July 25, 2024


Science It Works

HKS Executive Education participants tackle social and economic problems with smarts

One of Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education programs, “Leading Smart Policy Design,” provides practical frameworks for people grappling with tough social and economic policy problems around the world. The new, online executive education program was developed by experts at the School’s Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) research program and uses their signature teaching and research processes. Rema Hanna, the Jeffrey Cheah Professor of South-East Asia Studies and faculty director of EPoD, is the executive education program’s faculty chair.

Describing the program Hanna explains, “When I talk to policymakers, we talk about lots of different topics. We talk about macroeconomics and trade. We talk about social protection. We talk about labor policy.” However, many educational courses, she says, often focus narrowly on one topic. “But these things are often very connected. So, for example, as you’re thinking about your social protection policy, it can’t be divorced from either your macro policy and how it affects the broader aggregate demand and the economy or your tax policy in terms of raising revenues to be able to redistribute,” Hanna says. “What we were trying to do is bring together experts along a wide range of these topics to hit bigger-picture areas.”

Rema Hanna lecturing in a classroom.

One of the signature approaches is Smart Policy Design and Implementation (SPDI), a six-step process that helps people to use evidence to make better policy decisions by:

  • Identifying pressing policy problems
  • Diagnosing underlying causes
  • Designing high-potential and feasible policy solutions
  • Implementing and monitoring proposed solutions on the ground
  • Testing high-potential solutions with rigorous evaluation
  • Refining those solutions based on continuous monitoring and feedback

Recent program participants explain how they use the tools they learned in “Leading Smart Policy Design,” such as SPDI, in their work—whether helping vulnerable young families, designing early-education policy, helping governments improve their tax collection systems, or supporting refugees and the communities that host them.


Helping at-risk families in Australia

Bernadette Black headshot.Bernadette Black is the CEO of the Brave Foundation, an organization that helps teenage parents in Australia find pathways out of poverty. She explains that young people and families in the country can experience long-term disadvantages and welfare dependency: “79% of young parents remain on long term welfare support,” she says. “Young [caregivers] are also amongst Australia’s largest future long-term welfare recipients.” Her organization strives to “create a collaborative highway away from disadvantage as quickly as possible, seeing future generations thrive and enjoying their human rights.”

Black has used the SPDI approach to clearly identify the problem, which is made more complex by the ways that Australia’s different levels of government interact. She says, “I learned that all the actors need to be involved in SPDI, so that we can examine the underlying causes of the problem, which can help the theory of change as an outcome. I also learned that it is about taking each actor on the journey and sharing successes on the way.”

Another focus of the executive education program, Black says, was learning agility and patience: “Good policy is about process and is like teaching someone a new language.” She recommends the experience to anyone who grapples with serious policy problems in their work. “If you want to change your community, your state, your country, or the world—in a way that is enduring and lays a foundation for humanity—you need to enroll in ‘Leading Smart Policy Design,’” she says.