Getting Real about Unknowns in Complex Policy Work

Abstract:

As with all public policy work, education policies are demanding. Policy workers need to ‘know’ a lot—about the problems they are addressing, the people who need to be engaged, the promises they can make in response, the context they are working in, and the processes they will follow to implement. Most policy workers answer questions about such issues within the structures of plan and control processes used to devise budgets and projects. These structures limit their knowledge gathering, organization and sense-making activities to up-front planning activities, and even though sophisticated tools like Theories of Change suggest planners ‘know’ all that is needed for policy success, they often do not. Policies are often fraught with ‘unknowns’ that cannot be captured in passive planning processes and thus repeatedly undermine even the best laid plans. Through a novel strategy that asks how much one knows about the answers to 25 essential policy questions, and an application to recent education policy interventions in Mozambique, this paper shows that it is possible to get real about unknowns in policy work. Just recognizing these unknowns exist—and understanding why they do and what kind of challenge they pose to policy workers—can help promote a more modest and realistic approach to doing complex policy work.

CID Faculty Working Paper Series: 406