Policy Papers and Presidential Debates - Fedesarrollo, Colombia

2nd Place Winner, 2011 CIPE Leading Practices Contest

The problem:
Following a first round election on May 30, Colombians elected a president in a run-off on June 20, 2010. Fedesarrollo developed the program with the purpose of raising the quality of the debate on economic issues during the first round of the presidential campaign and of providing policy proposals to the incoming administration.

The practice:
Fedesarrollo, in association with Corporación Andina de Fomento (CAF), commissioned eight policy-oriented papers to local experts. In parallel, contacts were established with all candidates running for president and it was agreed that they (or their running mates) would participate in three public debates. Ground rules were agreed with the candidates, including: (i) candidates would receive the peer-reviewed papers two weeks prior to each debate. (ii) debates would take place in three cities; (iii) each debate would be co-organized with the local chamber of commerce to ensure strong attendance of local stakeholders; (iv) each debate would have a live audience of two to three thousand persons; (v) there would be live radio, Internet and regional TV coverage; (vi) Fedesarrollo and CAF would choose moderators; (vii) following the election, papers would be collected in a volume to serve as future reference, including to the new administration.

Why and how Fedesarrollo developed this practice:
Fedesarrollo´s mission is to contribute to enhancing the quality of public policy in Colombia. It was thought that holding public debates with candidates running for president around specific policy proposals (dealing with both the “what” and the “how” of policy reform) was a good opportunity to fulfill our mandate, in as much as candidates would have to make public statements regarding very specific policy alternatives on issues deemed relevant by the electorate. Fedesarrollo joined efforts with CAF and three chambers of commerce and the pulling of resources by all partners allowed for the commissioning of papers and the financing of a comprehensive dissemination effort.

Steps and tips for implementing the practice:
The practice was undertaken in four steps. The first was to commission the papers. A key element at this stage was to hold a competitive call for papers in the three topics (labor, taxes and infrastructure) in which several local experts were potentially available. The second was to convince the presidential candidates of the merits of the exercise, something that proved to be surprisingly simple, a testament to Fedesarrollo´s credibility as an independent think tank and more so to Colombia´s tradition of civil and not highly polarized electoral contests. The third step, the organization of the debates, was by far the most complicated. Our success stemmed in great part from having called on CAF and the chambers of commerce to become our partners. While CAF provided the financial support needed to undertake a highly professional communications effort both leading to the debates and during the debates themselves, the chambers of commerce were instrumental in ensuring interest from local stakeholders and with providing indispensable logistical support. In the final step, the papers were collected in a volume following the debates; 800 copies were printed and distributed to government officials of the new administration, members of congress, business associations, academic community, among others. During the electoral campaign, the book was available online as an e-book on Fedesarrollo’s web page.

Results of the practice and applications:
Fedesarrollo’s proposals played a role in shaping the legislative agenda during the second semester of 2010. Several debate topics have become priorities of President Santos´s administration, and this is no coincidence: informal discussion sessions based on the policy papers were held at Fedesarrollo with members of the transition team including the incoming Minister´s of Finance (July 21st), Agriculture (August 2nd) and Planning (August 13th). As Fedesarrollo had proposed in the tax system paper, the government successfully passed a bill last October phasing out the Financial Transaction Tax and eliminating certain income tax exemptions. The new administration also made ample use of the policy paper on labor markets to develop a law aimed at generating formal employment for youngsters and at the formalization of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. As Fedesarrollo had proposed, this law reduces payroll taxes. Following recommendations in the trade policy paper, last November the government issued a decree reducing tariffs in order diminish the anti-export bias and the negative effective protection identified in our paper. The new government also took on board the need to reform the regime governing royalties, much in line with the views that had been expressed in the policy paper dealing with sub-national finances. Finally, recent decisions to devote a large percentage of royalties to financing a public program on science and technology can be traced back to the policy paper on science, technology & innovation.

Lessons from the experience:
The practice we developed in 2010 is replicable in countries where presidential contests are characterized by a reasonable level of civility. In Colombia, candidates in the ideological extremes can be convened to a civilized debate regarding specific public policy issues. In countries where that option is feasible, independent think tanks should venture into the practice, taking into consideration country specificities. The task is highly demanding from an organizational perspective, and bringing partners on board is a prerequisite. Needless to say, the political independence of the organizations involved is critical for the credibility of the exercise. To meaningfully influence policy, an integral part of the practice has to include fluent communication with senior personnel from the incoming administration. To that effect, the policy papers have to be prepared following “best practices”, including attention not only to “what” ought to be reformed, but more importantly to the “how” of the reform process.

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