Leading During a Global Pandemic: Problem Driven Iterative Adaption at the USDA

Tricia Kovacs
Deputy Administrator for
Transportation Marketing,
United States Department of
​​​​​​Agriculture (USDA)

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to spread around the world, leaders grapple with a wake of problems that they couldn’t have predicted or prepared for entirely.

“Plan and control assume consistency. We couldn’t plan completely for coronavirus. In government we have to figure out what authorities do we have, what flexibility do we have, what can we do with the budget and processes in place,” says Tricia Kovacs, Deputy Administrator for the Transportation Marketing program in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education alumna. “Our teams jumped right into finding creative solutions.”

The teams Tricia refers to are trying to solve huge disruptions to local and regional food systems brought on by the global health pandemic. Tricia, an alumna of the Implementing Public Policy executive program, joined the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service in 2016 and recently was hired as deputy administrator in January 2020. The Transportation and Marketing program supports local and regional food systems with the goal of expanding markets for farmers and increasing consumer access to healthy foods. Through applied research, technical assistance services, and grant support they help small- and mid-sized producers identify and access marketing opportunities. Prior, Tricia directed regional market programs at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, where she oversaw the founding of the farm to school program and led the Small Farm Direct Marketing Program.

“Local and regional food systems have been very resilient and responsive [during COVID-19],” says Tricia. “Government work requires you to be very adaptive - to different leaders, to different budgets, to different situations. It’s a lot of constructing and deconstructing problems – what matters, what are the components of the problem we are trying to solve, and what are our most promising entry points. I find it creative and exciting.”

The creative and problem-solving mentality Tricia applies to her role today finds roots in her past work in theater. Her background in the arts included developing new plays in Seattle, Washington and Charlottesville, Virginia. While working in the arts, she became interested in food systems and it led her to pursuing a degree in sustainability, planning and environmental policy from Cardiff University in Wales. Tricia continues to build on her professional development and recently attended the Implementing Public Policy (IPP) executive program at Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education.

“While doing theater (and working my day job) years ago, I started reading about food and sustainability and decided to follow that new path,” says Tricia. “I was worried about leaving theater but in many ways, in my job we approach things the way I used to approach art. It’s team-based and iterative and you keep trying, even if you don’t have the resources you’d like to have. I really loved that aspect of the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) approach taught by Matt Andrews in IPP. It was refreshing that the program focused on the realities of working in government, acknowledging the complexities of that context, and providing strategies that work for approaching the types of big problems government is there to address."

Today, Tricia’s team has entered into a cooperative agreement with University of Kentucky, along with 16 other organizations that work nationally on the various subsectors of local food to provide rapid market assessments of what is happening – disruptions, innovations, adaption, and what works, so it can be shared with others.

“In IPP, we learned to look at large problems and take bite-sized chunks,” says Tricia. “We just know where we are now so through active conversations, we focus on sharing information and identifying whose expertise leads to the next step. I rely on my team for their knowledge and encourage them to partner with each other. I’m not waiting at the top to say yes or no. I want to empower them to provide strategies and test them.”

Together with her team, Tricia continues to work towards finding cooperative solutions to address disruptions from the pandemic that will serve the community well into the future.

Tricia attended the 2019 session of Implementing Public Policy, which debuted with a blended learning format featuring a combination of online and in-person learning, as well as applied action learning—where new ideas are applied to daily implementation challenges . 

To read more about our alumni and their accomplishments, click here