Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Postscripts to an election

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

Everyone had a story to tell about last Monday’s elections.

There were inspiring stories of how people endured the sweltering heat, the unbelievably long queues, and the horrible foul-ups in the system just to manifest their solemn civic duty. There were horror stories of precinct count optical scan machines heating up or simply malfunctioning, of shameless and blatant vote buying, of physical confrontations involving candidates and their supporters. There were tragic stories of people losing their lives in isolated skirmishes, of voters not being able to vote despite all the hardships they went through simply because someone somewhere goofed, of new forms of cheating and manipulating election results.

To my mind, though, the best story of this election is that it somehow worked. Despite the grim prognosis, the last-minute glitches, the sheer unpreparedness that characterized the whole shift from manual to automation—it somehow worked! There were some problems, of course. But wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles—it worked! It’s too early to make a categorical evaluation of the accuracy and the credibility of the results of the elections but most indications seem to converge on the conclusion that the automation program was relatively successful.

So can the Commission on Elections and the people from Smartmatic now gloat and snicker at all the doomsayers and everyone who had very little faith in the automation program? Not really.

I do not discount the technical competencies and the hard work of the Comelec and the people from Smartmatic but I must express my dismay at the abysmal level of project management skills that went into the whole automation program. It may be futile now to point out the many things that could have gone wrong with the PCOS machines, the memory cards, the software and the telecommunications components of the program because they somehow worked. But by golly, what risks we took! For an undertaking so major, for something that carried with it repercussions of epic proportions had it failed, it seemed we relied too much on luck and divine intervention.

Clearly, this was not the way to go. The glitches in the memory cards of the PCOS machines that were discovered during testing barely five days prior to the actual elections were unacceptable. It was a good thing the problem was fixed although the delivery of the memory cards to isolated areas could no longer be made in time for May 10.

What was also evident was that the automation program seemed solely focused on the technology part to the detriment of the other components of the change management process. Sure, there was massive information campaign on how to accomplish the ballots (hats off to whoever conceptualized that catchy jingle may bilog na hugis itlog), but it seemed nobody paid attention to the effective clustering of precincts, to capacity planning particularly the manning requirement per precinct and space allocation requirements, and crowd control. So what happened was that people didn’t have problems accomplishing the ballots and using the PCOS machines, but they had major problems trying to get into the voting precincts.

The sad thing was that the chaos, the long queues, the shoving, the searching for precincts—all these were preventable. My voting experience was a breeze—the precinct I was assigned to had fewer voters in its list. I was done in ten minutes. But in the hallways and in the other rooms, there was utter bedlam.

It seemed like this basic fact slipped some people’s minds: Our public schools have severe limitations in terms of how many people they can accommodate inside classrooms and in its hallways. Also, there are limits to what three teachers can do to manage a huge crowd of shoving, cursing, hungry, sweating voters.

I think we can all agree at this point that the whole exercise yielded powerful lessons that we should all be able to improve in three years’ time—assuming that we want to. I think the real problem is not automation per se but our utter incompetence in project management particularly in the aspect of change management.

It just strikes me that despite all the advances in science and technology we still seem to rely too much on miracles, or luck, or just sheer remedyo (quick fixes). There were just too many things that were wrong with the way the automation program was implemented and the prognosis was bad but we all went ahead with it, eyes closed and fingers crossed, believing that things will somehow work; in fact willing it to work with sheer determination and a host of good intentions. It’s been known to happen, after all. There have been many instances in the past when we as a people and as a nation were faced with absolute certainty of abysmal failure and yet still managed to survive—barely by the skin of our teeth—simply because of sheer luck or divine intervention.

I have this dreadful feeling that this has become our pattern. We’ve become so used to the fact that we’ve always managed to pull through at the last minute so we continue to take major risks.

In a way, I suspect that this is the paradigm shared by many among our leaders. For instance, most of them know that they don’t have the necessary resources to win an elective office but they still jump into the fray without the necessary preparation, the requisite platform, or even supporters to speak of; bahala na si Batman, or to borrow their favorite quote: Bahala na ang taong bayan (let the people decide).

It worked this time around. But I am not sure our luck will continue to hold out. I hope this was the last time we cast our collective fate to luck.

***

One of the advantages of an automated election is immediate knowledge of results. As I write, “partial and unofficial” tallies from various sectors already indicate clear winners. The results for the top two national posts as well as the first ten slots in the senatorial race already seem like a foregone conclusion.

Misgivings about certain winners are expected but the process of acceptance is now incumbent upon all of us. We need to start accepting certain things that are inevitable with a change in leadership. It’s difficult, but it needs to be done.

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