Governance and the “legacy received"...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When I hear so many newly-elected leaders complain of the “state in which they’ve found their offices"... I recall the Russian story "The Three Envelopes", that I published years ago (El País, 13 November 1982) and which is certainly applicable today, those who will soon assume office are following the well-established custom of initially exaggerating the situation, despite the fact that in the specific case that I allude to here and in many others they were quite aware of the seriousness of the situation from their own “homegrown” experiences in the Autonomous Communities where they have governed for quite some time.

There are more than a few predictable new comers who are talking of the urgent necessity of making “structural reforms”, in general, just like that... as in the Russian story:
"The new Rector still speaks favorably of you?". I vigorously indicated that he did, making gestures with my lips and head to show my full conviction that it was so, which perhaps did not disguise my surprise at the question. “Well, he will soon cease to do so, you’ll see", observed a well-know Russian scientist visiting the University of Granada. His assertion that my successor would inevitably blame me for many of his problems had left me quite perplexed. Observing that, he continued: "Do you know the story of the three envelopes? It’s an old Russian tale that is applicable to all transfers of power. When leaving office, the out-going official discreetly leaves the newly-elected official three envelopes numbered 1, 2 and 3, telling him to keep them in the middle drawer of his desk and to open them in numerical order when he feels he is really in trouble.

After a few days, perhaps a few weeks, the initial favorable perspectives have faded; everything becomes difficult, there are many urgent problems... and in the loneliness of his office, the new official decides to open his predecessor’s first envelope. The letter it contains simply says “Criticize me. Blame it on me"... And despite it all, the advice worked and, in effect, for several months the new leader was able to manage the situation by referring to his predecessor’s mistakes, the “lamentable state in which he left all of this” or “the former leader’s total lack of foresight", etc.

But of course the time comes when the transfer of power is too distant a memory to blame everything on the predecessor. And things are not going well and, why deny it? It is improbable, very improbable that such complicated situations can really improve substantially. And the time arrives when the lonely, stressed leader opens the center drawer of his desk and takes out the second envelope. The letter inside reads: "Nothing can be done with the present structures. Change them". The structural reforms bring our man much personal satisfaction and prompts great expectations. For a while the reforms implemented (some of them so admittedly irrelevant, such as moving the 6th floor offices to the 2nd floor, and the 2nd floor archives to the 6th) boost the leader’s image and warrant the praise of his superiors.

But although it may be a result of the logical wear and tear of holding a position of power, or more frequently due to the leader’s ineffectiveness and incompetence in office –and here my colleague’s expression was dark and fatalistic- sooner or later a point is reached in which even new structures don’t resolve the serious problems faced by the protagonist of our story.

Circumstances become such that, recognizing that it is his last recourse, he nervously opens the third envelope which reads: "Rapidly prepare three envelopes for your successor. Your dismissal is imminent".

Since then I have frequently reminded this splendid Russian story. And I am reminded of it today with satisfaction that the fundamental changes that have taken place in our country allow it to be told again... And as then, but even moreso now, we can revisit the story in light of the fact that here there have been no resounding dismissals in the governmental change of power, but rather an ordered transfer of functions prompted by elections. Moreover, regardless of whether the first-envelope measures may sometimes be warranted and the second-envelope measures reasonable, alternation in power characteristic of democratic countries precludes their being a third envelope, because those in power in truly free countries know that they are being watched by the real protagonists of democracy: the people.

And the people are well aware of the moral of the Russian story of the three envelopes...