If I stayed here with you… Things just couldn’t be the same

Posted on Thursday, August 16, 2018

I have a theory that longevity in senior positions brings better results. Yes, the truly incompetent should be removed as quickly as possible but by the time someone is considered to be a candidate to be CEO or Minister of Communications they should be at least functional at their position.

With politicians this is especially important because they tend to suffer from something known as ‘Adam syndrome’ – the tendency to take office assuming that they are the first to have ever held the position. Since it is common to replace the top two or three layers of management (or more) to ensure loyalty (and pay debts) its is as if nothing was ever was ever done before in the office.

True, there is the advantage of seeing the problems with fresh eyes. But good ideas likewise get ignored, unfunded or cancelled for the simple reason that the new team pays completely ignores what the old team had done.

The shorter the tenure, the more good ideas get wasted.

Unfortunately, some heads of state like to rotate ministers frequently, especially when the ministry is what might be thought of as ‘Tier 2’ (or even ‘Tier 3’).

Depending on the country and the political structure there is usually no debate that the Minister of Finance, Minister of Foreign Affairs and (usually) Ministers of Defense, Justice and Interior are ‘heavyweight’ positions.

But, unfortunately, industry-specific positions like the Minister of Communications or Minister of ICT or related topics are not necessarily ones that get the head-of-state’s attention. “Do your job and keep out of the newspapers unless it is good news and I am mentioned” are the usual orders. As such they can be swapped out on an as-required basis, either because the incumbent wants to move on or because there is a compelling political need.

I find this a fascinating topic (as you might have guessed) and, for other Colombian ministries, I have calculated average tenures by president to get an idea of policy stability. The results can be depressing.

Since Colombia is starting a new Presidential period (Iván Duque) with a new Minister of ICT (Sylvia Constaín), I decided to look at the history of MinComs and MinTICs as they are known in the country.

Luckily, the MinTIC website has the list going back to 1926 when the Ministry of Communications was established. However, it does not have start / stop dates; only the list of Ministers for each President. Thus the graph above is the length of the President’s tenure (normally four years) divided by the number of Ministers. The methodology explains why so many values repeat: there are a limited number of values of number of Ministers and the number of days for a President is (normally) 1461 (four years, one of which is a leap year). The least number of ministers was 1 (Santos I) and the most was 7 (Lopez I).

This calculation is mathematically correct but, like all averages, distorts the situation.

There is a strong tendency for Ministers to quit in the last year of a Presidency because Colombian electoral rules require them to be out of the government for a certain period before they can run for public office. If they quit on July 31st of the last year (the last possible date legally) then maybe no Minister is appointed before a new government starts on August 7th, just a week later. If however, they want some vacation or want to get a head start on campaigning, they may quit a few weeks or even months prior. Then the President will appoint a new Minister who will serve out the remaining (short) period.

As an example, during the first term of Álvaro Uribe (Uribe I in the graph), Martha Helena Pinto de De Hart quit on July 18, 2006 and her replacement, Maria del Rosario Guerra de Mesa, was appointed on the 19. She served until the end of that government (less than 20 days later). Unusually for Colombia, Álvaro Uribe repeated as president in 2006-2010 (Uribe II) and Guerra stayed on until his last year, but quitting early in the last year on January 31st, 2010. Eighteen days later, Daniel Enrique Medina Velandia was appointed and he served until the presidential period ended (a little less than 6 months later on August 7th). Thus Álvaro Uribe had two ministers in each period for an average of 731 days. More correctly, he had three ministers over his two periods for an average of 975 days. But he had one minister for 1,441 days, another for 1,292 days and one for only 170 days.

I only have detailed data (start / stop) for the last four presidential periods and that gives me the next chart.

CEO typically serve longer but these tenures look good. Apart from, one serving only for 3 months and one for under 6 months (both at the end of a Presidency which can be ‘lame duck’), the least of these ministers had 3 years and the most nearly five years to execute their strategies.

That is enough time to conceive a strategy, get it funded, get laws changed if necessary to support it and at least start on execution.

Now whether their successor will carry that strategy on for another four years is a different question, normally one for which it is better for one’s emotional health not to ask. A lot of ministers consider themselves to be Adam (even if women).

If I leave here tomorrow / Would you still remember me?[i]

[i] Free bird, Lynyrd Skynyrd, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0W1v0kOELA Free Bird lyrics by Allen Collins / Ronnie Van Zant © Universal Music Publishing Group


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