Politicians love to make promises. Here in Mexico, presidential contender Enrique Peña Nieto even spent the morning of the first official day of campaigning at a public notary’s office where he signed his name next to his first three campaign promises.
But politicians, like most of us, find it easier to make promises than keep them.
In Chile back in 2010, newly inaugurated president, Sebastián Piñera, was eager to present his country with an ambitious program for change, covering everything from entrepreneurship to judicial reform to mining concessions. The bright, young open government activists at Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente (disclosure: grantee of my employer) wanted to know just how many of those legislative commitments had actually been achieved in the past two years. The answer: half way into Piñera’s term, he’s only been able to pass 24% of what he committed to.
When I sat down with Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente Director Felipe Heusser last month to take a look at the new site called “From What Was Said to What Was Done“, my first question was: “is 24% high or low?”
We simply don’t have enough data to compare. My hunch is that most politicians achieve less than 20% of the commitments they make during their campaigns, most of which remain forgotten in the depths of Google and recycled newspaper.
That may soon start to change thanks to a new trend in the online transparency community. The first website I’m aware of that set out to track the fulfillment of campaign promises by politicians is Mumbai Votes, which was first created back in 2004. (You can see Namita Singh’s interview with Mumbai Votes founder Vivek Gilani at the Technology for Transparency Network.)
Then in 2009 PolitiFact launched the Obameter, a compilation of President Obama’s 508 campaign promises, categorized by topic and the current level of fulfillment. (So far Obama has kept roughly 34% of his promises, which puts him well ahead of Chile’s Piñera.)
Last month, in Perú, the transparency organization Proetica — in partnership with the National Democratic Institute, Citivox, and Escuelab — launched Promesometro.pe, the “promise meter,” which encourages citizens to document and monitor the promises of politicians. The Monterrey-based Mexican newspaper El Norte launched its own Promesometro for the 2009 gubernatorial race in Mexico’s northern state of Nuevo Leon.
Of all the new promise-tracking platforms, the most intriguing for me is Arena Electoral, which has yet to track a single promise. But that’s because Mexico has yet to elect its next president. (Elections are in July.) Until then, Arena Electoral has worked with political scientists to develop a methodology to rank the four candidates’ proposals on 11 different issues. It has also grown a community of dozens of Mexico’s most respected civil society organizations and think tanks to participate in the evaluation of the candidate’s proposals. For example, Cencos and Espolea will evaluate the candidates’ proposals related to human rights while CIDAC, IDEA, and IMCO will evaluate their proposals for economic development. The strict methodology and the diversity of thought among all these organizations should help ensure something resembling objectivity. Throughout the campaign, Arena Electoral will create a database of each candidate’s campaign promises and then rank the fulfillment of each of those promises during the next president’s six-year term.
I believe that the demand for promise-tracking software is only just beginning. Carole Excell of The Access Initiative says that civil society organizations participating in this year’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development have called for a global registry of all commitments made by federal governments in international fora related to sustainable development. That’s right, a “sustainabledevelopmentometer.” OK, so they’ll come up with a better name.
There are similar calls for a platform to monitor the commitments of governments at the Open Government Partnership. In fact, OpenTheGovernment.org has already launched Open Government Partners as a WordPress-based blog where civil society organizations involved in the Open Government Partnership can leave updates on their government’s progress toward commitments. I’m a fan of launching early, but it seems to me that the site could benefit from studying some of the other commitment monitoring platforms.
Finally, and perhaps the most ambitious promise-monitoring project of them all, the Avina Foundation has launched the Latin America Network of Sustainable Cities to unite civil society organizations in major cities across the region in order to standardize indices that measure a city’s performance on seven major topic areas related to sustainability (for example, “access to water” or “climate change”). They then hope to link the results of those investigations to the commitments by local politicians in order to improve their cities’ sustainability.
So here are my own initial reactions to the rise of promise monitoring. They are probably ill-conceived and mostly off-the-mark, but I offer them with the hope that readers can help improve my thinking.
First, fulfillment of promises isn’t always the most important metric. Rather, we should focus on results. The Chilean project, From What Was Said to What Was Done, emphasizes that 69% of the legislative proposals made by President Piñera didn’t correspond to his original commitments, but what if those pieces of legislation are actually better than what Piñera had originally proposed? (Always keeping in mind that “better” is that most subjective of adjectives.) Just because a politician promises something doesn’t mean that it’s good. Here in Mexico, for example, candidate Lopez Obrador has promised to lower the cost of fuel, but Mexico’s leading think tanks have demonstrated effectively how fuel subsidies hurt the country’s economy, environment, and urban planning. This is what I like about Arena Electoral — it will measure progress toward commitments that have already been assessed by the country’s leading civil society organizations.
Second, these platforms seem to offer an important opportunity to educate citizens as to how legislation is crafted, how it is passed, and how it is obstructed. Both The Obameter and From What Was Said to What Was Done do this in their own ways. The Obameter hires bloggers to post updates to each of Obama’s 508 commitments (lots of work), and those blog posts usually include links to related documents from The White House and the Congress. For example, we’re told that Obama promised to “expand and make refundable the child and dependent care credit.” But Obama had to let go of that promise in order to get an extra year of unemployment benefits for qualified workers and a one-year reduction of Social Security taxes. To bad for those busy parents paying for costly child care, but a boost for the unemployed in return.
From What Was Said to What Was Done relies more on graphics and visualizations, but for each piece of proposed legislation we are given a link to its sister site, Vota Inteligente, which offers a full summary of the bill, the voting results, and the record of the congressional debate — all scraped directly from the official congressional website.
Neither website, however, seeks to show how lobbying often influences which promises a presidential candidate is able to keep and which remain broken. The Obameter, it seems, could benefit from linking more liberally to Sunlight Foundation’s Lobbying Tracker and Influence Explorer while From What Was Said to What Was Done could mine some fascinating data from its sister site, Interest Inspector.
I think that promise monitoring platforms will need to partner with influential media if they want politicians to feel pressured to keep their commitments. Here in Mexico, the Internet has enabled the rise of fascinating and relatively influential indie pundit sites like Crítica Pura, Vivir Mexico, and Homozapping. But the vast majority of Mexican voters still form their opinions based on what they are told by mainstream news anchors Joaquin Lopez-Doriga and Carmen Arestegui. Such influential opinion-shapers could help hold elected leaders more accountable by consistently pointing their respective audiences to promise monitoring platforms. Only then would politicians feel compelled to respond.
Thinking in the long term, it seems that promise monitoring platforms will be most effective in countries and situations where sanction mechanisms are in place. For example, the Obameter is better positioned in the United States than Arena Electoral in Mexico because the US has re-election while Mexico does not. Obama has clear incentives to show the electorate that he fulfilled the promises of his first campaign now that he is once again up for re-election. However in Mexico, where there is no re-election, President Felipe Calderon has less incentive to fulfill his initial commitments since he will be out of office (and likely out of the country) no matter what. (The group “Reelect or Punish” has produced an excellent documentary explaining the importance of re-election in Mexico.)
Similarly, the member countries of the Open Government Partnership have no clear incentives to fulfill their commitments because there are no clearly defined rewards or sanctions for doing so. Governments such as Mexico’s receive positive coverage on the Open Government Website despite making little progress toward their commitments. Promise monitoring platforms will be most impactful in situations where the “promisers” have clearly defined incentives to fulfill their commitments (and sanctions when they don’t).
Finally, I would stress that it is important to recognize the achievements of elected officials, rather than merely dwelling on their shortcomings. It’s easy to glance at the first page of The Obameter and criticize the US president for only keeping 175 of his 508 campaign promises. On the other hand, when I dug deeper into each of Obama’s “kept promises,” it is rather extraordinary what he has been able to do in the past three years despite the lack of a shared vision with Congress. It seems to me that promise monitoring platforms can be most effective by strategically doling out criticism and recognition.
Those are my initial thoughts about the rise of political promise monitoring. What do you think?