Episode 11: Bandi Mbubi

BSC Director Salimah Samji interviews Implementing Public Policy (IPP) alum, Bandi Mbubi, to hear more about how he is utilizing what he learned in the program as he works to resolve public problems.

Bandi Mbubi has worked for the past twenty five years at the intersection of human rights and social justice, leading and managing organizations tackling mental health problems, homelessness, poverty and inequalities, gross human rights abuses and corruption. Through his advocacy work, some of which is featured on TED.com, he has been a leading voice in mobilizing policymakers and public opinion to demand greater corporate accountability as a tool to improve human rights in the global economy. He is currently the Director of the Manna Society and Trustee of Hilden Charitable Fund in the UK. To learn more about Bandi's IPP journey, read his BSC blog post, Congo Calling Rebooted, as well as Friendship, Energy, Innovation and Community: The Heart of the IPP Community and Fuel for Good, which he wrote alongside his fellow CoP moderators.

For more information on Harvard Kennedy School's Implementing Public Policy (IPP) program, visit the website, read about the PDIA approach, and access the PDIA toolkit.


Salimah Samji Hello and welcome to the practice of resolving public problems podcast series. My name is Salimah Samji and I am the director of Building State Capability at the Harvard Center for International Development. This new series on the practice of resolving public problems features interviews with alums of our Implementing Public Policy (IPP) executive program at the Harvard Kennedy School. The episodes will focus on how our alums are using the PDIA tools and approach in designing and implementing public policy. We hope you enjoy them. Today, I'm speaking with Bandi Mbubi, who has worked for the past twenty five years at the intersection of human rights and social justice, leading and managing organizations tackling mental health problems, homelessness, poverty and inequalities, gross human rights abuses and corruption. Through his advocacy work, some of which is featured on TED.com, he has been a leading voice in mobilizing policymakers and public opinion to demand greater corporate accountability as a tool to improve human rights in the global economy. He is currently the director of the Manna Society, trustee of Hilden Charitable Fund in the UK. He completed our IPP program in December 2019 and has served as moderator for IPP Community of Practice. Welcome Bandi.

Bandi Mbubi Thank you, Salimah.

Salimah Samji So let's get started. It's been over two years since you completed the IPP program. What do you still remember as being useful?

Bandi Mbubi There were actually a lot of things that I remember as being useful. But I'm spoiled with this choice, but if I had to choose one, I would say that what stood out for me was the fact that I think for the very first time, I understood why it's not always a good idea to pick up good practice from any resource book or anything that you've come across. Because you really don't know why that good practice was developed. And I think through the IPP program, I understood why that was the case. And I was able to understand that whilst it is a good idea to look at what other people have done and what lessons they've learned from whatever they've come up with, it's always a good idea to understand what are the problems you're dealing with in order for you to come up with effective policies. And you may end up actually applying some of the learning from good practice, but it's always a good idea to start from the point of view of understanding the problems you tackling. And I thought that was really, really insightful, and it was one of the things that I still try to practice in my work, and I thought it was worth the trip for me to come to Harvard to learn that.

Salimah Samji Can you share some examples about how you've been using what you learned in the program?

Bandi Mbubi The program for me was an opportunity to really reassess, to evaluate my own practice. I had acquired a lot of experience doing public policy, but I never really took the time to reflect on my own practice. So doing the program, I was able to use the program as a mirror to my own practice and what I was doing up to that stage and compare what I had learned through practice, compare that with what I was learning in the program. And some of the learning has being developed through what has actually taken place after I had graduated. So, for instance, through the program, there is a good component on team leadership, and I did find that very useful, especially during this particular moment when we've all been through the pandemic. And in one of my jobs, because I do several jobs, one of my jobs I do it's to do with working with homeless people. And during the pandemic, it has been important to come up with policies that address especially public health vis-a-vis homeless people. And because it has been a period of crisis, it has been also important to not only think about what is effective in terms of policies that address homelessness, but it has also been important for me to think about how do I lead my team in order to assist me in coming up with all those ways to help homeless people during this crisis period? And what stood out for me in terms of my learning from the program has actually been not really just listening to my team, but really getting them to own whatever we were doing. And there is this component that is part of the program that addresses that. There was a casework that we all had to learn about the Orpheus theater company that actually has no conductor, which is amazing. How do you lead an orchestra without a conductor? It's not been done before and there was a lot of learning through that. So during this crisis, for me as a team leader, it has been about looking at how I could get my team, not just to listen to them, but really get them to own what we were doing in relation to homeless people. And that has been amazing for me. So that is one thing that I have been able to practice that I wouldn't have probably practiced before. Before I would have probably thought of myself as a listening manager, somebody who listens to the team. But after the program, I was able to understand that you shouldn't just listen to the team, but you should actually find ways to get the team to own the decision making. And once you do that, you are amazed at how you know you come up with solutions that you couldn't have thought about.

Salimah Samji Have you shared, you know, you've talked about your team and creating it? Have you shared your learning with your colleagues?

Bandi Mbubi That's one thing I haven't done because I refrain from being a lecturer, and actually the circumstances of not warranted me sharing my learning from Harvard. It has been much more a change in myself as opposed to changing the team. But in changing myself, it has also changed the dynamic within the team. Because I've been equipped with things that I did not have before. So, for instance, as a manager, you are always afraid to lose control. How do you manage that? So, for instance, in my team, in the way I lead my team, I've been able to relinquish power without being afraid. But in so doing, people have felt equipped to take some decisions on their own and feel able to run with things. I'll give you a very good example. So, for instance, when I was working out, how do we come up with policies around, you know, how many people can you have within the center in one time? And if those changes that we all have to deal with, people within the team felt equipped to come up with ideas and proposals that maybe before they wouldn't have done because they would have probably relied on me as suggesting all the way through what needed to be done. So people felt equipped to do certain things that otherwise they wouldn't have done. But all that wouldn't have happened without me equipping myself. So sometimes it's not so much about you coming and unloading everything you've learned, but it's about changing yourself and, in changing yourself, you change the dynamic within your team. And that's what has been amazing for me.

Salimah Samji That's really powerful, know this idea of leading by example and then creating psychological safety in your team for people to feel that they can step up. That's definitely very powerful. Bundy, you've been a moderator for our IP community of practice. What does the community of practice mean to you?

Bandi Mbubi Oh, it's a place where I get refreshed by new ideas. It's amazing the kind of the richness that we have within our cohort, the 2019, which is a special group, amazing people, but also other cohorts that have come after. So sometimes it's very passive in terms of what people are able to share about what they are already doing. But sometimes it's being able to reach out to some of my colleagues when I'm experiencing difficulties and them giving me a listening ear. So all those things have come about because of this program. So as a moderator, I've also been able to facilitate how people can engage with each other. So, you know, in giving, often we receive. So that's what IPP has meant for me. And also being a moderator has meant for me facilitating others to benefit from what other people can bring to them and to their journeys.

Salimah Samji In this podcast, I'm doing a series of rapid fire questions, so I'll ask you those, what are you currently reading?

Bandi Mbubi Well, I'm actually reading something which some people might think is boring, but I find interesting. Because, you know, one of the things that I've been doing recently is going back to stuff that I didn't really have time to read properly when I was doing the program and one of them, it's a journal article, was written by Jo Casebourne and the title just in case people want to know it's "Why Motivation Matters in Public Policy Innovation". And part of the reason why I'm reading that, it's really to look at my own motivation and also the motivation of others. I found it interesting. How do you motivate yourself? How do you motivate others? Now, this article is really meant for people like myself, because I've been much more in public service. And it looks at what motivates people who are interested in public service and why they're interested, and what actually do they gain from it? So it talks about things like, you know, those who are interested in public service and not always interested in it because they want to gain money because there's not much money to be made out of it. But there is this intrinsic motivation which is really wanting common good, basically. So I have found it interesting and I've been sort of mulling over it, and that's one thing I've been reading recently.

Salimah Samji And what's your favorite part of the PDIA process?

Bandi Mbubi I think it's the politics of PDIA. I do find it fascinating. Because for me, the beauty of the PDIA program is not just being able to identify the problems you're tackling, but once you've understood what the problems are, sometimes, especially for activists like myself who are not always in a position of power, I don't lead big departments, but I lead a nonprofit mostly, and those nonprofits rely on mobilizing people in order to achieve common good. But how do you do it? But there is a lot of politics involved, and that's what PDIA gives you. So, for instance, it gives you the ability to understand the tension there is between being able to create a policy that is effective and functional and achieves the goals that you set out to achieve, but also not neglecting the legitimacy that you need to acquire in order to be able to be entrusted with the ability to make that change happen. And all that politics that is involved, PDIA gives you that politics. It talks about how you always have to be conscious about the abilities that you have, not just in terms of your personal abilities, but also in terms of the resources that are available. But more than that, you also need to be able to understand who are the power holders here. Who actually call the shots here and being able to understand how you can actually speak to their interest in order to achieve the very good that you want to achieve for common good. And then in addition to that, they need to be able to understand that you need to get acceptance from the people who are ultimately the beneficiaries, because often policymakers unfortunately think about what would appeal, generally speaking, but they sometimes neglect the beneficiaries. So all that holistic approach is what I find amazing. The politics, I call it the politics of PDIA. And it's been good. It's been a good journey.

Salimah Samji What advice do you have for people trying to work on public problems?

Bandi Mbubi I would really say understand what the problems are, and there's always a temptation for public policy makers to jump into the solution. Sometimes you can't understand what the problem is. You know, you're trying to use a hammer for something that is different and using hammer would actually break everything. So I would say understand what the problem is, what problem are you tackling and then move from that. Even if you were given some amazing good practice, always ask yourself why that good practice was developed. And ask yourself, what are you facing and how that good practice may inspire you but don't just take a good practice off the shelf and then try to practice it. You will fail.

Salimah Samji Wonderful, I think our listeners will find your advice extremely useful. Thank you so much for joining us and for sharing your experience with us, Bandi.

Bandi Mbubi Thank you.

Salimah Samji Thank you for listening to our podcast today. If you liked it, please check out our website bsc.cid.harvard.edu. Or follow us on social media @HarvardBSC. You can also find links and other information under the description of this podcast.