Episode 5: Jorida Zeneli

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

Jorida Zeneli has 15 years of experience working for international and domestic organizations on the design and delivery of public services. Based in Australia, her experience spans across different portfolios in federal and state agencies, consulting and non-profits, specializing in areas of health, governance, including transparency in decision making, risk management, fraud, corruption and monitoring and evaluation. Jori is passionate about impact investing and a strong advocate for mental health. She has lived in Albania, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, the United States and Australia. To learn more about Jori's IPP journey, read her BSC blog post, Disaster Resilience in Australia.

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 fifth 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 Jori Zeneli, who has 15 years of experience working for international and domestic organizations on the design and delivery of public services. Based in Australia, her experience spans across different portfolios in federal and state agencies, consulting and non-profits, specializing in areas of health, governance, including transparency in decision making, risk management, fraud, corruption and monitoring and evaluation. Jori is passionate about impact investing and a strong advocate for mental health. She has lived in Albania, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, the United States and Australia. Jori completed our IPP program in December 2019 and has been a previous moderator of the IPP community of practice. Welcome, Jori! 

Jorida Zeneli Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here. And just before we start, I would like to do a little bit of an acknowledgment of country. I'd like to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of Australia. I pay my respects to the local owners of the land I stand today become a regular people who treasure the lands, waters and cultures of the place that I call home and I pay my tribute to their elders past, present and emerging. Thank you. 

Salimah Samji Wonderful, thank you so much. I love land acknowledgments, so thank you for beginning with that. 

Jorida Zeneli Thank you so much. I think it's always useful to to know where we stand and where we are coming from and who has walked this land before us. 

Salimah Samji I completely agree with you. So let's get started with this podcast. You know, it's been almost two years since you completed the IPP program. What do you remember as being useful? 

Jorida Zeneli I can't believe it's been two years. These two years have been a very weird type of two years for the entire world, I think. Very special type of two years. You know, coming to Harvard two years ago was also the last time I was taking an international flight. So since then, we've been basically grounded here in Australia without much opportunity to move abroad. I remember the reason why I came. So I remember that for me, acknowledging and being sort of true to the reason why I was coming in first place was a very important step. I was feeling incredibly frustrated about work and about myself, and I had been observing that in my last sort of 12 years, there was this massive effort put into designing policy solutions. People spend months and sometimes years perfecting every single word, every element of a tool, and then get feeling very surprised how authorizers, decision makers, public servants rush over problems and with some simplicity that is at times puzzling. And so I was feeling like the work that we were doing doesn't necessarily always lead to impact. And the reasons for that are probably not because people don't care or they don't want the impact. They do want impact. But somehow the structures or the methods that we apply to our work are not necessarily set up for that type of success. For the type of exploration and innovation you need to solve complex problems. So we apply these very deterministic ways of thinking because that's what we've always done. And that can work well for a simple type of problem solving, but the moment things become wicked, which is why we show up to do this work, public problem solving, we show up for this problem, and it becomes very frustrating because you realize the opportunity that you've got at hand and then you realize that you are not making the most out of that. So I came to Harvard, a place where I had dreamt to be, and I had like a whole bunch of questions and I was like feeling, Do I even deserve to be here? This is, you know, a place of of my dreams, and I have no good stories to tell. I have nothing to be proud about. All I have is like a bunch of questions. And so I remember acknowledging this fact was very important. Showing up in this situation for me was very important and and actually quite empowering, as it turned out to be. I remember Matt's first class when he came to like the blackboard and wrote OK public policy failure. How many of you have experienced it? To which extent? How many times? And I looked around and I was like seeing these people nodding and like shaking their heads. And, you know, and I could see the frustration in their eyes and I was like, OK, maybe I'm not the only one, and maybe some other people are feeling very similar to me. And then what went on from the course the course itself was that week in Harvard was crucial for bonding, for sharing. But also what went on, you know, beyond that, this course was extending over a period of like 10 months. And so that's quite long for these typology of courses. So you really had time to digest all the information and to apply it to a real world program of your choice of your own choice, giving you a lot of agency and then to say, OK, what works, what doesn't work, what will stick, what doesn't stick and go back and check with the professors and and with your colleagues in areas of concern. So I felt that the entire experience was incredibly useful. And perhaps the most useful thing out of that experience was the community that we built and that we maintain and sustain today. And that is growing. That's that's been massive. 

Salimah Samji Can you share some examples about how you have used what you learned in the program. 

Jorida Zeneli Yes. So when I came to the program, I had already identified a problem that, quite frankly, I didn't know how to handle. I knew that, you know, I was working on this policy on embedding resilience principles and with resilience principles, I mean resilience to natural disasters, into the investment processes. And I had just delivered this policy together with a team of colleagues that was almost like a pilot. So we had created this space of flexible authorization, Matt would call it, for this piece of work to be piloted. And that piece involved sector engagement, it involved engagement with the private sector, nonprofit sector, you know, with other jurisdictions, et cetera. But in principle, I knew that that policy is just a Band-Aid type of fix, that it's not enough to to tackle this massive problem of the lack of insight that we've got into into this subject, into dealing with resilience as a sector. And so I have created sort of this space of flexible authorization. And I used the PDIA method to go back to the drawing board with a couple of colleagues to basically redraw which we thought was the real problem and use that sector engagement that we had planned, for which I actually had authorization and approval and support from my seniors, to basically not just improve the policy document per se, but to open and change and widen the space for change, deconstruct the problem with all the elements with all the casualities and sub casualities, map out what exactly is that we can do within this space and what strategies do we want to apply? What tactics do we want to apply? And what became apparent is that we had then a massive, deconstructed problems with several points of entry. And we also had the answers that came through these engagements. So the answers to a lot of these problems and subproblems had been there all the time staring at us. And we just needed the time to basically take the time to analyze, to listen, to take note. And that is only one piece on basically how I applied the methods that we used. Yeah. 

Salimah Samji So you mentioned working with colleagues, you are the one who came to Harvard, you got this training, you were changed. The others were not. How did you share with them your learning or bring them on board with this new approach that you were trying to use? 

Jorida Zeneli I shared my journey when I came back carefully. This is not how based on my experience, how public administration here at state level at least operates in general. We usually operate on plan and control type of methods. And so I knew that this is going to rock the boat for some people. So I shared certain elements of this method carefully with a few trusted colleagues. And then there was some sensitivities around the topic because the topic we were dealing with was a natural disasters with that, you know, is linked to climate change, but it was not necessarily safe at the time to openly talk about climate change. It's like, you know, you are talking about the elephant in the room, but you can't name it by the name you have to like, describe it by its features. So I was quite careful that I don't want to get people in trouble. I knew the sensitivities around the topic and, you know, I shared certain elements with a few trusted colleagues, got them on board. It was quite interesting because a lot of these people were actually not in my organization, they were in other organizations. So having that lateral sort of authorization for this piece of work was, I found easier. You know, and I'm very thankful for their contribution because a lot of them got on board and, you know, without their support and ideas and contribution and investment, the work wouldn't have landed where it landed. Because I didn't know whether I shared with you but this piece of work, amongst others, was a trigger for the creation of a new agency, which is called Resilience New South Wales, which then actually had the mandate, the budget, the expertize, the authorization, and could build the acceptance to actually build out from on this topic from a much stronger foundation. So I have to say it did help that the bushfire happened in Australia in that time and this issue became really pressing. But overall, you know, the outcome of this piece of work was very good. It was great. It was well beyond, you know what I would have ever expected. 

Salimah Samji Wonderful. What does the IPP community of practice mean to you? 

Jorida Zeneli It means so much to me. I call it a community of purpose. And it was at the time when I came to the course, I was craving, maybe because I had been like working on domestic topics for a long time, but I was craving an international network and not any international network. I was craving an international network of people that are working on similar topics that are passionate about public problems and that have perhaps hit the wall like I did many times and are wondering there's got to be something else. There's going to be something better, different ways to approach these matters. So having access to these people for me has been transformational, actually, because it didn't just mean support. It meant ideas and empowerment and satisfied my curiosity about what else is happening in this space in the rest of the world. And it also made me feel like we are much more connected than we think because we're actually working on some pretty cool topics and very similar topics. So on the other hand, I was sitting next to some member of Parliament in the course. And you know, there is always this friction between administration and the politics. And so it was like, you guys, are you even interested in actually knowing about these problems or are you just interested in destroying your political opponents? And I remember them just look at me saying, of course we're interested. And I'm like, you know, this is one pagers that we produce for you that we spent months crafting. You even read them? And I was like, you know, it was such a, you know, a genuine exchange, and it ended up with a lot of laughs. And I think basically, we had everyone in the room. We had the authorizers, we had the people who were actually doing the work, we had the politicians, we had the private sector. So it was like a miniature type of model of the real world. And it became very obvious to me in that said, I was like, Why don't we all work together more like this? Like, in this course? Look what we can all achieve if we bring our brains together and just talk to one another. So the community of practice or the community of purpose, like I call it, operates on a needs based. It's an incredible resource. And even if you just look at like the times people wake up in the middle of the night, including myself, to just attend these sessions. I think that's an indicator of its benefits in its own right. But for example, we have tackled topics like climate change and just before Rome and Glasgow, you know, we had a session on climate change with people that are actually working and serving on some of these committees. And you know, when we felt that the topic was not exhausted because it's an exhaustable topic anyways, but we were like, OK, maybe there is need for some more sessions. And so we did more sessions so people could ask questions or, you know, when we felt that the mood was a bit deflated because, you know, we know the burden that COVID has put on a lot of public servants or people that work on public programs altogether. We just organized a session on wellbeing and we are constantly iterating in terms of how this community of practice works. And it's a massive asset. It's a massive asset. How many countries have we got right now? I've lost the count, but it's incredible the amount of people we can reach out to on any topic. 

Salimah Samji Yeah, I particularly like your community of purpose and just meeting the needs of the community by choosing the types of events that we do, so I really like that. I have a series of rapid fire questions for you that we're asking all of our alums. And the first one is what are you currently reading? 

Jorida Zeneli So I've got a very good recommendation of a group that, I have to be honest, I have already finished, for this group of people because I think it's going to resonate a lot. It's a book called Free: Coming of Age at the End of History. It's written by a professor of political science at the London School of Economics. She's also an Albanian girl that grew up in Durress. It's the same coastal city on the Adriatic where I spent my first 18 years of life. And from my understanding, it's the first book that basically handles from the perspective of a child and then a teenager, what it meant to grow up in a communist country and then one day wake up and basically realize that everything that you have learned about, you know, the society, about your country, even your family, and all the systems that you have believed in don't hold true. That has all collapsed, and it did deliver very bad outcomes that you perhaps were not aware of. And now you've got to believe in a different ideology, which is that capitalism. And you are a teenager yourself and you are going through these massive transitions yourself individually and then your country is going through this massive transition. So those years in Albania, where the girl is the same age as me, so there were years of political unrest and civil unrest and civil war even and just a very harsh transition. And in my memory, it's packed with this gray box. And I think it's very important that this writer who is very talented has made this effort to put this all out because I think it's necessary that as a generation, we reflect on that time and we unpack it and we are slowly coming to terms with like, OK, this happened and we're a part of it and trying to make sense of it, if you know what I mean. So for me, it's very personal. It's a book that I want to share with my kids because they will understand better what I went through and what all of us went through. But I think beyond that, it has some amazing philosophical reflections on the type of systems that we built and and the type of environments that we are constructing for ourselves, for our kids, the type of lives we want to live, the type of values we commit to as societies. And I think  it's a very timely conversation to have, especially after COVID. And there is a lot of philosophical reflections that I think are going to be a trigger for some constructive discourse that I think we need more than ever right now about life and freedom and so on. So, yeah, I highly recommend that book. And then I'm reading something right now, which is different, which is in praise of race, which is a collection of some psychoanalytical case studies and reflections on the value of risk in life. Because this is a topic that has always fascinated me, and I actually ended up studying risk management and because of that and realize that actually, I'm so fascinated by this topic beyond, you know, calculating insurance premiums I just love. I'm fascinated by the psychology of it. And so this book is about that. And with my kids, I'm reading a book about bees. Some pets, some native bush bees to our pet collection, which includes blue tongued lizard, several water dragons, and two budgies. And we're reading everything about native bush bees right now. 

Salimah Samji That sounds wonderful. From uncovering your truth, to risk, to bees, I love it. 

Jorida Zeneli That's nature. It's like kindness to all types of living forms. It's a bit of the indigenous wisdom that we should be working with so much more and embedding so much more in our lives. 

Salimah Samji I couldn't agree more. What's your favorite part of the PDIA process? 

Jorida Zeneli I like all letters equally, all four letters. But I think for me, the Triple A change space analysis was a very important part. So understanding and having some tools to understand and analyze what's the space for change. So once you've identified and deconstructed your problem and have identified your sort of entry points, how do you want to access these entry points? And I found this specific type of analysis quite useful because it looks at what's the space of a authorization? What's the acceptance that I've got for this certain topic? And then what's the ability? And then beyond that crawling the design space where you are looking at solutions. So where should these solutions come from? Often these solutions are best practices, and, you know, I have nothing against best practices. They can work fantastically. I myself have recently embedded what I call a best practice from an idea that I took from Andrew, who was in my working group and part of IPP. He was working on this renaturalization of nature strips project at local level. And so I pitched this idea to the council here to my local council, and it works out so that Australia or at least Sydney has a very similar set up administratively to what Canada has, and the first pilot of that project is now at my doorstep. So I call that a best practice from Canada. Thank you, Canada. But you know, and thank you, Andrew. But beyond that, there is this element of, you know, best practice that I have in memory from growing up in Albania through these massive transition times and the best practice that we were system level, the best practices that people wanted to implement in Albania brutally failed. So it's like reforming our health care system and make it like Germany. And it's like, how should I do that? Everything has collapsed. So, you know, I find that actually quite detrimental. And some of these methods that were used, these best practices that were fed to countries like Albania and not only even if you take like eastern Germany and western Germany, that the reunification process has been not without a lot of problems. But in essence, I just want to say that these best practices often don't work. And as technically fantastic as they are, they don't work for the realities of the environments that we are operating in, and they tend to be quite detrimental for society's institutions. If I think of Albania and all the brain drain that the country has suffered from this shock therapies that we had to go through because that was at the time considered best practice. You know, it's a complex project, but I always thought there's got to be something else. And then, you know, as part of PDIA learning about, well, how do you map out what's currently in place? How do you identify positive deviance? And all of that was quite enlightening to me, and I think it's a process that, in my view, we should all be inquisitive about and not just, you know, take these best practices and say, well, you know, miraculously, things will will now work. I think it's very important. Yeah, and beyond that, I'm also interested in sort of exploring the link between PDIA as an instrument for work satisfaction because I found for myself the satisfaction that I had while I was applying this method was massive. And I think it gave me the opportunity and the chance to basically rediscover my passion for public programs and move me out of this idea of stuckness. And I think it's because this method, it allows a lot of freedom, and it also allows for you to apply creativity, engagement and ultimately it offers a structure where you can capitalize on small wins. And I do think that we need these wins altogether for us as individuals, but also for our institutions. I think we question our institutions a lot because we see them constantly failing. And I believe that this positive feedback, this this loop, this setting you up for success and for experimenting is incredibly important. Just as it's important to learn from failures, it's also important to sometimes celebrate success, and I feel like this method is quite powerful for that. 

Salimah Samji What advice do you have for people who are trying to work on public problem-solving? 

Jorida Zeneli I'm not sure I can give a lot of advice, but I can share my experience. I basically found out that I went to work on public programs really early. I was seven years old and I had very clear memory of this situation because it was a big deal. I came back from a holiday, and I had to write an essay about where we spent the holiday and so on. And I had been in a very sort of remote area of Albania. And when I came back, I wrote, you know, I was amazed by the mountains, by the rivers, and I was also a bit shocked how poor people are in these places. And they didn't have food. They didn't have food for themselves and not even for their animals. And I'm planning to go back and bring them food. And so I remember my parents getting me to school and the teacher telling them, You know, you've got to be aware that you've got a kid who is very sensitive to public problems, you know, to people's problems. And by the way, you know, there is no such thing as poverty in our happy socialist country. And so this has become a little bit like my mantra overall in life because at that point, I knew these topics moved me and I've got a passion for this and I've got to find a way to work in this space. And I think the world needs people who, you know, are committed to these type of topics. And it's the biggest privilege, actually, because you are working for the community you are, you're serving the community. And I think my advice from my own experience has been to identify or find places where you can work to your strengths. So with time, I realized that, for example, I'm very creative and I'm very results driven, but compliance is not my forte. And so I think being in an environment which is like compliance space or where you are rewarded just for that compliance element is not a place where I'm going to necessarily thrive. It's not a place where I'm going to find people that I want to work alongside with because we tend to find people that we appreciate their values and we can, you know, somewhat identify in certain ways with the values and we want to walk alongside those people. And I think it's very important that if you set up yourself to be in an environment like that because, you know, solving public programs is hard. And I think people underestimate how hard it is. And if it would be easy, you know, we would have probably eradicated poverty. We would instead not have extra 150 million people that are induced into poverty because of COVID. We wouldn't have homelessness. We wouldn't have, I don't know, we wouldn't have this inequitable access to vaccines that we have seen globally. And so it takes a toll if you work on these topics and therefore you've got to find your people and work to your strengths. And I think for your own sanity, perhaps also not necessarily always be attached to the results, but to understand that you've got to honor your effort, that the effort you're putting in is so much worth. And sometimes the result comes in other times the result doesn't come. Don't take it personally. It's not your failure. You have tried and sometimes you succeed. And those are the moments that you'v got to celebrate and you've got to share their rewards with others. And perhaps one advice I'd give is take PDIA course if you haven't done so, so just do it. 

Salimah Samji Wonderful. I think our listeners will really appreciate your advice of finding your people, honoring your effort and sharing the results. Those are really, really very valuable. And then I think that this idea of finding an environment where people share your values is just so, so important. So thank you so much, Jori, for joining us and for sharing your thoughts and experience with us today. I really appreciate it.

Jorida Zeneli Thank you, Salimah. It's such a pleasure to talk to you. I just want to take this opportunity to say Happy New Year to everyone, and thank you so much for all the work that you do in all corners of the world and keep it up. 

Salimah Samji Wonderful. Great way to end this podcast. Thank you, Jori. 

Salimah Samji Thank you for listening to our podcast today. If you liked it, please check out our website BSE 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.