Episode 3: Eleanor Sarpong

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

Eleanor Sarpong co-leads the Alliance for Affordable Internet Initiative, housed under the World Wide Web Foundation. As the Deputy Director and Policy Lead, she is responsible for policy and advocacy efforts in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and works closely with governments advocating for policy change to promote affordable internet access. A public policy expert with 19 years experience in the private, public, and not for profit sectors, her expertise include ICT regulation, taxation, access, connectivity, universal service and data protection. To learn more about Eleanor's IPP journey, read her BSC blog post, PDIA is a Journey about How to Engage, as well as Practice Makes Purpose, which she wrote alongside her 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 third episode of the Practice of Resolving Public Problems podcast series. My name is Salimah Samji and I'm 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 Eleanor Sarpong, who co-leads the Alliance for Affordable Internet Initiative, housed under the World Wide Web Foundation. As the Deputy Director and Policy Lead, she is responsible for policy and advocacy efforts in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and works closely with governments advocating for policy change to promote affordable internet access. A public policy expert with 19 years experience in the private, public, and not for profit sectors, her expertise include ICT regulation, taxation, access, connectivity, universal service and data protection. Eleanor completed our IPP program in December 2019 and was one of our first moderators of the IPP community of practice. Welcome, Eleanor. 

Eleanor Sarpong Thank you, Salimah. It's so great to see you. 

Salimah Samji Yeah, it's wonderful to see you, too. So let's begin. You know, it's been almost two years since you've completed the IPP program. What do you still remember as being useful? 

Eleanor Sarpong Oh, dear. I mean, this program has been life changing for me. It's still so useful in many ways. I would start with first problem solving. Identifying the problem has been one of the most useful tools. Because before I joined this program, yes, I was doing public policy, but then I liked the PDIA approach because of how we looked at problem definition, constructing the problem and then deconstructing the problem as well. And you know, the kind of questions that we ask when we are going through that process has been one that has stuck with all my teams. When we come and I say, what's the problem? And anyone says it's a lack of them. Like, hold it there. It's not a lack of. Don't use the word "lack". Let's go straight to the problem. Is a poor internet access? Is it low connectivity? That we're not going to use "lack". So, when we in a meeting and anybody say "it's lack of" everybody just starts giggling because they know that I'm going to come down hard and say, no, that's not how to approach it. But then, you know, when we go through the various other aspects like why does this matter? To whom does it matter? Things become much, much clearer for everyone. And this has been one of the very, very useful tools that I've taken to my team. We use it at all external engagements and consulting that we do now, and we work with a number of national governments. And when we start going through that process, you can see the difference it makes by the time we get to the end. And now defining what the problem is because everybody feels like they are part of the process and coming back to the problem, deconstructing as well. When we go through the five whys and just making sure that we develop a fishbone to be able to identify where the root causes of a problem is. And that helps us in order to find out what the entry points are. Those are very, very useful tools. And what's so exciting about that is because it's usually crowdsourced if everybody collaborates to get us to the root of the problem, and it's been one that has been extremely useful in many ways. 

Salimah Samji Wonderful. Thank you so much, Eleanor. I particularly like you're eliminating the word lack of right because what we've found and as you learnt, is people often say they're working on problems, but they frame problems as a lack of a solution. And being able to make a difference between solving a problem and framing something as selling a solution is kind of the first step of this process. So I'm really glad to hear that that was something that you did take away from this program. Now, you know, you came to this program yourself, you were changed. Your organization did not go through the process of learning. How did you bring change to your organization? 

Eleanor Sarpong Oh, I baptized them in PDIA. Actually, when I went back, what I did was still like an evangelist, really. The first thing I did was to say, look, we've been looking at the policy building process in a very different way, but this let's just look at this approach as well. And there were a few people who are a bit hesitant because they were used to the plan and control, go through the various, you know, process of policymaking. But I managed to get one or two allies who after we did a project together, they saw it and they also liked it because it was very simple and it was one that, you know, the process of iteration that has been built and it makes it very, very flexible as well. So we've been able to take on aspects of it, especially in the problem definition parts, as I mentioned. So it's constructing the problem and deconstructing. Another area that's also been very useful is in identifying stakeholders, not just the relationship between you and the stakeholders, but also the interrelationships have also been very critical as well. So it was just about starting with allies, first few allies getting them on board, and once they also became champions, we had a whole field of people who are very excited about it. They also went on to become evangelists, you know. So we are building a movement in my organization with PDIA really. 

Salimah Samji I love the language, even that you're using of baptism and evangelizing. But I think what I particularly like, Eleanor, is this idea of starting small, right? You're not going and like everybody now you have to do that. It's trying to pick some few people trying it out and making champions in your organization so that you can slowly introduce something that's very new. Are there any examples of an impact you've seen using this approach that you can share with us? 

Eleanor Sarpong Oh, yes. So you know, one of the things that we've been doing - My organization, we do policy, we work with a lot of various governments to try and advocate for affordable internet through policy reform. So we look at various broadband policies, ICT policies, and find ways of looking at them, seeing whether they are inclusive, whether they have the targets that help you to be able to ensure that you have more women coming online and staying online. Then also just looking at various marginalized groups making sure that they are also included. So there are many things that governments could do to make internet cheaper, like from legislation, from the way they allocates spectrum, so many of those things. Now we've been doing a series of training with policy makers. And one of the key components of this training has been mainstreaming gender into the various policies. So what I did was to look at the policies that we're bringing on board. And I said, look, in order to identify the problem of why you have less number of women, for instance, having internet access, we need to find the problem. You need to identify the problem. And that's where we use the PDIA approach in constructing the problem and deconstructing it. Throughout this process, we found out that some of the reasons why there were very few women having internet access was because they weren't really great policies to address those deficiencies. And when we drill down, we found out that there were cultural problems as well. There were some cultures where it was considered that if the women had internet access in mainstream is going to be too liberal. There were some cultures that were more religious. So that's going to be the root cause. So we found out that if we wanted to address the issue of policy reforms, we also had to look at things more holistically and ensure that we had a wider group of stakeholders beyond just ICT and digital ministers. But we probably need to look at cultural leaders, look at traditional rulers and look at the heads of households just to make sure that they are also on board in order to ensure that women are able to have access to the internet. So going through this process was very revealing in many ways for the policymakers we're working with. 

Salimah Samji Building broad coalitions, yeah, that just sounds incredible. You know, you've been one of our first set of moderators, our first four moderators for our IPP community of practice. What does this community mean to you? 

Eleanor Sarpong Oh, Salimah, this community has just been wonderful in many ways. Not only have I made great friends from the program who we're still in touch, but it's just a community that keeps on learning and that's so wonderful to see. You know, every now and then we have some of our colleagues have been organizing some fantastic learning sessions, for instance, like design thinking that Dorian organized or having some of our lecturers coming back to give us refreshes in like negotiation by Professor Rob Wilkinson. Matt also came back, I remember, to just give us a talk about leadership and even just in between, we do have some of these blogs that come up from colleagues to talk about how they identify a problem or solve the problem in their communities. And so it's a continuous learning process and one that is so refreshing to see because we don't see this often in courses. Usually people just attend courses. And then once you're done, it's dusted. You don't have that kind of continuous interaction with your colleagues, and this is a very good one that IPP has. It's a real gem. 

Salimah Samji In this podcast series, we do some rapid fire questions, so are you ready for our rapid fire questions? 

Eleanor Sarpong Fire away! 

Salimah Samji The first one, what are you currently reading? 

Eleanor Sarpong I'm reading a book called How Women Rise and it's by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith. It talks about 12 habits that can hold women back from rising. And the reason why I like this book is that I see some similarities between the things that are written in there, some of the things we learned on the PDIA program. So, for instance, one of the mistakes is not to build a team from the onset, you know, not build an allies from the onset. And you do realize that within the PDIA program, we talked about team building and making sure you define the roles and don't forget the Sherpas along the way. This has been a very useful book for me. I'm still reading through it. There's some things in there. There's some things I don't agree with, but still reading it anyway. But it's a wonderful book. 

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

Eleanor Sarpong I would say it would be the first part. I know I've just gone on, talked about it so many times but when you see the outcome from what you start with, like, you know, it's like with a blank sheet, what is the problem? And a simple question like, what is the problem? You spend a whole day just going through that. And it's just the fact that it's always very exciting to see what's the reaction of various people are when you're done. So that's for me, it's the best part. For me, it's the first part. Going through a problem, deconstructing the problem and constructing it and then having a problem in hand, you know, say, how are we going to find a solution to this problem? 

Salimah Samji I think half the battle is identifying what the problem is? I think what we often do is jump to solutions too quickly and then wonder why the problem is still looming large. And it's because we didn't really spend the time needed to figure out what is the problem. 

Eleanor Sarpong Exactly. 

Salimah Samji Before we jump into finding solutions. My final question is what advice do you have for people trying to work on public problems? 

Eleanor Sarpong I'll say you have to be patient, extremely patient. You have to build your allies. You need to identify the problem. It's very important. Because we've been in situations where there's been a rush, maybe by a funder to say, Well, this is what I think the problem is, and therefore, you know, just throw money at it and expect you to ensure that you're able to work towards that solution. But what you don't realize is that the more you go down that path, you realize that you are probably on the wrong path. It's very important to be able to identify the problem. It's very important to identify who the allies are, and it's very important to be patient and just keep motivating yourself as you go along the way. Enjoy the little wins that come because public problems are very complicated. You have a lot of bureaucracy they have to deal with. You have a lot of politics that often you have to deal with. And the strength in how you're able to build relationships would be very critical in overcoming some of those challenges. There are times where you might have to just have a coffee with someone. Well, now because of COVID, it has to be a virtual coffee, but just a one-on-one coffee just to find out why somebody is opposed or behaving in a certain way and just giving them that reassurance so that you can ensure that you have their support along the way. So, yeah, very important to build alliances, ensure that you are motivated yourself, and also just take care of yourself. Because if you are unwell or if you are you feeling down and going to school, the time is very easy to happen. You will not be able to carry on with the public projects. You need to make sure that you're taking very good care of yourself. So self-care is also very important. 

Salimah Samji Patience, self-care, motivation and building allies. Thank you so much, Eleanor, for joining us and for sharing your thoughts and experience with us today. 

Eleanor Sarpong Thank you so much, Salimah. And I'm really hoping and looking forward to another opportunity. 

Salimah Samji Thank you for listening to our podcast today. If you liked it, please check out our website BSC Dot, CID Dot, Harvard Dot Edu. Or follow us on social media at Harvard BSC. You can also find links and other information under the description of this podcast.