Reassessing what it means to problem-solve

Guest blog by Samantha Blake Rudick

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 December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

When I was in middle school, I was part of a program called “Problem Solving.” The concept was one big problem would be presented and then, in a group, students would break this problem down into twenty smaller problems. They would then select one of these smaller issues and come up with 20 solutions to this smaller problem. They would analyze their solutions, pick the best one and present it in a creative way to the larger group, with the winners getting a prize.

The Implementing Public Policy course and taking us through Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) was similar to this idea, in some senses, except that in working with adults they can break the news to us: we can’t just stop at addressing one small issue.

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Tackling workforce development in Tampa, FL using PDIA

Guest blog by Ocea Wynn

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 December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

When enrolling in the IPP Online, my initial thoughts were that this would be a course extensively focused on theory with very little practical application. I anticipated that if practical examples were presented, they would be so-far removed from the realism of local government work that this course would be another ‘check the box’ example of fulfilling a request by providing an input (class attendance) with an expected output (course completion) with no anticipated outcome.

My perception soon changed when we started our discussion on classifying a policy as complex or complicated. As an engineer, my education, training, and all my work experience have been in a complicated environment, of plan and control. So, when Matt started the discussion on defining complicated work, I thought ‘this course will be a piece of cake’. However, all of that soon changed as we began to delve into complexity of policy implementation. This expanded my mindset to a new way of looking at all problems, both professional and personal ones.

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The luxury of long-term planning in a predictable environment has outlived its shelf-life

Guest blog by Puneet Balasubramanian

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 December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.

– John F Kennedy (1962)

The current global crisis caused by COVID-19 has once again brought into focus the deeply complex business of policymaking. The unprecedented and unanticipated impact which the pandemic has caused has unsettled even the most competent policy-making mechanisms of the world. But the real challenge would be to recover from the battle wounds, once the dust has settled.

Just like how different countries have responded differently to the pandemic, achieving diverse results, the future too hinges on efficient and contextual policymaking. Policymakers and their advisors, therefore, need to accord adequate attention to the rebuilding strategy – which is going to be a much bigger challenge than the passing-through one.

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Police reform in Bridgeport through PDIA: A radical approach to an old problem

Guest blog by Maria Viggiano

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 December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

As America faces a national reckoning over racial injustice and the over-policing of communities of color, the concept of “defunding the police” has become a hot topic in various cities including my hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut. As Connecticut’s largest city, Bridgeport is home to over 145,000 people, the majority of whom identify as Black, Latino, or Asian Americans. The Bridgeport Police Department has suffered from a series of scandals over the last several years.

In 2017, a Bridgeport police officer shot and killed an unarmed Latinx youth, 15-year-old Jayson Negron. In 2018, the top aide to the Bridgeport Police Chief was fired after the discovery of numerous racists texts directed at African-American police officers in the department. Earlier this fall, the police chief himself was arrested by the FBI and later indicted on federal corruption charges. The demands for reform reached fever pitch this summer with local activists calling for a defunding and dismantlement of the Bridgeport Police Department.

The concept of “defund the police” is a relatively new one within the realm of public policy. The movement in favor of this approach emerged almost entirely from the activist community in the wake of recent nationwide protests against police brutality, especially in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. There are few academic papers or studies available that evaluate the effectiveness of specific policies aimed at reallocating public funds away from law enforcement departments and toward social service departments like housing, health, and education. However, ample academic research does definitively point to the short- and long-term payoff of investing in these areas as a preventative strategy for minimizing societal ills such as poverty, homelessness, crime, and violence.

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‘IPP helped my transition from the private sector to the public sector’

Guest blog written by Giannis Skiadaresis

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 December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

Being part of this very exceptional course was a great opportunity for me to alter the way I was coping with challenges and to find solutions to problems that I was facing in my day-to-day work. Implementing Public Policy was a very unique chapter in my personal development, which coincided with my professional transition from private sector to my return to the European public administration. This moment was a very important step for my professional career, as I had experience from a private project management firm, and I had to adjust to a new reality with several new implementation challenges in the public administration. For me, this course was the ultimate tool, as I used it in full, in order to tackle the challenges that I was facing in my daily life. 

At the beginning of the course, I realised that my general approach towards public policy challenges was a very basic approach similar to plan and control, without taking into account many unknowns that could occur during the implementation. I was feeling that I could have everything under control and in the end, I was failing to understand why I was not finding a solution to my personal policy challenge. After the presentation of the first concepts during the initial period of the course, I realised that I had so many unknowns in this challenge that it was almost impossible to be effective and to solve the problem with standard management and project approaches like the plan and control approach. In my first experience with PDIA (Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation), I realised that I was doing everything wrong. Every week after following Matt’s lectures, I understood that there is always another way to deal with things and I managed to implement the new concepts in my daily professional life with remarkable results. Every time that I was learning about a new concept, I was understanding even more why Matt used to say that ‘PDIA is hard but worthwhile’.

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Coupling Action Learning and International Development

Guest blog written by Artem Shaipov

After completing the Implementing Public Policy Program and joining the IPP Community of Practice, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to work with a group of master students taking a class at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) titled, “Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) in Action: Development through facilitated emergence” (MLD 103).

The course objectives were to (i) introduce the students to the PDIA methodology and (ii) give them an opportunity to immediately apply what they learned in class to a specific policy challenge that I had a privilege to nominate. Working on advancing legal education reform in Ukraine, I asked the group of five students to approach the following development problem:

“The supply side of Ukraine’s legal system is inadequate for fulfilling the role and responsibilities of the legal profession in a modern democratic society, contributing to the legal system’s self-perpetuating failure to ensure the rule of law and deliver justice in Ukrainian society.”

To help the students get up to speed and hit the ground running, I provided them with a list of reading materials and other resources that gave them background information on their policy challenge and a list of stakeholders ranging from senior government officials, leaders of the bar to law deans, local experts, and student union leaders that the students could contact to learn more about the local context and better understand the problem they were about to start working on. This support was important to engage the students in problem solving from the start. One of the students reflected on this experience in the anonymous feedback: 

[Authorizer] was a great supporter of our work, and has provided excellent guidance in understanding the problem of legal education in Ukraine. He […] kept us highly engaged.

The course spanned seven weeks starting in January 2021. The  students met twice a week on Tuesdays for lectures delivered by Matt Andrews and Salimah Samji and Thursdays for check-ins with me as their authorizer. Each week, the students did research on the development problem, interviewed stakeholders, turned in individual and team assignments. Even after delivering their final presentation on March 11, 2021, the students willingly continued their action learning  to complete remaining interviews. When providing anonymous feedback, one of the team members even noted: 

“At first, I thought, this is kind of an abstract topic that I never really had any explicit interest in. But honestly, I really enjoyed using the PDIA process to explore this topic and learn more about Ukraine and the context in which challenges present themselves. [I]t was great to get into it as much as possible. I would be happy to support this USAID effort in the future.”

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If on a Winter’s Afternoon Four Policy Students …

Guest blog written by Nathalie Gazzaneo, Tendai Mvuvu, Rodrigo Tejada, Matt Weber

This is a blog series written by students at the Harvard Kennedy School who completed “PDIA in Action: Development Through Facilitated Emergence” (MLD 103) in March 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

On a winter’s afternoon in early February this year, a Mexican MPP1, a Brazilian MPP2, a Zimbabwean MC-MPA and an American MC-MPA randomly stepped up to the plate of abandoned projects in Nigeria. We, the four students and travelers, had never crossed our paths before (more accurately, we had never seen each other over Zoom). Additionally, none of us had ever worked in Nigeria. Before you think it could not get more chaotic, we had only 8 weeks to learn and experiment as much as we could on the assigned problem before coming up with novel and actionable ideas to expand its change space. Ready. Steady. Go! We weren’t ready, the journey wasn’t steady, but we definitely went on.

Maybe one of our first and most powerful realizations in our PDIA journey was that there was no silver bullet fix to the problem of abandoned projects in Nigeria. It took us two entire weeks to look at the problem with more curious and deconstructive eyes until we managed to draft a set of plausible causes and sub-causes that could be at its roots. We had to remain patient and above all curious and collaborative to shift from our initial planners approach to the searchers perspective required by the PDIA process.

As we deconstructed the problem through interviews and research, the Ishikawa fish diagram and the “five whys” heuristics helped us organize our insights in a meaningful fashion. At this stage, we also started to become more wary of our language usage versus our authorizer’s language usage (more on that later). And as our inquiry and knowledge deepened, so grew our ability to ask smarter questions and to find viable entry points.

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Teaching an Experiential Problem-based Class Online during the Pandemic

written by Salimah Samji

MLD 103M Students and their authorizers at the final class presentations on March 11, 2021

BSC Faculty Director Matt Andrews and I have been co-teaching PDIA in Action: Development through Facilitated Emergence at the Harvard Kennedy School since 2018. This is a field-lab class where students learn a research-oriented version of PDIA by working on real-world public problems – they learn by doing. The students work together in teams with an authorizer/client who gives them a problem to work on.

This year we had to teach this class virtually with students, as well as authorizers, based all around the world. We converted a 3-hour class on Monday evenings into two 75-minute classes on Tuesday and Thursday. To accommodate the various time zones, we offered two sections of the class. One at 7:30am and one at 4:30pm. Each week, students were required to complete a self-study module as well as a related assignment before class on Tuesday. We would review the assignments and use them to provide feedback, clarify concepts and answer any burning questions on the content, in our class session. The student teams would then meet on Thursday to complete their group assignment. Essentially, they went through the weekly content three times – on their own, in class with us, and in their teams – allowing for deeper engagement and learning.   

Learning from our experience last year, we asked the alumni of our HKS Implementing Public Policy (IPP) Executive Education program, if they wanted to nominate problems and work with our students. Eight IPP alumni, William Keith Young, Adaeze Oreh, Milzy Carrasco, Kevin Schilling, Artem Shaipov, George Imbenzi, David Wuyep, and Raphael Kenigsberg, who had been trained on PDIA and implementation, signed up to work with our students. They assigned the following challenges to our students:

  • Implementing reparations in Asheville, North Carolina
  • Tackling blood safety in Nigeria
  • Exploring police and community relations in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
  • Access to affordable childcare in Burien, Washington
  • Legal education reform in the Ukraine
  • Exploring trade between Kenya and Canada
  • Abandoned projects in Nigeria
  • Radicalization in France
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It’s about the P’s

Problem Construction, Perception, Process, People and Projection

Guest blog written by Cynthia Steinhauser

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 December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

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.

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Implementing Planning Reform Amid Great Disruption

Guest blog written by Oliver Luckhurst-Smith

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 December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

South Australia is one of the most affordable and liveable places in the world, with its capital, Adelaide, ranking the world’s 10th most liveable city according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Adelaide’s unique colonial design, with grid-pattern streets and lush belt of continuous make it an enviable destination to live and visit.

Despite Australia being ranked as a Top 20 Easiest Economy to do Business in, and Adelaide being the most competitive city in Australia to do business in, South Australia is currently in a sluggish state, with some of the highest unemployment in the country and an ageing population.

To counteract this lag behind other states, the South Australian Government is pursuing a Growth State agenda to increase the population, foster a skilled workforce and entice new industry to the state. While much of this is being completed in collaboration with the private sector, the Government is also putting an emphasis on becoming a low-cost jurisdiction; removing red-tape and streamlining existing services.

One addressable area is through simplifying and modernising the planning system, and is a policy area has piqued my interest for a number of years as an Advisor to the Lord Mayor of Adelaide.

Anyone needing to use the planning system in South Australia, whether it is because they are seeking to extend their home, convert a disused office building for their retail business, or build a multipurpose facility, must presently navigate up to 27,000 pages of planning rules, across 500 residential zones, with some 2,500 combinations of zones, overlays and spatial layers.

This causes issues not only for applicants, but for the bureaucrats at state and local government level who need to assess these development applications.

As evidenced through media reports, one council was found to take up to 50 days to approve minor developments such as garden sheds and pergolas. Worse, in some instances, a planning application to change land use could take up to 20 weeks for approval.

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