Future Tense

Can a Former Authoritarian State Embrace Open Government?

Mexico’s early attempts at transparency failed. But new efforts may actually work.

Former Mexican president Vicente Fox

Former Mexican President Vicente Fox

By Mario Tama

This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Sept. 6, Future Tense will join Aventura Capital Partners in Mexico City to host a conference on the “mobile city,” exploring how to make government information freely available to the public.

Transparency and open data make for more efficient governments. They are a prerequisite for accountability, and in the United States, this idea is being embraced on federal, state, and local levels. Yet in many nations, such as my home country of Mexico, these are rather new concepts. Here, we are making progress, but big challenges remain. Some of these obstacles are unique to Mexico, but other lessons we are learning may help those elsewhere who also seek to bring openness and a two-way flow of information to their own states.

Let us start at the beginning. In 2000, when Vicente Fox ousted the PRI from the Mexican presidency after 71 years of authoritarian rule, there was a feeling that good things were going to happen in terms of transparency and accountability. In fact, a crucial part of Fox’s campaign was based on the idea that his administration could effectively fight corruption and secrecy. In this new scheme, the citizen had a front-row seat to watch government carry out (or neglect) its duties.

In 2003, the first federal Transparency and Freedom of Information Act was enacted. It implemented a pretty simple, straightforward Web-based system that journalists, activists, and academics quickly began to use. For the first time in decades, information on all kinds of issues began to flow, from how much money Vicente Fox spent on bath towels or groceries to more serious stuff such as governmental contracts and crime data. Back then, “Mexico began to be perceived as a model of open government,” says Juan Pardinas, the general director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness and a civil society representative for Mexico at the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee. Yet, after those initial steps, the momentum slowed, falling short of what Mexico needed or expected. There is still no way a regular citizen can access crucial information and demand accountability. “It’s like we fell asleep while the rest of the world moved forward,” says Pardinas.

What happened?

The legislative branch and political parties remain closed-door. In many cases, those in charge of transparency are the ones that benefit the most from secrecy.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle was that state and local governments, which basically remain black boxes in terms of information and accountability, failed to follow the federal government’s lead. By ignoring—or even opposing—the reforms offered by the open government and open-data movements, local and state governments have practically canceled out those long-awaited first steps. That’s because as in the United States, most of the issues that affect the daily lives of Mexicans are dealt with at the state and local levels—trash, street lighting, education. So an interested citizen often becomes a frustrated one, unable to get information or demand accountability from a closed government. One of many examples of this is the case of the state of Michoacán, in which the officer in charge of auditing state finances was previously responsible for managing them.

There is an additional problem when it comes to using data to participate in the public sphere: Most Mexican authorities have not made very smart technological decisions. For example, Compranet, a Web-based platform to monitor all government purchases and arguably one of its most powerful technological tools, is a Kafka-esque labyrinth: complicated and nonfunctional. If Compranet’s platform were user-friendly, any Mexican could track down governmental contacts. But it’s virtually impossible to navigate, rendering an apparently sincere attempt at openness moot. The Mexican authorities have seemed to forget that the regular citizen should not have to be tech-savvy to benefit from these initiatives.

Despite the obvious challenges, I am positive about the future. The states of Oaxaca and Sonora, plus the Federal District, “are beginning to organize” and implement open-government projects, says Jorge Soto, the CEO of Citivox, a start-up that uses technology to enhance the communication between citizens and their institutions. For example, over the last few years, civil society, think tanks, programmers, journalists, and local authorities in Mexico City have been engaging in a constructive dialogue, promoting hackathons. Some ideas to come out of these events include Becalia, a platform “allowing firms and civil society to sponsor students with limited economic means to continue their higher education”; a website aimed at improving transport strategies using data from the Policy Institute for Transport and Development, and an open government tool developed by Oaxaca’s Ministry of Finance to improve transparency.

Perhaps most importantly, people are now getting excited about the ideas, instead of just seeing them as boring paper-pushing. There were only 30 people at the first hackathon I attended about a year and a half ago. To tell you the truth, it seemed more like a conference than a high-energy hackathon. Since then, a vibrant community has begun to emerge: programmers, activists, journalists, and even government officers pushing to reframe the function of governments through technology.

In her inspiring TED talk, Jennifer Pahlka, co-founder of Code for America, argues that technology is making it possible to reframe the function of governments. Active citizens get involved in the public sphere through innovative strategies and find better solutions for common challenges. “[T]here’s a generation out there that’s grown up on the Internet, and they know that it’s not that hard to do things together, you just have to architect the systems the right way,” she says.

Mexico’s  demonstrates that perseverance has its rewards. The fight for transparency and accountability is a hard one, especially when authoritarian practices remain commonplace. Slowly, though, citizens and authorities can start to work together, instead of seeing each other as adversaries.

Also in the Future Tense package on government and open data: why Yelp and the government should share data; what a burger mob tells us about the future of democracy; and the fight to keep data free from political influence.