‘Don’t be so invested in the solution that you’re unwilling to change course’

Guest blog by Alexandra Bhatti

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.

What an exciting, challenging, eye-opening learning and growing experience this has been for me. When I first explored the course, I was skeptical about the ratio of theoretical learning versus practice-based learning I would experience as I have spent many years studying “policy” and related fields. Listening to alumni feedback encouraged me to pursue the course, nevertheless.  Immediately I realized this was going to be a fantastic course and it began challenging my biases and the way I approached policy development and implementation – beginning with the “challenge” I identified.

Let’s start there.  My initial policy challenge was trying to operationalize non-traditional vaccine delivery sites and provider types. I soon realized that this was not the actual challenge I was trying to address and had to continue to diagnose the actual problem I was trying to solve for with vaccine delivery systems – and that was that adult vaccine uptake remains low in comparison to children and pediatrics, and further we see disparities in particular population types.

While I think the entire course has proven to be such an incredible learning and growing experience for me, there are few areas I wanted to highlight.

First understanding the pitfalls of problem and construction and deconstruction has stuck with me.  Not only am I more self-aware of those pitfalls, like solution bias, I am also listening for this with my colleagues. I think this is such a critical concept to understand and implement to optimize your chance of success in policy implementation.

Second, is understanding your stakeholders and the different roles needed in policy implementation (e.g. idea people, authorizers, etc.) This helps us not only better understand and profile our stakeholders but also helps us identify gaps. It also is a great first step in understanding the priorities of the stakeholders.

Third, is the supreme importance of a compelling and succinct problem narrative that resonates with the individuals you are trying to mobilize and gain buy-in from. As a scientist and attorney, I often want to create a memo supported by evidence describing how important this policy issue is – and because I am so invested in; however, the decision-makers, whom I am engaging with 1) are not as invested – yet; 2) I have a good 5 minutes max to make my pitch and have to maximize the time I have.

Lastly, being in public health, specifically in the vaccine space, during a global pandemic has been supremely challenging. I felt the sections around time management, organizational norms and burn out, and leadership were so timely and critical for me.  Not only was I trying to implement certain behavior changes (not always successfully), but I also have been sharing these concepts with my colleagues – particularly that of changing organizational norms.

Regarding progress toward my policy challenge, its been exciting that I have been able to rally leadership support around the entry points I am focusing on.  What I have realized is that these different entry points are so different and complex that perhaps in the future, I would narrow my scope further.  Regardless, I have a number of sub-projects underway, focused on addressing the blue boxes in the fishbone diagram here.

Already, I have integrated PDIA into my team’s workstream.  Below you will see a MURAL board that I supported my team in developed and brainstorming through. As I mentioned before, having a narrower scope was one of my lessons learned moving forward. I worked with my team on discussing a policy challenge a few of my colleagues were experiencing at the state level. 

We soon realized that there were two distinct challenges and each needed to have a separate root cause analyses completed. I encouraged the team to go through the 5-why, develop a fishbone, and use the triple A approach to begin to identify potential entry points. Because we went through this process, we realized there were many unknowns still and we were better positioned to identify what those were and begin to plan next steps for addressing the unknowns.

Above all, this course further underscored the importance of perseverance, grit, and flexibility when working to solve policy challenges. We are passionate about our work and often get deeply invested in it, as a result when we are faced with setbacks and delays, it can be disappointing and hard to rally, so to speak.  I did not have immediate success with address my policy challenge but iterating and adapting are the heart of PDIA. My advice is to not let your personal investment in the policy challenge cloud good judgment and inhibit pivoting and changing course as needed.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this course was the team work. Our Health Group was incredible and inspiring.  We supported and encouraged each other when challenges arose and celebrated each other’s successes as well.  Thank you, HKS, for this amazing and memorable experience.

Learn more about the Implementing Public Policy (IPP) Community of Practice and visit the course website to apply.

A half-empty glass and the joy of “failing forward”

Guest blog by Silverio Zebral Filho

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’ve started my PDIA journey 6 months ago, interested in gaining a deeper learning about alternative approaches to tackle a wicked (ill-defined, multi-sourced, technically complex and politically sensitive) problem in the context of large institutional divergence (weak rules, strong social norms), lack of state capacity, declining interpersonal trust and confidence in government, gradually leading to social decohesion and violence – all boosted by the presence of transnational crime in several societal domains. 

Our challenge was to help The Office of the Presidency of Government of Honduras in improving transparency and accountability in country public sector, targeting a reduction of 20% on corruption victimization measured by the “control of corruption” indicator of MCC BSC Honduras FY2021. This reduction was instrumental to qualify Honduras to apply for a second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) award starting in 2021, estimated in USD 255 millions.

Continue reading A half-empty glass and the joy of “failing forward”

Anticipatory Government

Guest blog by Urkhan Seyidov

Urkhan Seyidov is an expert in the field of innovation and strategic communication, a senior fellow of the Center for Political Psychology in Azerbaijan, and the author of two books: Innovation – Implementation Guidelines and Soft power and Public Diplomacy of Azerbaijan in the Digital Age. 

Imagine a gleaming government office tower in a modern city. Inside, new computers sit on every desk and flat screens line the walls. The 5G Internet connection ensures that the word’s data is a nanosecond away. As you pass through the revolving door into the lobby, a bureaucrat with a clipboard and pencil scribbles down your name and your business on a triplicate form and hustles away to the warren of offices behind the glass door. When the worker returns, you ask why he didn’t simply use the computer.

This is how we’ve always done it, he replies.

Continue reading Anticipatory Government

Fast-tracking Nigeria’s economic recovery

Guest blog by Member Feese

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 registered for the course my conception of public policy was the public definition – a course of action developed by a government in response to public problems. However, I was pleasantly surprised when the course began. I realised that public policy is not only for government but for all citizens that want to make a positive impact in society.

I came into the course with a goal to developing a policy that will help to reduce the level of poverty in the Nigeria. Nigeria is one of the most resourced countries in the world, in terms of human and endowments, yet with a high poverty rate of over 40.1 percent of total population being classified as poor in 2019 (National Bureau of Statistics). This translates to over 82.9 million Nigerians estimated to live below the poverty line. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, the figure is projected to have increased astronomically especially among Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), due to production slowdown, movement restriction and lockdown which resulted in supply chain disruption.

To address this challenge I knew I wanted to focus on infrastructure however, I was not sure of where to begin. I avoided focusing on capacity building and access to finance as they have been done numerous times and failed to reduce the level of poverty. The government, corporate institutions and individuals have spent resources training entrepreneurs and linking them to funds to start or expand their businesses. However, the cost of doing business has consumed a large portion of the funds. The Nigerian society is plagued with poor infrastructure such as erratic power and water supply and poor transportation facilities which affects the productivity and profits of MSMEs. As a result, I identified the need to address infrastructure.

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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.

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

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.

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

‘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.”

Continue reading Coupling Action Learning and International Development