The Ripple Effects of the Mexican National Action Plan
Over the past year, political and social challenges have tested the relationship between civil society and government in Mexico. Not only has the government lost legitimacy in the eyes of many due to corruption and security scandals, but the most significant commitments in the Mexican National Action Plan will likely remain incomplete when the two-year period comes to a close later this summer. I would however like to suggest that OGP success be defined beyond the content of the National Action Plans. In the case of Mexico, for example there are a great number of “ripple achievements” that I believe are clearly side-effects of opening government.
Engagement is the backbone of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). Most engagement is associated with citizen participation. However, engagement with public officials responsible for implementing the National Action Plans is equally relevant. During the implementation of the Mexican National Action Plan, it was noted that in many cases government officials were more than willing to comply with the planned activities for the commitments, and were even excited at the challenge. It seemed that the possibility of innovating within their areas of expertise, while providing taxpayers with a greater quality of service, was motivation enough for them to go even further than what the specific commitments called for. (Unfortunately this was more the exception than the rule, as many government officials remained reluctant to advance commitments often due to legal constraints, political agendas, or institutional uncertainty. Nonetheless, we should not underestimate the importance of this small minority willing to act, in part thanks to OGP).
The implementation of the commitments set in this National Action Plan have compelled the government to rethink ways of doing things. Keeping in mind the parameters of individual government roles, government officers have been incentivized to find ways of bringing open government into their work. Some government officers implementing OGP commitments have even used the OGP process as an excuse to go beyond what was required in their commitments, for example by reformatting their databases or improving internal processes so as to collect more accurate data that has in turn fueled more effective decisions. By making new data available, and old data more accessible, many commitments have set in motion a wave of improvement from back office activities to delivery of public services. These activities run in addition to the actual objectives of the commitments.
Legal restrictions and system reforms have proven problematic in the current National Action Plan. Yet even when these have stalled or hindered the completion of the activities set forth in some of the commitments, Civil Society has been able to come in and influence the public agenda by creating broader awareness of the importance and relevance of certain OGP commitments.
While it is preferable to consider what is legally attainable when drafting commitments, current laws should not be a constraint. In many case the more ambitious a commitment is, the more difficult it will be to fulfill. The goal should not be to check a box on the National Action Plan, but rather to create new government norms, which will continue to grow and adapt to best serve a country’s citizens. A successful NAP commitment should not be seen as an agreement between two parties aiming for a specific objective, but rather as an impetus for change.
Finally, co-creation and collaboration between civil society and government should not end after the commitments have been developed. The relationship must continue during implementation phase so that both CSOs and government officials can influence, support and eventually own the results. Of course government will often have more power to determine the outcome of commitments (which usually require transformation inside government). However, by prevailing in their role as adviser, expert and active observer, CSOs in Mexico have strived for excellence in both the process and the end results. CSOs have sought intergovernmental coordination bringing to the table every relevant stakeholder within government for specific issues.
Continuity and the fixed term of National Action Plans have come up constantly as a challenge for National Action Plans. If the results obtained by the commitments are not followed-up, then two years of work risk becoming irrelevant. For this reason, the commitments will have to find a way of being embedded into the permanent government agenda in order to achieve real change within government processes.
There will never be perfect conditions for the implementation of an open government agenda, or the achievement of ideal results. Much of this depends on government officials, some of whom may be cooperative while others may not. If anything, the implementation process of Mexico’s second National Action Plan may have highlighted some of the constraints of the OGP process. However we have also learned that the real value of implementing the OGP methodology can often be in the strengthening of the role of civil society in the government processes, incentivizing transformation from within, and most of all, shifting traditional roles in the public arena.