Sunday, September 8, 2019

Reform, Not

There are buzzwords and then there are mega buzzwords. In business, when nudged into making an elevator pitch, white-collar executives might rehash their corporate strategy. In the public sector, politicians and policymakers, with very little prompting, tend to bang on about reform. Doubtless, strategy and reform are credible word cloud favourites in a media age clogged with widgets that spew out useful metadata and superfluous statistics, more of the latter.

Because the future is unknowable and it is in human nature to dream and to pursue new ideas and opportunities, our desire for change is insatiable. Change is another mega buzzword that means different things to different people. In a corporate or public context, the perennial challenge is how to foster a shared change agenda, with the ultimate aim of improving people’s economic and social well-being. The classical change mechanisms are either top-down or bottom-up, but it is usually more nuanced than that.

In a business setting, the impetus for change can range from limited to non-existent if there is one dominant player, more so ithe entity is a monopoly. Where competition exists, typically companies vie for market share and seek to maximise shareholder value by implementing diverse strategies. To improve the odds of achieving its objectives, an organisation’s top management crafts a strategic plan, in turn endorsed by a majority of stakeholders. Faced with grave external threats, a company’s survival may sometimes demand radical overhaul, rather than simple tweaks, through massive restructuring, disruptive innovation or creative destruction.

In the public sphere, societies organised in a rigid hierarchy and helmed by a monarch or autocrat are usually resistant to change. Because the primary goal of the leader is survival, rather than the citizens’ best interests, every other consideration is secondary. History has shown that when opposing views are stifled, freedom is curtailed, and agitators are locked up, such situations can precipitate an extreme reaction such as a people’s revolution. In pluralistic societies, where political parties compete for power, the clamour for reform can be relentless. From time immemorial, politicians fall over each other with myriad promises about how to “rectify or improve what is wrong, to make things better.” In the best or worst of times, this can be a tall order for either bravehearts or charlatans pursuing public office. To hedge their bets, politicians who position themselves as change candidates often use it as a ploy to discredit establishment rivals or to make a case for a generational transfer of power.

Typically, politicians publish campaign manifestos that are then boiled down to outlandish pledges on the stump. More often than not, the outcomes fall short in practice, which then results in recriminations. Without making excuses for public office-seekers, when a politician creates a campaign sound bite, it stems from a set of assumptions. Assumptions are precisely that, and they depend on unpredictable events and how multitudes of people will behave in the future. Therefore, when a campaign promise is translated into official policy, that is when reality bumps against the fine prints of a manifesto, and reform programmes might start to unravel.

Mind you, it is important to remember that political and socio-economic reform is ultimately about people; essentially, its purpose is to improve “living standards and the quality of life.” At the national level, the most critical reforms tend to impact macroeconomic policy, public finance, financial markets, and public infrastructure. Structural reforms cover areas such as the civil service, tax and regulatory policy, labour markets, and the welfare state. While monarchs, despots or elected leaders can be dislodged from office, an entrenched civil service is constant and immovable, and could be the most difficult to reform. Manifestly, a bloated, inefficient, and possibly corrupt bureaucracy often spells the death knell of the most well-intentioned policy reforms.

Back to the retail end, the litmus test of any reform agenda is its positive impact on constituents' lives. But, here’s a surprising and very insightful twist. However broadly reform programmes are defined, eventually they circle back to the individual. And for reforms to gain traction and succeed, the governed have two primary responsibilities.

First, when leaders, legislators, public officials, and the like fail to perform, the people have the collective civic responsibility to speak truth to power. Of course, it is infinitely much easier to do so in a free society. Under an autocracy, dissidents risk being locked up or killed. But, even in such dire circumstances, being passive and complicit is hardly a good strategy for evicting an unyielding tyrant.

Second, as economic agents, every one of us has the responsibility to keep boosting our productivity through skills development, lifelong learning, and by adapting to new tools. By squeezing more out of available resources, and workers imbibing a strong work ethic, government reforms have a fighting chance of bearing fruits, thereby raising living standards. Inevitably, there will be winners and losers, requiring social cohesion measures to redress imbalances.

In the final analysis, not reforming implies stagnation, maybe a slide into precipitous decline. Patently, reform is not the sole responsibility of other people - them.  By renewing the mind and spirit, every individual has the obligation to steer the world away from retrogression or, perish the thought, anarchy.


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