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Reform, Gridlock, Despair, and Hope Published: Sunday, June 18, 2006 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

I will like to share with the readers a question related to institutional reform: Is it possible, here inPuerto Rico, to work with our best insights, our best knowledge sets and our best spirits for designing, reforming, reorganizing or revitalizing government? My humble answer after more than three decades of research, study and practice is that yes, we can do it. The question is more than theoretical and it presents an interesting paradox. As I have been vagabonding throughout the system of institutions for a very long time, working in different projects, I have met people who really care for public and private execution and service, and who have compelling visions of change. But after we talked and shared intimacy for a while, the conversation often takes a discouraging turn. No matter how hopeful the dialogue has been, no matter how many of our colleagues have embraced a new vision, no matter how many practical possibilities are identified, someone will say, “These are wonderful ideas, but all of them will be defeated by the deteriorated conditions of the institutional system”. The cry is always followed by a litany of institutional, political and economic impediments to reform.

Grant, for the moment, that institutions are as powerful and resistant to change as the pessimists say they are. The question then is “Has significant change ever been achieved in the face of massive institutional opposition? The answer seems clear: only in the face of such opposition has significant change been achieved. If an institutional system has the capacity for constant evolution, there would never been a crisis demanding transformation.

The counter point to institutional resistance takes the form of social and professional action which is what we are experiencing these days inPuerto Rico.

Organizations and change agents both play creative roles, but to quite different ends. Organizations represent the principle of order and conservation, in short, the status quo. They are the vessels in which society holds hard won treasures from the past. Change agents represent the principle of constant flux, change and transformation. They are the means by which a society channels its energies for renewal and transformation. A HEALTHY SOCIETY WILL ENCOURAGE INTERPLAY BETWEEN THE TWO. Reform-minded organizational leaders will often welcome change agents energies, despite the chaos they sometimes bring, and change agents (which very often have to come from outside the system) must understand that they need organizational structures to sustain whatever reform they may want to achieve.

When old organizational assumptions are imposed on problems that require new change sensibilities, because these organizations are thought to define the limits within which organizational change can occur, the outcome is often despair. The practical and working question is “How can the power contained within the structures of this institutional system be arranged or redesign to achieve the desired goals? This is a crucial question when posed in real context, but a dangerous one when it assumes that reforming the institutional system is the only game in town…

But there is another way and it is finding traditional resistance as the source of energy, as the place where everything begins, not ends. From this perspective change not only happens in spite of institutional resistance, but resistance helps change happen. The resistance itself is the best evidence of the need of something new. It encourages change agents to imagine and create alternatives. And it also energizes those who respond to the calling of giving their best toward those ends. Thus, this is a formidable source of hope and will of purpose.

We can distill the essential dynamics of this kind of progression:

  •  Individuals make an educated decision to live divided no more.
  • Individuals and groups begin to discover one another and form a community of congruence that offers mutual support and opportunities to develop a shared vision. 
  • These communities start “going public” and learning to convert their private concerns into social, economic and competitiveness, ventures, and receiving vital critiques in the process. 
  • A system of alternative rewards emerges to put pressures for change on the conventional institutional reward system. A new social contract emerges.

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