Puerto Rico's renewal
© Getty Images

The summer of 2019 witnessed a masterful demonstration of civic engagement by the people of Puerto Rico. When accusations of corruption, misconduct, and deceit threatened to tarnish the island’s reputation, the people of Puerto Rico —both home and abroad— took to the streets peacefully to clean house and show the world that civility and honesty can prevail in the face of daunting political challenges. This wave for renewal, to collectively reevaluate leaders and hold them accountable is important in the context of Puerto Rico’s ongoing recovery process and it belies the notion that only Washington wants to safeguard the federal dollars financing the island’s recovery.

The people of Puerto Rico have shown that they care deeply about accountability and they want federal recovery dollars to serve their intended purpose. Yet the prevailing mistrust in Puerto Rico’s political elite and public institutions has been used as justification for increased federal intervention. Numerous organizations and political figures have already called on the federal government to tighten its grip on Puerto Rico and also to dramatically expand the authority of the Financial Oversight and Management Board. 

To be sure, transparency and accountability are of the essence — there is no doubt that Puerto Rico and the U.S. would benefit from effective oversight mechanisms. But restoring confidence will not be accomplished through the imposition of retaliatory or punitive control measures that hinder the recovery process and further delay the flow of funds.

The idea of relinquishing Puerto Rico’s recovery efforts to a recovery “czar” or to a more powerful Oversight Board fails to heed important lessons in the aftermath of other disasters. Imported boilerplate solutions limit the ability of local workers to grow professionally and erode Puerto Rico’s capacity for self-governance. Granted, the governance framework will need to be retooled to satisfy calls for greater transparency and better procedures, but suggesting that this can only be done by an external body oversimplifies the task at hand, and perhaps worse, disregards demands from the very people that are trying to get back on their feet. 

As with any recovery mission, first there must be a clear understanding and diagnosis of the problem. Disasters tend to stress-test the capacity of a government to effectively manage recovery and reconstruction phases. And in the case of Puerto Rico, the inherent challenges posed by a large-scale recovery process are complicated by the island’s bankruptcy, the largest in US history. In light of the above, the Center for a New Economy (CNE) has identified five key challenges to Puerto Rico’s recovery process: (1) ineffective coordination among stakeholders, (2) poor public participation platforms, (3) superficial transparency efforts, (4) sluggish outlay of recovery funds, and (5) lack of an effective oversight mechanism. 

The recovery process has been plagued by a lack of coordination among and between federal, state and municipal agencies. Yet, instead of drawing up sensible solutions, the response thus far has been to impose additional layers of federal oversight with no thought given to how these new controls might interact with the players that comprise this massive reconstruction effort. Oversimplification is not sound policy.

Rather, CNE favors oversight that works. Oversight that works ensures adequate mechanisms are in place to monitor the planning process for the recovery. Oversight that works also safeguards the integrity of government procurement and contracting practices. Oversight that works guarantees the implementation of objective criteria for the prioritization and selection of recovery projects and sectorial investments. And oversight that works responds to the people most affected by the disaster. 

Puerto Rico has an opportunity to rework its recovery process so that it engenders the trust and confidence of its people and officials in Washington, D.C. To achieve this, CNE suggests a locally-driven process based on widely accepted best practices. In particular, we urge: (1) a systematic practice of meaningful transparency that publicly discloses how contracts are selected and how policies are devised; (2) a governance structure that aligns its actions to specific indicators and permits continuous evaluation and evidence-based decisions; (3) a clear commitment to abide by open government principles that promote civic participation, enhance government accountability, and respond to public needs; (4) a central information and communication mechanism to inform on current conditions, thereby facilitating collective decision making; and (5) the creation of a Civic Committee for Transparency and Reconstruction to provide the effective oversight of the reconstruction process that both the federal government and the people of Puerto Rico strongly demand and deserve. Washington should listen to Puerto Rico’s call for renewal.

Rosanna Torres is Director of the Center for a New Economy’s Washington, D.C. Office.