I’m increasingly convinced that the global movement for transparency and accountability over-emphasizes the importance of federal governments when, in fact, municipal and state governments administer the public services that citizens depend on. I have a couple theories as to why this is: 1) national broadcast media must focus on actors and topics that are relevant to their entire audience, which naturally is the federal government and 2) international philanthropic donors are more informed about the challenges facing foreign federal governments than local governments and therefore tend to fund projects that are federal in scope.

With that cautionary preamble out of the way, I’d like to dedicate a few paragraphs to the campaign proposals of Peña Nieto (all but technically the president elect who will take power the first of December) that are related to transparency and accountability. The analysis is not my own, but rather is a summary of analyses I have heard from local academics and policy experts.

Two weeks after the election, Peña Nieto published an Op-Ed in Reforma titled “The Beginning of Change” which specified three concrete proposals to strengthen transparency and accountability in Mexico:

  • The creation of a National Anti-Corruption Commission, an autonomous constitutional body that receives complaints from citizens, and has the power to investigate and punish acts of corruption by public officials in all branches of municipal, state, and federal governments.
  • Expand the authority of the Federal Institute for the Access to Information (IFAI) as the ultimate guarantor of access to public information for all levels of government. (Currently state governments have their own supposedly autonomous institutes for access to information, such as Jalisco’s Institute for Transparency and Public Information, which, with the exception of InfoDF, have not achieved sufficient autonomy from the state government and political parties.)
  • The creation of an independent body comprised of citizens to monitor government-sponsored advertising at all levels of government. (I have written previously about the importance of government-sponsored advertising in Mexico here.)

Earlier this week Peña Nieto named the three individuals that will coordinate each of the above proposals: Claudia Ruiz Massieu, Emilio Lozoya, and Jorge Carlos Ramírez Marín respectively.

A respected academic put forth the following questions to an audience of civil society organizations that are still considering how to react to Peña Nieto’s proposals and their future implementation:

  • What is the problem that each proposed policy aims to resolve?
  • What has civil society previously proposed in relation to each proposal?
  • What are the risks and opportunities related to each proposal?
  • What elements does each proposal lack?
  • What additional aspects would complement each proposal?
  • What advocacy agenda is necessary to achieve those aspects?

They strike me as the right questions to be asking, however, to ask them is to accept working within the parameters that Peña Nieto and his team have defined. Not all Mexican transparency organizations are convinced. As one commentator remarked, merely creating institutions doesn’t resolve problems. Mexican politicians are constantly creating new institutions that fall short of their objectives, mostly because they are not allocated sufficient budget to be effective and autonomous. There is, in fact, a danger that Peña Nieto’s three proposals constitute little more than a way to distract civil society from their ongoing monitoring, advocacy, and litigation. It is still uncertain whether the next president is committed to accountability, or if he is committed to creating three institutions in order to say “mission accomplished.”

Writing for Animal Politico, Alfonsona Peñaloza notes that the Mexican Accountability Network, a coalition of more than 60 transparency NGOs, published a policy book earlier this year titled “Toward a Public Policy of Accountability in Mexico” which details very specific proposals in three broad areas:

  • Policy and institutional design: Legislate a new transparency law; strengthen oversight bodies, grant constitutional autonomy to IFAI, the Federal Superior Auditory, and the Public Prosecutor’s office.
  • Process management: Modify the budget cycle and the scope of audits.
  • Participation: Establish a one-stop citizen complaint ombudsman, create social governance councils made up of citizens.

There is a wide range of opinion as to whether Peña Nieto’s commitments mark a historic opportunity to get accountability and social participation right, or whether they are mere distractions. But there is unanimous agreement that, if implemented, his proposals constitute a significant shift toward the centralization of government oversight in what is already an extremely centralized government. Together his proposals essentially say: “We tried to decentralize accountability from the federal government to the states and municipalities over the past ten years and we failed; it’s time for the federal government to once again take control.”

Most analysts agree that states have done a lousy job at implementing transparency and accountability practices. IMCO’s 2010 report “The Black Box of Public Spending” explains how it is nearly impossible to track how states spend public money. Still, centralizing accountability could come at the expense of strengthening local governments that, at least in theory, have a better understanding of the needs of their citizens. Residents outside of Mexico’s Federal District have long complained that too many policies that directly affect their lives are written by Mexico City politicians who rarely venture outside of the capital. One alternative could be to follow the UK’s “City Deal” model, which grants British cities more political authority only if they meet certain criteria. Strengthening transparency and accountability in Mexico doesn’t need to come at the expense of strengthening local institutions and advocating for state legislation that guarantees their autonomy.