Episode 10: Etambuyu Gundersen

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

Etambuyu Anamela Gundersen has been working as a Senior Strategy Officer for the Africa Development Bank (AfDB) since 2020. Prior to joining AfDB, she worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for 8 years, serving as Head of Secretariat for the Development Assistance Group (DAG) and Policy Specialist-Aid effectiveness in Ethiopia, coordinating 30 development partners operating in Ethiopia. To learn more about Eta's IPP journey, read her BSC blog post, The Legitimacy of Performance and Problem Oriented Institutional Development.

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 Etambuyu Anamela Gundersen, who has been working as a senior strategy officer for the Africa Development Bank since 2020. Prior to joining the AfDB, she worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for eight years, serving as Head of the Secretariat for the Development Assistance Group and Policy Specialist-Aid Effectiveness in Ethiopia, coordinating 30 development partners operating in Ethiopia. She completed our IPP program in December 2019 and has served as a moderator for the IPP community of practice. Welcome, Eta.

Etambuyu Gundersen Thank you, Salimah. It's great to be here.

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

Etambuyu Gundersen Wow. There are many, many good memories and learning moments, certainly a lot of useful tools I learned while doing the IPP program. What stands out for me, though, is the fishbone exercise. I have come to appreciate this as a very powerful tool for public policy analysis because I've used it quite often in my work. It seems very simple, and I think this is where the brilliance lies, really, because as a public policy person, it helps me to unpack very complex policy challenges that I come across. And so, yeah, that stands out as one of the most useful tools I gained, knowledge that I learned from the IPP program.

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

Etambuyu Gundersen Ah, yes. I'll share two examples. One has to do with managing teams, and the other one has to do with institutional support and the challenges around that. In terms of managing teams, I learned from the IPP program not only to look at teams in terms of how I did engage appropriately according to the right skills and so on, but also ensuring as a leader the psychological safety of the team, empowering those I work with so that they perform effectively and also creating a space for learning and allowing for iterations and testing of ideas. You know, getting buy-in, especially at conception level of a process. So an important learning point for me that I carried forward was especially when we learned about the Everest example, managing teams in times of uncertainty and looking at that triangle where you look at the organization levels and you engage with the complexity of the system, then you look at an individual and their cognitive limitations around that. And then how do you go now to that group level and shared beliefs and so on? So to actually conceptualize how I'm going to manage a team in that way, it's something that I learned from the IPP program. And then the other example is, as I mentioned, the institutional support bit. I was coordinating a process once where development partners were reviewing how they support public institutional capacity development. Now anybody who works with this knows that it's a very tricky area. So we had a workshop once with development partners to see how we can change the way we support the government. So I carefully introduced the PDIA process at the workshop where these discussions were taking place. And by the end of the discussions, there was a broad consensus that, you know, capacity building interventions as much about politics and interests as they are about technical knowledge sharing. And so we started to see that, you know, interventions that see capacity building as a simple question of providing inputs, you know, in terms of training, computers, study visits and so on, they have a lower chance of creating lasting impact if they do not address and engage with the underlying political and financial interests that work for or against desired improvements. So this is where you go back again to negotiating space, knowing who the actors are, how can they facilitate and enable? How can they limit what you're trying to achieve? So this is very much a PDIA process on another level, but it's something that you can apply when you're dealing with institutional support because I have experience having dealt with that at that level.

Salimah Samji Have you shared any of your learnings with colleagues at work? And if so, how?

Etambuyu Gundersen Yes. When I got back from Harvard, I was dealing with a policy challenge when I came there, as you remember, and so when I came back to work, I carried out a lot of experimental iterations, you know, testing commitments and building wider support, and there was a lot of experimenting. You know, both formally and informally. And when I started, I was also testing my knowledge how far I understood the PDIA process. So it was very much about testing myself also and testing my capacity to explain this to other people in a way that makes sense. So I held a lot of discussions with small groups and formal groups and formal groups trying out the process, and it was very interesting because it also deepened my understanding of the process. But at the same time, I started to also trust the rationale behind the process, and that gave me the confidence now to formally really dig in and speak in bigger groups. I remember we were once looking at the sector working group structure. This was a dialog structure between government and development partners in many different sectors, and we were trying to reconfigure that structure so that it's relevant to the government reforms. And so there were a lot of discussions taking place and that was also an interesting place for me that gave me an opportunity to really try out the PDIA process.

Salimah Samji You know, I really like your example in terms of when you teach someone it really does help because you have to know it much better and it really does improve one's own learning and confidence in what it is that someone is teaching. So I really like that story. Eta, you've been a moderator for our community of practice. What does the IPP community of practice mean to you?

Etambuyu Gundersen It means a lot to me, a great deal. It's a very important avenue for me in terms of, this group of people, they a resource for me, not only where I get some new information and ideas on innovative models and trends for tackling all kinds of public policy challenges, but more than that, I must say, you know, the friendships we made in Boston, they have had a profound impact on a personal level because I met like-minded individuals. Sometimes I like to think of us as public policy nerds. So we clicked on so many levels and some of those friendships still are there up to today. So in that sense, it means a lot to me, the IPP community of practice.

Salimah Samji Public policy nerds, I love it. As part of this podcast series, I'm also asking a series of rapid fire questions, so I'll start with my first one. What are you currently reading?

Etambuyu Gundersen I'm reading a book, it's authored by Jon Meacham, and the book is about Thomas Jefferson, and it's looking at his understanding of power and human nature and how that's enabled him to move men and marshal ideas, and also to learn from these mistakes and to prevail. The book is entitled The Art of Power.

Salimah Samji Sounds definitely very relevant and useful. Art of power. What's your favorite part of the PDIA process?

Etambuyu Gundersen Without doubt, the fishbone exercise. And I want to tell you why I like this, I mentioned a little bit. It's because it seems so simple, but it's actually not. But once you grasp how to use it and apply it, you can use it for anything, really. And, you know, especially not just complex problems, you can even use it in your personal life. So definitely the fishbone exercise, I recommend anyone and everyone to really get to understand it and apply it, both in their work and personal lives.

Salimah Samji We've definitely heard of people who use it. It's a problem-solving tool, and we have problems everywhere in personal lives, at work and, you know, solving complex problems. And so it is a tool that can be used for a variety of things. What advice do you have for people working on public problems?

Etambuyu Gundersen What comes to mind is to practice strategic patience. Rome was not built in a day. I think this is important because some public policy challenges, they can be overwhelming. And they can paralyze a practitioner, you know, when you first encounter the problems you are sometimes asked to tackle. And this is why I think processes such as the PDIA are really a gift that keeps on giving. Precisely because they give a practical way forward and clarity of thought. So it suddenly becomes less overwhelming because you have the tools to apply to an issue, and so you move from the abstract and intangible to designing tangible solutions.

Salimah Samji I think that is a very powerful message for our listeners. I like this idea of strategic patience, clarity. And I also like your emphasis throughout this podcast on the simplicity of tools. I think simple tools have power in terms of they're easy to understand and for people to use them. And I think the visual nature in particular of the fishbone diagram does lend itself to making people see the complexity of a problem when they might think, Oh, this is really a simple problem until you break it down and you say it's much bigger than I thought, much bigger than I thought it was.

Etambuyu Gundersen Yes, absolutely.

Salimah Samji So thank you very much for joining us and for sharing your thoughts and experience with us today.

Etambuyu Gundersen Thank you for having me, Salimah. It's been a great pleasure as usual.

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.