BECAUSE WE DON’T ACTUALLY ASK EXPLICIT QUESTIONS ABOUT THIS.”

My concern with this is manifold: (i) Does the failure to ask if we are solving the problems suggest that we as a community of reformers don’t really care about the problems in the first place? (ii) Does it mean that we will not be sensitive to the situations Hirschman speaks about when he discusses unforeseen challenges that undermine our ability to address problems (simply because we don’t focus on the problems)?  (iii) Does this also mean that we will not have any moments where we explore alternatives and experiment with real solutions that help to overcome hurdles en route to solving problems?

Unfortunately, I think the observations of gaps after reforms speak to all of these interpretations. And this is why many reforms and interventions do not end up solving problems. In these cases, we get the half-baked versions of the pre-planned solution…with no adjustment and no ‘solved problem’. PFM systems look better but still don’t function–so payments remain late, wages are unpaid to some and overpaid to many, services are not delivered better, and trust actually declines. Most worrying: we have spent years doing the reforms, and now need to pretend they work..and have no learning about why the problems still fester.

The solution (maybe): In my mind this can be rectified–and we can move towards producing more projects like those Hirschman observed–by

  • focusing reforms on problems, explicitly, aggressively, from the start;
  • measuring progress by looking at indicators of ‘problem solved’ (like improved levels of trust after PFM reforms) and intermediate indicators we think will get us there (better payment of contracts, more efficient procurement, etc;
  • regularly monitoring this progress;
  • being on the lookout for expected unexpecteds (things that we didn’t know about that make our initial solutions less impactful); and
  • being willing to adjust what we started with to ensure we produce real solutions to real problems–functional improvements and not just changes in form.

For more, read This is PFM which advocates a functional approach to thinking about and doing PFM reform.

Hirschman’s Hiding Hand and Problem Driven Change

written by Matt Andrews

I referred to Albert Hirschman’s work on the “Principle of the Hiding Hand” in my class today. It is a great principle, and has real application when thinking about PDIA and problem driven change.

In his essay, “The Principle of the Hiding Hand” Hirschman argues that creative solutions most frequently come from adapting to tasks that turn out to be more challenging than we expect.

In Hirschman’s words, “men engage successfully in problem-solving [when] they take up problems which they think they can solve, find them more difficult than expected, but then, being stuck with them, attack willy-nilly the unsuspected difficulties – and sometimes even succeed.”

It’s really beautiful, because it takes as a given some facts that we often think stand in the way of doing flexible, PDIA-type development. Hirschman expects that decision makers will tackle problems, often adopt solutions that look attractive but are hard to pull off (perhaps like big best practice type initiatives), and will overestimate the potential results.

He argues that they wouldn’t try to do the challenging things that development demands if they didn’t think this way. So, he advises to ‘go with it’ …. but then wait for the unexpected… in the form of complexities, constraints, hidden difficulties, etc.

When these unforseen difficulties emerge, Hirschman argues, we have the opportunity to become creative–and to iterate and experiment and find and fit ways to solve the problems that initiated the work in the first place … building on the sunk costs already incurred in pursuing the big, best practice, perfect solution. (saying something like “we’ve come so far…let’s now iterate to ensure we actually solve the problem we set out to solve.”)

Beautiful: Start where you are, focus on solving problems, try the big best practice (but hard to actually do) solution, and become creative when you hit the challenges…

What he assumes is that you have space for flexible change and PDIA-type innovation because of the sunk costs associated with past (or current) reform. An interesting assumption, that I think we can look at academically and reflect on practically.

Required and fundamentally vital reading for anyone in development.