Do you want your Minister to be a telecom expert or a good politician?

Posted on Tuesday, July 03, 2018

There will be a new government in Colombia on August 7th and the ICT Minister has not been named and there will be a new government in Mexico on December 1st but the Minister of Communications has already been named. If you had your choice – which you don’t – what kind of Minister would you rather have? A technocrat who knows the industry or a politician who knows how to operate his or her cellphone but probably not much more.

Iván Duque won a run-off election on June 17th 2018 and he will be inaugurated on August 7th. Following Colombian tradition, he will name his cabinet only after he is sworn in. Some positions are already ‘well known’ even if not confirmed by the President-elect and others will only be filled as things unfold post inauguration. It can take up to a month or more for the cabinet to be complete, especially frankly ‘Tier 2’ positions like ICT.

(Yes, I know calling it ‘Tier 2’ is harsh and ICT is the path to the future but how would you not argue that Finance, Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice and, in Colombia’s case especially, Defense, were not somehow ‘more equal than others’?)

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (better known as AMLO) won an overwhelming victory on July 1st but will only be sworn in on December 1st. But he named some of the key ‘Tier 1’ positions in the second of his two victory speeches and by the next day Convergencia Latina was reporting that 80-year old Javier Jiménez Espriú, a mechanical engineer will be the new Secretary of Communications and Transportation. He worked most of his life in UNAM but served on a number of telecom-related councils and boards, including that of Telmex (but probably pre-privatization i.e. before 1990). His full bio in Spanish can be read here on AMLO’s website.

So Mexico will have a Minister that is an engineer and with experience in telecom but who may not have a Twitter account or be posting pictures of what he had for lunch in Instagram.

However, the choice is consistent with AMLO’s ‘Back to the Future’ strategy to return the country back to the halcyon days of President Lazaro Cárdenas (1934 to 1940). Jiménez Espriú may even remember him.

Unlike AMLO, who managed to also achieve a majority for his coalition in both houses of Congress, Iván Duque has more horse-trading to do. The odds are high that he will have to find a job somewhere for person X who will cement the loyalty of party Y to his programs. Person X is unlikely to be octogenarian (Duque says he wants a ‘young’ cabinet) but likewise there is no guarantee that he or she knows much of anything about ICT except as a user.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?

Firstly, Colombia has a (theoretically) independent regulator and spectrum management agency. The head of the spectrum agency has to be an engineer by law and the regulatory commissioners have always (in my 20-year experience) been telecom experts, either with experience in the private sector, Colombia’s State-Owned-Enterprises, government, or private practice. They tend to be lawyers but that is not a bad thing either in a regulator.

So it is less of a requirement for the Minister to be ‘ICT-literate’ because the (theoretically) independent technocratic agencies are designed to have the necessary knowledge and experience to make informed decisions.

Secondly, as the industry matures, a user’s perspective is not a bad one to have in a policy-making role. The telecom industry especially is often charged with being too technologically-focused – more toys for the engineers to play with – and insufficiently attuned to its customers’ needs. If the regulatory and the spectrum agency are handling the techno-bits, the Ministry should focus on users and, for an ICT Ministry, on developing the enablers of economic growth that ride on the technology.

Finally, Colombia (and most/all Latin American countries) need enabling legislation to get things done. It is a fact of the legal system. The Ministry can have its own programs and can issue decrees but to affect real change needs at the very least a Presidential decree or a law in Congress.

So at the end of the day what would you rather have as a Minister?

An octogenarian mechanical engineer whose experience in telecom may have been in the 80s?

Or a ‘mere politician’ who uses technology and who understands how to get things signed by the President and moved through Congress?

Give me your choices in the comments below.


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