Systems Thinking and Why Federalism Will Work

Photo Credit: kenteegardin via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: kenteegardin via Compfight cc

I discovered Systems Thinking a few years ago thanks to some lectures based on a book by Peter Senge entitled The Fifth Discipline. It is the process of seeing things as part of a bigger picture, an overarching ecosystem of interdependence where a small change in one part can cause massive changes in another.

We live in a culture where self-help articles and books abound. There is always some new-fangled diet around the corner which promises to shed off x-pounds of fat in x-weeks. There are new ways of organizing your messy desk, or new techniques to manage your time, and so on and so forth. The focus is on YOU to change YOUR behavior by sheer force of willpower.

The number of overweight people, messy desks and messy schedules attest to how ineffective those methods really are.

Systems-thinking trains one to think about the STRUCTURES which affect behavior, and aims to change those structures in order to influence and change behavior.

Let me give an example. In the past, firecracker-related injuries during the holiday season have been a problem all over the Philippines. No matter matter how many infomercials and ad campaigns the government release showing mutilated and bloody hands or other body parts, January 1’s headlines would always tell you how many hundreds of people suffered from firecracker-related injuries yet again.

The campaigns were ineffective because they focused on people to change themselves, but no changes were made in the the bigger system or environment in which they lived to encourage that change. The thinking was, “Why should I not celebrate with firecrackers when all my friends and neighbors are doing so? I’m missing out on all the fun.” Since the system did not encourage change, nothing happened.

As far back as the year 2000, Duterte and the local government of Davao showed they understood systems thinking when they enacted a local ordinance banning firecrackers in the city. The result of that change is palpable as Davao just celebrated 15 years of ZERO firecracker-related injuries in the city. But aside from merely being an impressive statistic, it has also resulted in changing people’s opinions about firecrackers. When the law was first enacted, many thought that new year would be boring. After all, how could one celebrate new year without noisy explosions? But today, many are appreciative of the ordinance, and we have learned to celebrate new year in more meaningful ways, perhaps in family gatherings where there is more focus on conversation, or reflection and gratitude for the past year.

The same can be said for the No Smoking ordinance, the speed limits, the 1/3-2/3 sidewalk rule, and so on and so forth which makes Davao what it is.

At present, one of Duterte’s major platforms in his presidential bid is the shift to federalism. A lot of opponents have brought up objections about it, saying that local governments aren’t ready for it. Writers such as Michael Henry Yusingco say that “the overdependence of local government executives on the Internal Revenue Allotment and the continued existence of central-government largesse, or pork barrel funds, signify the stark reality that the development perspective of local leaders has not reached the level of sophistication necessary to sustain a federal government structure.” Moreover they cite the prevalence of political dynasties as proof that the country is not yet ready or mature enough for a federal structure.

What these people fail to understand is that it is the current over-centralized government system which bred all these problems in the first place. Why are local government executives over-dependent on revenue allotments or pork barrel funds? It is not because they “have not reached” a certain level of sophistication. It is because the current system REWARDS them for doing so.

Why are political dynasties prevalent? The same thing, the current system REWARDS them, not for developing their local economy, but for sucking up to Malacañang so they can get a slice of the “countrywide development fund” which is hardly used to develop the country but to fatten their own pockets.

Systems-thinking shows that if you want to develop lasting change, you must tweak the system in order to do so. How can our local executives ever be ready or mature enough for a federal system if you do not first CHANGE the system such that persisting in their old behavior will no longer bring the rewards they are used to receiving?

I am not saying that federalism is a cure-all as it brings its own problems and the leadership has to work hard to implement the system and educate the people about it.

It is, however, a step in the right direction and we must be willing to take that step. As the old Chinese saying by Lao Tzu goes, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Email me at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

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