The sustainability of reforms (Inquirer)

Can the reforms of the Aquino administration be sustained beyond 2016?

This has been the most frequently asked question over the last two years in our presentations for the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) and in countless conversations with friends and associates. It is a fair question, given our national penchant for making changes with every change of administration.

Will the period beyond 2016 be any different? I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I feel that it is within our collective powers to make sure that 2016 will be different and that reforms will be sustained.

From today until 2016, we need to concentrate on some key items. The first order of the day is to remain focused on priorities and delivering results. For the NCC, this basically means focusing on the indicators covered in the over a dozen global competitiveness reports that we track. The most urgent of these are governance, infrastructure, and ease of doing business. The longer-term issues are education and science and technology.

The second order of the day is to be persistent. With the clock ticking, one must maintain some constancy. We cannot afford to let up in our efforts and backslide. Our biggest mistake will be in thinking that we are doing so well that we can afford to relax a little. At the NCC, we always remind ourselves that we are happy to be moving in the right direction but that we are still quite a distance from our goal.

Third, we must continue to focus on the metrics. As they say, what gets measured gets managed. At the NCC, we have tried to expand this concept beyond national competitiveness and to extend it to local competitiveness through our Cities and Municipalities Competitiveness Index. We are working to make sure that this culture of performance measurement continues in the long run.

Quite simply, the one way to ensure that reforms continue beyond 2016 is to pick the right leaders and vote for them in the 2016 elections. By now, it should be obvious that leadership and governance matter. It is not by accident that the country’s credit ratings and competitiveness rankings have been consistently upgraded during this administration. Governance is an important part of the criteria which credit ratings agencies use (aside from economic fundamentals, of course).

One way of evaluating potential leaders is to measure their performance and to benchmark them against others. It is not always easy to get performance information on an individual. However, you can get information on the institutions they run. For instance, if you are reviewing mayors and governors, you can review the performance of their respective cities or provinces. If you are reviewing senators or congressmen, you can check many aspects of their performance—from attendance to vote records, authorship of bills and laws, and campaign spending (this last piece of information is from the Commission on Elections).

Finally, don’t simply vote in 2016. Make sure your vote counts. Just because voting has been automated, don’t take for granted that the results will be accurate. One reason people did not complain in the last election is that the winning margin was simply too large in the major races. But postelection audits on the computerized voting system were never completely done and reported to the public. The system remains a black box which few completely understand. In a tight race, that lack of knowledge and understanding could spell the difference between a genuine win and massive electoral fraud. Best not to take these things for granted and join an organized electoral watchdog.

Post-2016, it will be important to maintain a constituency for reforms. The more people demand reforms, the more likely reforms will continue to remain in place.

Conversely, silence may be misinterpreted as acceptance or agreement when reforms are removed or withdrawn. The key to the sustainability of reforms is to make it politically suicidal for leaders and elected officials to remove reforms that are clearly working for the benefit of the people.

This will take some organization and management skill. While some advocacies may spontaneously bloom, keeping an issue alive requires organization. So far, the use of social media and technology has been effective and widespread. Whether by individuals or by groups, this trend will grow as connectivity rises and costs drop.

At the end of the day, our biggest risk in sustaining reforms lies in the practice of politics. Our practice of politics may be one of the most uncompetitive aspects of our country. The bench is shallow and the process of candidate selection is too often based on “winnability” rather than qualifications. The substance of the campaign debate can leave the serious voter bewildered and frustrated. The net result is a menu of choices for leadership that can give voters an uneven meal and a cause for indigestion.

We have made many gains on the political and competitiveness front, but not nearly as much on the political front.

By: Guillermo M. Luz

As published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: