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Debate Notes and a Better Way to Test Presidential Candidates

Notes debates

Source: Screenshot from TV5 livestream

In Harvard Business School, majority of exams allow notes. That’s not because the faculty wants to make it easy for students. They want to make it harder.

In a typical Harvard case exam, students are asked to respond to broad, open-ended questions like “Should Uber launch a self-driving car?” or “How should Apple respond to federal requests for access to encrypted software?“. Not only do students have to write a convincing case, they have to do so with limited time and word count. It’s also hard because there are no right or wrong answers.

If you haven’t mastered the material, trained your mind how to think analytically, or break down issues in a structured manner, your notes won’t help you at all. If anything, they’ll make it harder to make a compelling argument.

In an increasing number of Harvard classes, the exams are  also practical: build an actual website that generates revenue. Or an app or a service that has actual users. Your notes would obviously mean very little for these.

(Personally, I would’ve advised Mar to just allow Jojo Binay to freely brandish his folders on stage. In the college debating world, we had this tactic of luring an opponent to spend a long time defending a position. And then in our speech, concede and agree to everything they just said – because it was irrelevant and the debate is something else entirely. Roxas could’ve pulled that trick. Think about it. “Sige po, Luchi – hayaan natin siyang gumamit ng codigo. Kaming tatlo, di namin kailangan.” Binay would’ve also looked like a bigger fool navigating throughout the paper work in a tiny desk, when everyone else spoke without notes.)

And that’s the biggest problem of debates so far: they tell us very little about the presidential candidates. I know they’re a necessary component in the showmanship of every democracy, but they barely scratch the surface. A major policy issue like climate change or drugs gets 2 minutes each. Half of the time is spent mud-slinging. They’re not real constructive conversations.

I think there’s a better way to assess: make each presidential candidate build an MVP.

No, no, not Manny V. Pangilinan. In startup parlance, an MVP is a “minimum viable product” – an early, rough prototype good enough to test a solution to a problem. In tech, it could be a bare bones website or mobile app. In retail, it could be product samples. The point is to have just a minimum number of features to a.) define a hypothesis, b.) build an experiment to test that hypothesis, c.) and gather data to validate or invalidate our hypothesis.

Here’s how it’ll work: we’ll ask each candidate to build an MVP for one, single issue they care about. They get to pick their own team of 5 people: engineers, developers, graphic artist, copywriters, etc. They’ll start on a Friday morning. They’ll each be filmed constantly – no cuts or edits – during the day from 9am to 6pm. On Sunday evening, they’ll be asked to demo their MVP in front of a live audience and streamed on YouTube. A panel of experts will ask tough questions.

Here are some ideas:

  • Jojo Binay likes to showcase the healthcare benefits Makati residents receive. His goal is to build an MVP for a site similar to Obamacare’s Healthcare.gov.   The site’s mission: provide universal health coverage for every Filipino.  At the end, he has to demo his work to a panel of doctors, HMO providers, technologists, and employers.
  • Grace Poe can build an MVP for a platform that centralizes all government and private sector services for overseas Filipinos, a constituency she leans on when critics question her patriotism.
  • Mar Roxas wants sustained economic growth. So he work on an MVP for an online platform that helps train senior high school students in data science, analytics, and computer science – three fields that are the next step in the value chain for our BPO industry, which obviously cannot rely on voice services to accelerate growth.
  • Rody Duterte likes local government, so he can build an app that enables participatory democracy, enabling citizens to take photos, report, and up-vote pressing local barangay and municipality level problems – think unfinished road repairs and empty clinics.

If it sounds like Startup Weekend, well it is. And more than any presidential debate or campaign rally, an exercise like this helps us understand:

  • How they think through tough problems. In the OFW example, is the problem to be tackled upstream opportunities for people who want to work abroad, or for existing OFWs? Grace’s answer will lead to entirely different MVPs. If she chooses the former, why? Why not the latter?
  • How each candidate prioritizes issues. In the healthcare example, do you start with building an interface for providers? Or for customer registration and validation? Why this sequence?
  • How they collaborate with a small team to reach an imperfect solution? What’s their management style? Do they ask a lot of questions? Or do they rely on personal domain expertise? Will they pick people who are smarter than they are? Or do they need to be the alpha in the room?
  • How do they deal with uncertainty? Do they go with their gut, rely on others, or leave the building to find data?
  • How they respond to feedback? How do they deal with tough questions?

In an earlier post, I wrote something on how the presidentiables can court the Entrepreneur Vote:

Make the candidates put themselves in the shoes of the entrepreneur. And not in a superficial way like visiting Aling Nena’s sari-sari store or manning a Jollibee counter for an hour. Each presidentiable will have 38 days to register a corporation. Why 38? Because that’s the World Bank measure of how long it takes. They have to get as far into the process as they can within that amount of time. I’ll give each candidate all the forms they need, and Php 5,000.00 each as initial paid-in capital. They have to fill up all the forms themselves in that event – no accountants, no lawyers.  Broadcast this live in front of the people. SEC Articles of Incorporation. By-Laws. BIR Forms. DTI. SSS. Pag-Ibig. City Permit. Barangay Clearance.

You get the drift: the idea is to make each presidentiable feel what every Filipino entrepreneur has to go through. All the presidentiables will be invited to a public forum to discuss their experience in front of small business owners.  This won’t be a debate format. Instead, we ask each candidate to answer the following:

  • Describe your experience in registering a company.
  • Diagnosis the process of starting the company. What were the bottlenecks? What worked? What didn’t?
  • Recommend the changes and how you would implement them.

*******

They can use all the notes they want in any of the above exercises. It’s not a debate, it’s real work. When the dust settles, we’ll have a treasure trove of data about each candidate. We get to have a glimpse into how a leader actually gets shit done.

The President is not just the head of state or the leader of the country. He or she is employee # 1. The President works for me. I’m the boss here. And so are you. I pay his salary every month. And so do you.

When we hire employees, we don’t just ask job candidates to tell us who they are and what their back story is. We get a sense of how they can actually get things done. A President is no different.

*******

As most of you know, I don’t proofread my articles – I write as I go along. All errors are mine. 

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