[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Leonardo Villar, Executive Director of the Foundation for High Education and Development (Fedesarrollo), a Colombian think tank that developed two experiences intended to influence electoral campaigns, in 2010 and 2014.]
For the 2014 presidential elections in Colombia, Fedesarrollo prepared a series of five research documents on a number of relevant issues for the next government’s economic and social policy, which were used as the main inputs to promote public debate among the various candidates that participated in the election. The organisation intended to replicate a successful 2010 experience. The final balance, as in 2010, was very satisfactory.
The fact that one of the candidates, Juan Manuel Santos, was the President with reelection chances gave the last campaign new features that reduced the possibility of public debate to take place. However, we were still able to organise events with the presence of candidates and the proposals were presented in the documents prepared by Fedesarrollo had and keep having a high media visibility. It is certain that these documents will be of big help at the time of defining the priorities and implementing the policies of the government that took office on August 7th 2014.
Choice of topics
The first decision we made had to do with the policy issues that the project would address. This choice took place nine months before the elections, in order to have enough time for writing. This decision was made between the Executive Office and a specific Committee designated by the Council of Fedesarrollo.
We considered issues that we believed to be central for the social and economic development of the country for the next four years. At the same time, we discarded issues in which the current government showed a well-defined direction (for instance, road infrastructure), those in which we felt enough had been said already, those in which we perceived that important decisions would be made before the elections hence diminishing the relevance of our studies (that was the case of health for instance), and those issues in which, even though fundamental for the economic and social development of the country, we did not feel that we had enough expertise and technical strength to contribute as an institution (for instance, judicial reform).
In the end, we chose the following five issues:
- Rural and Agrarian Development,
- Education quality improvement,
- Comprehensive care for early childhood,
- Innovation and business entrepreneurship, and
- Tax perspectives.
In every case, the authors were encouraged to consider the political feasibility of their proposals.
Choice of authors
We chose the authors based on a range of criteria, but mainly on their expertise on each of the policy issues. It was necessary to make sure that we had a group of authors that combined senior and junior researchers of Fedesarrollo (that was the case of the study on tax perspectives), with colleagues from other academic institutions (researchers from Los Andes and del Rosario universities developed an educational quality study and the Director of the Center of Studies on Economic Development from the Los Andes University helped with the research on early childhood), and former policy makers (a former Minister of Agriculture and two-times Minister of Finance and a former Vice-Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development were involved in the production of the document of Rural and agrarian development; and a former Director of the National Planning Department participated in the Innovation and business entrepreneurship document).
In every case, we tried to involved people with broad experience and credibility, in order to ensure not only the quality of the studies but also to increase the possibility of influencing public opinion and the presidential candidates.
Thus, the choice of authors reveals, on the one hand, the need to build alliances with other researchers and institutions with methodological expertise to carry out the research required for these initiatives, and on the other hand, the importance of involving recognised actors in their fields and who possess the capacity to influence the policy community.
Funding of the studies
Fedesarrollo has limited resources of its own and the greatest part of its research has to be produced as part of projects commissioned by third parties. For the presidential debates, however, it was fundamental to define the policy issues independently from the availability of funding. For three of the studies, resources from a patrimonial fund built over years and based on donations were used -the Germán Botero de los Ríos Fund, which is used to fund one or two annual projects awarded through public competition by Fedesarrallo. Regarding the other two studies, we were able to obtain funding from two foundations interested in the issues: Fundación Compartir, which had promoted a study on teaching, collaborated with the document of education quality improvement, and Fundación Éxito provided resources for comprehensive care for early childhood.
In both cases, the foundations had already supported similar studies, and helped by involving the same researchers in the project.
Public debates, Alliances and the Media
The most complex issue was to secure the candidates’ commitment to participate in public debates. The fact that President Santos had big chances of being reelected, and that at the beginning of the campaign the surveys showed he had a very large advantage over his contenders led to his advisors recommending him not to expose himself to a debate that may affect his public image. Moreover, candidate Enrique Peñalosa emerged with great strength from a public consultation process developed by the Green Party, matching the legislative elections that took place in March. Surveys situated him second, far from the other three candidates from the Uribista movement “Centro Democrático”, from the Conservative Party, and the left-wing movement Polo Alternativo.
Under these circumstances, both Santos and Peñalosa adopted an explicit non-participation policy towards public debates, at least during the first phase of the campaign.
This situation created big obstacles for organising the events we had planned in order to entice the candidates to discuss the findings of our studies. Initially, we planned to carry out debates in four cities: Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla. To make this happen, we developed an alliance with Portafolio, the most important economic newspaper of the country, and we looked for local engagements with chambers of commerce in Bogotá, Cali and Barranquilla. In the case of Medellín, we made a deal with Proantioquia, an influential business foundation that promotes regional development.
The difficulties involved in bringing together the two best-positioned candidates, Santos and Peñalosa, forced us to cancel events in Barranquilla and Cali, leaving us with the ones in Medellín and Bogotá.
Despite these difficulties, we were able to finally execute these two events with success. In the case of Medellín, we gathered four out of five candidates to the Vice-presidency. The only candidate that did not assist was Santos’ candidate. The meeting was attended by 250 people, a high number if we consider the apathy towards the electoral process that had taken hold in Colombia. On the other hand, the event in Bogotá aimed to bring together the presidential candidates themselves. This event took place very close to the elections, when the vote intention of the candidate of Centro Democrático had already increased. The debate was therefore more attractive: 500 people assisted plus 11,500 who joined via web-streaming. However, Santos did not assist and the candidate for the left-wing movement, Polo Alternativo, had to cancel due to last-minute difficulties linked to the fact that the debate was held the day before all campaigns were due to end.
Publication and post-electoral public debate
Apart from the events’ attendance, the work developed by Fedesarrollo for the presidential debates produced and keeps producing an important impact. The documents were published in the form of five books which are part of a series we called Fedesarrollo’s Notebooks, which were massively disseminated (more than 1,000 copies each), besides their availability on the internet, where their received a big number of consultations.
Moreover, in our monthly publication, Tendency, we have written two editorials that helped center the issues in the general public debate, even after the elections, considering the decisions that the next government will have to adopt. We carried out several interviews and our work was used in different media. At the same time, we trust that the documents will have a determining influence in the Development Plan and the definition of many policies from de next government.
Some final lessons
Regarding the choice of topics, it is important to focus on those relevant for the development of the country. Moreover, it is necessary to recognise which issues the organisation does not possess enough expertise on and consequently needs to build alliances with other institutions and researchers.
Regarding the authors, in addition to the recognition they enjoy in their fields of expertise, it is necessary to consider their relational capital so that it contributes to the influence of the initiative.
Regarding funding, it is desirable to count with one’s own funds in order to define the policy issues independently. Another option is to involve business foundations to support some specific issues of their interest.
Regarding promotion of debates among the candidates, our experience reveals that an electoral campaign with low competitiveness discourages the participation of those candidates with the best vote intention.
In a country with strong regionalisms as in Colombia, it is important to promote debates in different regions. In order to do this, alliances with national actors with territorial scope may be considered (newspapers or chambers of commerce), as well as regional actors.
Regarding the timing of the debate, it is important to keep certain distance from the campaign’s closure, since the candidates will have less time to participate. However, we need to consider that the candidates’ interest to participate in these public events as well as the willingness of citizens to listen to them will increase as we get closer to the election date.
As for how to continue after the elections, we consider that it is very important to consolidate the production in broader publications, which ideally should be part of a usual editorial line of the organisation.
[Editor’s Note: this post was translated to Spanish by Federico Frascheri.]