Building a Movement of Public Problem Solvers

written by Salimah Samji

Solving public problems is a hard and thankless job. One that is undertaken with a shortage of time as well as resources, and often under pressure to deliver results. A common approach used to solve public problems is to develop a plan, sometimes with experts, and then to assume that implementation will happen on autopilot. To quote Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.” The question is, what do you do after you get punched? Continue with your existing plan? Or do you learn from the punch? 

In the face of complex and interconnected public problems, approaches like plan and control often fail to provide results. We believe that flexible approaches which focus on problems, follow an iterative process, and allow for learning and adaptation are better suited. While public problem solvers agree, they often lack the know-how and tools to use alternative methods to plan and control. In addition to these capabilities, public problem solvers also find themselves feeling lonely and isolated. As Kirsten Wyatt, co-founder of Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) said in a recent podcast, “everyone is not lucky enough to be married to a bureaucrat.”

Our experience in training development practitioners and working directly with governments 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. We have learned that you cannot solve these problems alone – you need a team. However, working collaboratively is neither obvious nor innate. It is yet another muscle that needs to be built. You also need to engage with diverse stakeholders and constantly navigate difficult conversations which requires particular skills.  

Putting our learning into practice

Drawing from our experience, BSC designed Harvard Kennedy School’s first blended learning Executive Education Program Implementing Public Policy (IPP), in 2019. The objective of this 7-month program was to equip public problem solvers around the world, with the skills, tools, and strategies needed to successfully implement policies and programs. Participants were required to identify an implementation problem that they could work on resolving over the period of the program. The program was divided into four phases:

Phase 1: Online preparatory work. (May 2019). In this phase, participants completed two online modules that helped them reflect on their problem and to think about public policy success and failure. 

Phase 2: Learning the theory in the classroom. (June 2019). In this phase, participants explored the conditions under which different implementation methods like plan and control, adaptive management or agile, and facilitated emergence or PDIA, should be used. They also learned how to work collaboratively in teams, how to engage in difficult conversations, as well as, leadership, and management skills. The faculty included: Matt Andrews, David Eaves, Monica Higgins, Salimah Samji and Rob Wilkinson. We also invited Ganga Palakatiya and Alieu Nyei, whom we had worked with in Sri Lanka and Liberia, to share their experience trying to operationalize PDIA in their governments. Anisha Poobalan, who had worked with us in Sri Lanka as a PDIA coach, and had led our efforts to help build a community with the alumni of our PDIA online course, joined us to support the program participants in the action learning phase. 

Phase 3: Action learning in practice. (July – November 2019). In this phase, participants returned to their countries to apply the new tools and strategies they had learned to their implementation problems. They built teams, worked on self-study online modules, completed assignments and attended virtual peer learning group meetings every month.

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