Episode 12: Maggie MacDonald

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

Maggie MacDonald has close to 20 years of experience in the not-for-profit and government sectors. She has worked for three orders of government in a range of areas, including consumer protection, economic development, government relations and most recently, Parks and Recreation for the last 10 years. She has worked for the Halifax Regional Municipality and is currently acting executive director of Parks and Recreation. To learn more about Maggie's IPP journey, read her BSC blog post, You Need to be Brave.

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 Maggie MacDonald, who has close to 20 years of experience in the not-for-profit and government sectors. She has worked for three orders of government in a range of areas, including consumer protection, economic development, government relations and most recently, Parks and Recreation for the last 10 years. She has worked for the Halifax Regional Municipality and is currently acting executive director of Parks and Recreation. She studied economics and public administration and completed our IPP program in December 2019. She currently lives in Halifax, Canada, with her husband, Patrick Murphy, and their very spoiled cat, who doesn't know yet that they're getting a dog soon. Welcome, Maggie.

Maggie MacDonald Thank you very much, Salimah. Thanks for having me.

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

Maggie MacDonald There were a lot of components that I think about still pretty regularly from the program. The module on negotiation really stayed with me in terms of negotiating based on interests as opposed to positional negotiations, and some of the lessons associated with that module were really helpful. Building high performance teams, so thinking about the teams in that sort of Orpheus Model as a chamber ensemble as opposed to sort of a top down model of leadership and authority there. You know, enabling people to take responsibility and to share leadership. I often think about the 1804 challenge and how, you know, as a neat way of differentiating more routine work and a more sort of well-traveled paths from the work that we do that's less obvious in terms of how we get from A to B. And sometimes, you know, we've characterized that more as really high volume, low variation work compared to sort of low volume and high variation work. But I like the imagery that's associated with that 1804 challenge because I think it's really apt and it helps you think about problems differently. Just the network that we've built around it has sort of lasted, and that camaraderie is something to be able to draw on is another piece that was really a wonderful piece of the program that's been useful going forward. So lots of them. And the other piece, just as a general comment, I feel like a lot of the things around iteration and approaches to work that are described in the PDIA process, there's sometimes things that we do naturally, but it was helpful to have the value and the validity of that reinforced in in a program like the IPP. So, yeah, a range of things. It's really been lots that I've carried forward from the program.

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

Maggie MacDonald Yeah, I think just to follow on that last point, I think a lot of it is about approach to work rather than necessarily, you know, I'm sure there are a lot of little examples, but it's really more been about approach to work and rethinking about how we look at policy problems, how we look at just even the day to day work that we do and appreciating that we don't sort of go to a final product right away or we don't run to a solution. Appreciating that we need to sort of figure out what the problem is and try different things to sort of do that iteration. So I think enabling not just doing that myself, but also encouraging my team members and staff to do that as well. So we've had lots of instances where team members are really, I think, feel more enabled to try different things. You know, it's part and parcel with other concepts, the concept of authorization. I think we've done a good job here in our department and in our municipality of, you know, helping build the building blocks to do some more iteration and to try different things. So that sometimes it's really specific. It's sometimes like you have to make sure that the solicitors and the lawyers are lined up to be able to help you to mitigate risks when you're doing something differently and that they're willing to, you know, pick up the phone if you're calling about a small thing as readily as they are, if you're calling about something more formal, like a council report. And we have that here. So I think, you know, building that in and the authorization and seeing your authorization as part of your process as opposed to a barrier to to what you're doing. So yeah, it's been more about some of those enabling features I think for me, as much as any kind of specific approach to a particular problem.

Salimah Samji You mentioned how, you know, iteration and some of these other things that you've brought, you know, you came to the program and not everyone else, your municipality did the same program, so you were changed. How did you think about bringing these new ideas to your colleagues?

Maggie MacDonald Yeah, it's interesting. I would say it's been a little bit stealthy in my approach, and I've been listening to some of the other podcasts, and I thought it was it was really neat the way that Eleanor described her approach as the evangelization approach. And in keeping with that theme, I guess my approach has been a bit more, I think it's a misquote, but they say there's a quote attributed to Francis of Assisi that says, preach the gospel and use words if you have to. So it's been a little bit more like that, you know, sort of sneaking it in with people. Not because they're not going to be receptive, necessarily, but I think it maybe helps with that receptiveness if you're coming from the point of view, you're not sort of saying, well, you know, I did this course and now we have this great way of doing things. It's more about how do you introduce a concept in a way that people are going to receive it well? And I think people are receptive to ideas like iteration, like being deliberate about what your authorizations are that you need. So people have been receptive about different conversations, but haven't necessarily positioned it in the context of here's this great new sort of tool from Harvard that we're using, which may not help you guys.

Salimah Samji No, actually, it's great because we find that sometimes if you go to a place and you say, Oh, I learned this at Harvard, you've already lost people. Because they're like, OK, I wasn't there, I don't care. And you know, so I think the stealth approach is a much more effective strategy.

Maggie MacDonald Well, I think one of the nice things about PDIA and about the concepts that we learned in IPP, too, is that you don't have to swallow the whole entire thing either. They're tools that you can use, a very specific tool in a very specific instance. And it's not that you have to sort of follow the program from A to Z. You can actually use a specific tool that is appropriate to a particular circumstance. So I think it's sort of suitable in the context too which is good.

Salimah Samji That's right, it's a tool kit and you use whatever it is that you need based on the context. Now, as you know, you know, the IPP program ends with everybody joining into the IPP community of practice. What does the IPP community of practice mean to you?

Maggie MacDonald It's been amazing, actually, to have the group of people. I'm surprised actually how connected people have stayed, especially given how geographically disparate we all are, how different we are in terms of what our backgrounds are and what our public policy problems are and how we approach things. So it's been amazing actually to have a group of people that you feel this kinship with an ability to pick up the phone and call if you need to. People who are interested in learning. So that sort of means that you don't do the program and you leave it behind. You actually get to continue to share tools and resources. I did a yoga class with Jori from Australia last week, so you know, it's a bit of both of a professional and a personal kinship that developed from that community of practice, and it's been really valuable on an individual basis, but also just knowing that these people are out there with the same sort of general aims that you have and working towards the same type of goals and with the same values and in some sense in terms of their interest in contributing to things.

Salimah Samji In this podcast series, I'm also asking a series of rapid fire questions. What are you currently reading?

Maggie MacDonald I've just picked up Bill Browder's book Red Notice. I gave it to my husband a few years ago and hadn't read it, so it seemed like a time to read the book of course, with what's going on in the world. It talks about his experience as a financier in Russia just after the fall of the Soviet Union. And it's kind of interesting and thinking about it in the context of PDIA and the IPP program. When you think about an 1804 problem, that's that's where he was when he went in there. So it's sort of interesting. But of course, also a little bit chilling in the in the context of what's happening today in the world.

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

Maggie MacDonald One of my favorite parts is really asking questions. You know, when we iterate, what did we learn and what are we struggling with? Those two questions to me have been really powerful and especially what are we struggling with. And not in a negative sense, but in the way of I think sometimes we can get stuck and we don't even realize we're stuck and projects can get set aside because we don't know how to advance them. And so unless we ask the question, how are we struggling? What are we struggling with? We can't disassemble the problem in order to resolve it. So we just have to be aware that we have to kind of check in with ourselves on the process, and that was one of the things that sort of stuck with me and I think might be a favorite part for me.

Salimah Samji Great. What advice do you have for people like yourselves who are working to solve public problems?

Maggie MacDonald I think persistence is is probably, you know, keeping in mind, there's a quote from Winston Churchill that I really like. It really resonates for me. "Success is not final and failure is not fatal. It's the courage to continue that counts." And I think when we fail, we sometimes do feel like, you know, our world is ending and we're done and we're going to get fired or whatever. We can be overly sensitive to failure. And to remind ourselves that neither success nor failure is final. It's a process. So to be persistent as we work through public policy challenges and not to get discouraged, even though discouraging things happen to us.

Salimah Samji That's wonderful advice being persistent and following the process. It was a great quote by Churchill. Thank you so much for joining us and for sharing your thoughts and your experience with us today.

Maggie MacDonald Thanks very much for having me. It was fun to revisit the learnings from the program.

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.