Bringing the Field to the Classroom: Learning to do PDIA in Practice

written by Salimah Samji

Implementation is hard. It is often the weakest link in the success of a policy or program. Yet, public policy education remains focused on teaching students to design and analyze policies. As Francis Fukuyama aptly wrote, “most programs train students to become capable policy analysts, but with no understanding of how to implement those policies in the real world,” and “the world is littered with optimal policies that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being adopted.”

BSC Faculty Director, Matt Andrews, has been teaching Getting Things Done: Management in a Development Context, at the Harvard Kennedy School for over a decade. In this course, students learn how public policy implementation can be improved and made more effective. They learn how to identify the nature of the implementation problem they are working on and then how to match their challenge to the appropriate management approach: plan and control, adaptive methods, and facilitated emergence. They also learn about blended approaches and how a “blend” would work. 

In the face of complex implementation challenges, we believe that practitioners should be using more facilitated emergence methods, where the focus is on problems (not solutions), follows a step-by-step process (not a rigid long-term plan), and allows for flexible learning and adaptation (instead of control-oriented implementation). While many practitioners agree that more flexible approaches are needed, they do not know “how” to use alternative methods to plan and control. Our experience with direct policy engagements and executive training for development practitioners around the world, has taught us that action learning is crucial for building the muscle memory of solving complex problems: the only way to learn is by doing.

In response to this, we developed a new course module in 2018: PDIA in Action: Development through Facilitated Emergence. Our objective was to allow students to apply a research-oriented version of PDIA – to learn how to incorporate facilitated emergence within a rapidly applied team-based research strategy. 

A key component of this course has been providing the students with an opportunity to work on real-world problems with people who are familiar with the PDIA approach. In the previous years, students have worked with government teams with whom we have had direct policy engagements. This year, we asked the alumni of our Implementing Public Policy (IPP) executive education program if they were interested in providing real-world policy problems they were facing and whether they wanted to be the authorizer or client for our students. 

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IPP Program Journey: From South Africa To Boston and Back

Guest blog written by Nkere Skosana

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

From the moment I saw the advert on Twitter and read through the content provided, something just told me this is the real deal. I felt there was no way I could not find more about the course. It has always been my approach not to do any academic course for the sake of just obtaining a qualification but to engage in a course that speaks to real issues that we get confronted with as Public Servants on a daily basis.

The initial assignment already gave a hint of what was to come and the approach in terms of policy analysis and implementation. Breaking down the policy challenge in terms of who the critical stakeholders are, determining upfront what meaning of success one has to attach to its implementation was key. 

Getting to HKS, one was struck by the diversity of participants in the course from all walks of life and different continents. Amazingly, there were lots of similarities in terms of the challenges we encounter in our policy environments. The course turned out to be more than what I had expected. It was more interactive and practical and the wealth of experience and knowledge from the team of experts presenting was exceptional.

The course leader provided insights into experiences from different continents and the examples of real life situations and the kind of challenges encountered helped to us to realise that PDIA is not a theoretical but practical approach to policy implementation.

Some key learnings

One of the key insights from the course was the distinction between the Plan and Control policies which most institutions use and PDIA. The former may be useful in ensuring the achievement of policy products on time and within budget and this becomes the drill. PDIA on the other hand seeks to drill down to the heart of the problem, explore a variety of options and ensures that policy impacts are achieved which is what people mostly are looking for. 

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IPP Program Journey: Re-Enforcement of Passion for Public Service

Guest blog written by Idiat Adebule

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

At some points in one’s life, certain decisions are made without necessarily knowing the outcome, such was my experience whilst on the Implementing Public Policy Programme. Having worked at the heart of government at the state level for eight consecutive years; first, as the Secretary to the State Government (2011-2015) and later as the Deputy Governor of Lagos State (2015-2019); I have witnessed different cycles of public policy formulation which are usually targeted at addressing societal challenges. Many have been very successful, a few have failed to meet its objectives, whilst some are still at different stages of policy development which include the State Policy on Civic Engagement whose implementation office was under my supervision up until May 2019. 

However, as I was preparing to exit office, the obligation and interest to continue to contribute intellectually to the real issues of development of the state motivated me to sign on to the IPP course. Hence, it was a choice made majorly to enhance personal growth and development as well as expand my frontier of learning beyond my field of study, therefore, choosing HKS was an easy call to make considering its global reputation and capacity. Interestingly, the experience has been life changing having encountered new and innovative learning methods that challenges the mind to do more of continuous personal reflection, reassessment and developing sustainable solution to problems.

The main kernel of my work was to interrogate the impact of “Effective Public Participation in the Governance Process”. The intention was to engage members of the public to find agreeable and acceptable modes and platforms of engagement that will open up space for majority of citizens to effectively participate in the electioneering, policy formulation and governance processes, especially for a state with population estimated at 22 million in a way that highly significant number of this population will participate and not only  showing  interest  which are not the same as grasped in the course of the field work.  Of great concern, were figures recorded during the February, 2019 general elections in Lagos State which revealed voter apathy as less than 1.2million out of 6.59million registered voters (18.9%) participated. The implication was that only about 5% of the total population of the State decided those who will govern it at both legislative and executive arms of government leaving out a huge number of eligible citizens that could have increased the data or made a difference.  

Against this background, the IPP programme offered an opportunity to learn from authorities on public policy implementation who have moved away from the traditional project methodology to an innovative approach called the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) in solving the most intransigent policy problems around the world. Indeed, the meeting sessions in Boston were moments of illumination and empowerment for participants that are already dealing with policy design and implementation issues and a good integration for participants who are new to the subject. In summary, it offers genuine prospect for building capability. 

Continue reading IPP Program Journey: Re-Enforcement of Passion for Public Service

IPP Program Journey: You Need to be Brave

Guest blog written by Margaret MacDonald

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

Coming into the Implementing Public Policy course I felt a little nervous. I wasn’t familiar with problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA). I think I expected a prescriptive methodology and wasn’t sure if or how I would be able to apply the theory learned to my work. From the first assignments though the course work and theoretical components were obviously grounded in real-world observations because it was easy to think of examples from my own work experience that reflected the theory; for example – the distinction between functional success and legitimacy success really resonated for me. I really appreciated too that the strategies and tactics explored steered us away from searching for elusive “silver bullet” theories, approaches, or best practices and towards digging into a problem with those affected.

Instead modules focused on things like the importance of defining the problem and defining problems in a way that make it clear why they matter. In my experience we waste a lot of effort working on problems that are ill-defined or even implementing solutions because they solved a problem somewhere else. My experience is also that a lot of work is shaped significantly by existing processes or structures rather than by how that work moves us closer to desired outcomes. It can be difficult (and sometimes maybe not reasonably possible) for us to stop a project mid-stream if we are tracking towards project success based on success measures that were poorly defined or describe project markers rather than progress towards outcomes. The course has reinforced for me that complaints are a source of possible improvements rather than a disruptive detour.  

My colleagues on the course really helped to motivate me to push on. Seeing the complexity and enormity of some of the problems they are working on and their perseverance and enthusiasm in the face of that was both humbling and motivating. I really liked being able to connect with some other municipal government employees too. Their experiences were similar to mine and I could see a desire in all of them to make their local environments better places. Encouragement from the course instructors and promptings from Anisha Poobalan were helpful and motivating! PDIA more generally was motivating because it requires you to define your problem clearly and to be clear about why the problem matters – this is not only motivating to authorizers but to implementers as well. Keeping the end in mind helps with day to day motivation when the steps along the way can be a slog and when it is hard to find the time with so many competing priorities.

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IPP Program Journey: A Bridge to Sustainable Development begins with Purpose

Guest blog written by Lorena Fabrega

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

After 25-years-experience in the private sector, steering the course of a professional career towards public service is challenging.  Implementing Public Policy came to me at such a moment, when I knew I cared and was willing to take risks.  

Knowing I had the ability to make a difference was enough to seek serving my country to achieve sustainable development goals.  However, nothing had prepared me foray into the public arena, and the Executive Program at Harvard’s School of Government seemed the perfect starting point. Searching for purpose, guidance and legitimacy, I luckily joined the 2019 IPP cohort.

Being a lobbyist for sustainable development policies had been my dream job since the beginning. But building a team, when I was in between jobs, and pursuing a specific policy proved to be my biggest challenge: I did not find it. It chose me in the unlikeliest of moments: the pandemic.

To focus on the problem, not the solution

Less than a year before the pandemic (B.P.), in May 2019 professor Matt Andrews asked us to define Public Policy Implementation; our first assignment into the course, I was reluctant to focus the definition on the problem, and so I declared that it was the design and execution of a response to further the public’s best interest.

It took at least two days into the on-campus part of the program for me to accept the value of focusing on what, for many years, most managers ask their teams not to do: you may not present me with problems unless you come with at least two possible solutions!  I even gave them “the face” when they came up to me with an issue, and they quickly turned back on their steps to figure out a possible answer to complicated and even complex problems on their own. I asked that they jump into possible solutions, without examining the problem in depth…without deconstructing it.

The basic switch on focus, to examine the problem and not the solution, is the biggest and most impactful of the theory behind Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA). Constructing the problem, which is to make it visible to those that matter, or those that it should matter to, is easier when you have mapped out why the different authorizers care or should care about it in order to secure resources: abilities, authorization and acceptance.  This triple A combo sums up the capabilities on board, or the lack thereof, to achieve successful policies.

But the easiest thing, almost instinctive, is to jump towards a solution or solutions for problems we have not deconstructed, an exercise needed to understand actions or responses that will be tried out. When deconstructing a problem, we understand the impact of such a problem, its ramifications, and why it needs our intervention.

Solutions create new problems

Halfway through the on-campus part of the program, reading that complex problems are not solved but managed, and that our policies create new problems made me stop. I mean full stop.  I breathed deeply and wondered if it was all worth it… maybe I should stick to the private sector.  Policies are ongoing, never finished, evolving continually and indefinitely. 

Continue reading IPP Program Journey: A Bridge to Sustainable Development begins with Purpose

IPP Program Journey: The Origins, Gospel, Path and Light at the End of the Tunnel

Guest blog written by Luis Paredes

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

My new IPP Family

When I decided to apply for the Program, I was not sure I would get accepted! With all the complicated crises around the globe, I thought my country’s problems were not that hard to solve or -even- that important. Happily, I was totally mistaken. Once I arrived in Boston and interacted with each of the amazing group of participants, I realized I was in the right place. I could not believe that we shared almost the same problems no matter where we live!

The gospel …

As for my expectations about the course, well I thought it would be a very theoretical, book-oriented program with some interaction spaces and lots of academic work to do!

Of course, I was not totally mistaken! At HKS we had lots of readings, study sessions, and classes with world-class faculty. But it was not entirely theoretical, boring or book oriented. We really learned by listening and participating through the debates and experiences of our professors…

Of course, we had some fun too! I really enjoyed the on-campus experience.

The airplane exercise in class

One of the key learnings from this course is that your work is never really done. PDIA is based on iterations, permanently trying to understand the problem in a better way to find comprehensive solutions for our citizens. These iterations are at the core of the whole process because they help to identify and manage the problem.

Continue reading IPP Program Journey: The Origins, Gospel, Path and Light at the End of the Tunnel

IPP Program Journey: Poor Tax Collection in Nigeria

Guest blog written by Fuad Kayode Laguda

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

I must disclose that coming for this course was a product of careful decision-making and determination. It is not easy combining my job schedules with the academic tasks. The course structure, coupled with the quality of the administrators, lecturers and fellow colleagues, actually surpasses my expectations. It exposed me to improved patience, persistence, importance of building, having a team, diverse way of solving problems and formulating policy. This course has allowed me to understand and showcase the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) to my authorisers and other decision makers.

The key learnings were too numerous to explain in details. However, I will not forget the “Fishbone” as well as the sequential techniques of problem solving. IPP has enriched my proficiency in critical thinking and programmatic application of various approaches to identifying and solving complex problems through strong network for consultation and collaboration as well as partnership for actions with different national or corporate decision makers.

However, IPP has made me more confident, courageous in handling data and emphasis on the importance of mobilising and working with a team(s) to implement the data. 

This course has taught me to appreciate little successes and that every effort taken to solve challenges are not a waste. It builds me for connecting with authority and building legitimacy around my actions. It has allowed me look for opportunity in the problems I proposed to solve. 

The IPP networking system is highly remarkable to the extent that implementation of the instructions, ideas and policy innovations passed in the classes (on-site and off-site) becomes successfully feasible. PDIA is a remarkable learning for me because it opens my eyes to gaining the confidence of authorisers through the cultivation of informal engagement with them. PDIA taught me to manage constructively every shortfall and celebrate every slight achievement.    

Continue reading IPP Program Journey: Poor Tax Collection in Nigeria

IPP Program Journey: A Professional Watershed in a Land of Climate Change

Guest blog written by David Sperling

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

I was optimistic: I knew the course would be useful and would help me understand better, at least in theory, how one might best go about implementing a public policy decision. Little did I realize what a profound impact the course was going to have on my professional work. I never imagined that something like PDIA existed, much less that it would be applicable in a highly practical way to my own policy challenge, working as I was, and am, with agricultural pastoralists in the dry region of Turkana County in northern Kenya. The progressive practical application of new ideas and concepts throughout the course was invaluably useful.  What I have learned far exceeded my expectations. 

My key learning moments during the course came about because of its: 1) comprehensive deep analysis of the dynamic context of public policy challenges; and 2) the accompanying creation of “implementation capability”. The definitional ideas/concepts especially useful to me were:

–  the core idea of deconstructing the “meta-problem” into its multiple dimensions and then pursuing a “problem-driven sequencing” solution;

– the ideas of “state capability”, “premature load bearing” and “isomorphic mimicry”;

– the distinction between “project completion and success” and “policy impact success”;

– the fact that there is an “authorizing environment”, not just authorizers, and that authorization needs to be maintained; it’s not self-sustaining or self-perpetuating;

– the difference between “functional success” and “legitimacy success”;

– the concept of “capability taxonomy” and the “organizational capability” needed to implement public policy;

– the “triple-A” factors of authority, acceptance and ability that characterize “change space”.

Other key learning moments came about because of the specific questions like: “What did you manage to do in these last few weeks? What questions do you have moving ahead? How have you managed up? What did you learn as you did this work? List the new people you have met and engaged with in the last three weeks”. These questions needed action-answers. No waffling! The Assignments were most helpful. They required me to be hard-nosed and specific in assessing progress and planning for the future, and more accountable to myself, constantly asking real-life and real-work questions about past progress, present initiatives and future planned action. I wasn’t used to asking myself such questions. The course has helped better define, and raise the standard of, my self-accountability.

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IPP Program Journey: Public Policy is Not only about Ticking the Checkboxes

Guest blog written by Oluwole Pratt

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

In terms of the quality and content of learning, I received what I was expecting from a world class faculty. What I didn’t expect was the level of support I received throughout my policy implementation journey, which is phenomenal. 

I obtained a better perspective into the two main dimensions of public policy success (functionality and legitimacy) and that it is equally important to keep the two in view when implementing any public policy intervention. I also learned that obtaining and maintaining authorization in implementing public policy is key to success. Maintaining authorization is an iterative process that can only be reinforced through continual and effective communication with our authorizers. And finally, I learned that implementing public policy requires a lot of grit and determination to succeed; we would need to learn how to self-motivate while keeping our team members equally motivated. Overall, there is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to public policy problems, and that we must adapt our solutions to the local context in which we implement public policy and adapt our strategy to the changing policy environment. 

I made progress by achieving some degree of functionality success, i.e. submitting my deliverables against agreed timelines. Most importantly, I discovered that authorization is not a constant and one should continually be checking the status of one’s authorization and recalibrate if one is to achieve legitimacy success.

As a consultant, I operate under a slightly different mindset; I have a contractual obligation to fulfill, which is largely within the functionality dimension of success. That notwithstanding, I have come to the realization that public policy is not just about ticking the checkboxes of my deliverables, it impacts the lives and destinies of real people. My overriding motivation is and therefore will continue to be, to make a sustainable impact in my public policy interventions rather being a mere ‘flash in the pan’.

Continue reading IPP Program Journey: Public Policy is Not only about Ticking the Checkboxes

IPP Program Journey: Adapt, Learn and Win

Guest blog written by Kanoo Hana

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 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

After the last few months listening, observing and learning we finally come to the end of this very interesting programme. I feel that we are still engaged with all our classmates and faculty, deconstructing and reconstructing all our concepts.

The programme lasted seven months with participants meeting in-person for only a week, but engaging via calls and online for weeks. I have taken a few executive educational programmes at Harvard Kennedy School and this programme was everything that I expected. The programme on campus was structured very well. This in my opinion is important so that participants can actually start learning and taking in information to develop the skills needed.

The key leanings from this programme included the following,

  • Understanding that there are constant issues and problems that need to be dealt with
  • That there are scenarios that need the use of various tools and skills that can be developed
  • We need to continuously grow authority
  • We need to continuously work on our legitimacy and ensure functionality
  • Develop a learning culture at work
  • Take small cumulative steps  
  • Maintain authorization
  • Maintain your teams, focus and navigate
  • Stay motivated

So, I feel that I learnt a lot about a process that is continuous and needs to be constantly worked on

Continue reading IPP Program Journey: Adapt, Learn and Win