For a decade and a half now, I have been exposed to what I call the 3Ps – politics, policymaking, and politicians. Particularly, my work and research focused on the intricacies of local governance where the 3Ps are at their raw and most exciting forms. While perhaps most think tanks, researchers and academicians can confidently distinguish these three, most voters cannot, especially in transitional and weak democracies like the Philippines. That voters are unable to distinguish these three interrelated yet different concepts raises challenges for many of us in development work. No matter how sophisticated our tools or how intense our capacity building programs are, when voters fail to see the fine line between the 3Ps, they elect people who can easily undo a decade worth of our work and waste precious resources in the process. I therefore begin this reflection with what most would think is the root of all evil – the politicians.
Many are chosen, but few are called.
Most of my memorable encounters were of the 3rd P – the politicians. They come in many shapes and sizes, sometimes bad, others good, with a good sense of humor or even a very bad temper. Most likely, they belong to a dynasty whose family has deep roots and influence in the community’s political and economic life. Many regard this reality as the ultimate irony of our democracy – we overthrew a dictator but neglected to do so to the local warlords, bosses and oligarchs.
In this kind of environment, policymaking becomes synonymous to politics. There is very little space for science to help keep irrational decisions at bay. Decisions are negotiated based on exchange rather than evidence and policy becomes a prize to the highest bidder rather than a service to the poorest and most in need.
But, there are those who, despite their family names, deliver. Some of them have won national and international awards on good governance, transparency and innovation. They are aggressive in searching for the best possible way and efficient way to govern, often consuming whatever evidence available along the way. This breed of politicians belong to the third generation of political dynasties who were schooled elsewhere, traveled a lot, and therefore have been exposed to how policymaking, when done rationally, can make a difference in the lives of people.
It is among these third generation that policymaking as a rational process of decision-making becomes viable. Studies are appreciated for its objectivity and data-driven recommendations and not because a loyal friend directed it. Technology is seen as a tool to ease the management of internal systems as well as a way to connect to the people directly. Many second generation still control local positions at present but the expanding presence of third generation politicians in local government offices offsets old traditional politics with modern public management.
The heart of all government activities, democracy or not, national or subnational, is policymaking. I cannot imagine a government, much less a country, that does not make decisions on a regular basis. Policies, like politicians, come in various shapes and sizes, some good and others bad. What makes a policy good or bad has always been a source of debate and it will remain this way because the policymaking environment is dynamic and always evolving.
Recently, in a trip that I made to the northern part of the country, I noted that policies and politicians are importantly similar in another aspect – that both of them can be best understood and appreciated using an intergenerational lens. By intergenerational, I refer to the policies of today as ‘children’ and ‘grandchildren’ of policies twenty or even fifty years ago.
I realized this as I was interviewing clan matriarchs and patriarchs of very old and powerful political dynasties of selected provinces in the country. They shared many of their policies and programs during the time they were in power, usually after the Second World War. Programs such as funding of village doctors and teachers for the mountain communities are very similar to those of the present day subnational government The only difference is how sophisticated these programs have become (such as the use of technology to make these services more efficient and manageable). And then there are policies that were discontinued, not because they did not work, but because there was a period when the family split into factions and one side of the family wanted to be known differently from the other side.
To say at the very least that policymaking is a nonlinear process is an understatement. To begin with, there is no clear line that differentiates one policymaking ‘step’ from another. So much so that it is difficult to even trace with certainty the progression of one “step” to another. It is possible that during what seems to be an implementation phase may very well be still formulation of sorts, because actors would want to ‘test’ certain features of the proposed policy by going through an informal pilot phase. Or it may very well be that this pilot phase is more for political gains (so that people can immediately ‘see’ something that is being done) rather than for policy feasibility. Or even perhaps proposed policies are pre-tested for its political feasibility rather than its rationality. Whatever the case maybe, one thing is certain – that public policies are never detached from their historicity. This brings depth to the appreciation of not only the policy per se but more importantly the policymaking process itself. Like politicians, policies are products of their own dynasties. I call this ‘decision dynasty’ for lack of a better term. Therefore, an assessment of the present must include the stories of the past.
Politics can be evidence too.
Politics, or the use of power to allocate scarce resources, therefore can be very useful evidence when doing policy analysis from a ‘decision dynasty’ or intergenerational perspective. Public policies therefore are those decisions made by people in power that affect how resources are distributed in the community. But politics is a chameleon – it continuously adapts to its local environment. It is very tricky to measure and observe because it is often times invisible. Having said this, one must put together as many clues as possible to be able to ‘see’ politics. This requires not only patience, but also the ability to use an interdisciplinary analytical methodology. Collaboration with other disciplines and experts, not necessarily in the field of policy studies or political science, is imperative. Based on experience, social psychology, economics and sociology are helpful disciplines to begin with. Lately, I also appreciated working with historians and anthropologists whose insights on culture and identity helped shaped my understanding of policies as extension the culture and identity of the community and of the politicians’ families as well.
‘Who we are’ and ‘who we want to be’ are identity questions that beg for decisions to be made and made continuously. In less plural societies, these decisions shall be made again and again by the same family on behalf of the entire community over many generations.
This is not to say that I favor dynastic rule. What I am suggesting is that if we truly want to reform politics through rational public policymaking, we must start by tracing not only the family tree of the politician but also the family tree of the policy. Particularly, how certain generations see themselves as policymakers and politicians vis-à-vis how particular policies have changed (or retained) over time. We then utilize this information to better convince the more receptive third generation politicians to test more progressive policies and policymaking strategies – something like reverse engineering policymaking.
And hopefully, we won’t have to have this kind of conversation eventually.