The Guadalupe Challenge: Learning About and Contributing to Democracy in Mexico

April 20, 2007
Michael Handelman

Spring break and Mexico aren’t usually associated with accountability and transparency in government. But they are for me and five other Kennedy School students invited by the city of Guadalupe to develop a framework for enhancing democracy.
During a recent nine-day work trip sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Mexico Program, our group of Kennedy School students was matched with students of public policy at the EGAP Technologico de Monterrey. The newly elected mayor and her staff were our clients, and our project was to develop public policies that addressed four of the city’s most critical needs.
Guadalupe, a city of nearly 700,000 people nestled in a lush mountain valley on the edge of Monterrey in the Northeast of Mexico, is part of the third largest metropolitan area in the country. We would have only five days to research and present recommendations for the advancement of democracy there. When they called it the Kennedy School Guadalupe Challenge they were right on target.
After acclimatizing for a day, we were introduced to the City’s Secretary for Economic Development, the mayor’s representative for the project, and taken to what would be our headquarters: a small conference room on the top floor of a municipal building.
We divided ourselves into four teams: digitalization, business development and incubation, public parks, and accountability. These areas are critical for policy analysis, and they also meshed well with the mayor’s platform.
The city pledged complete collaboration. City officials and employees were called upon to answer questions on demand from much younger and inexperienced students, such as myself, and they delivered on their pledge. Their openness and acceptance encouraged and inspired me to devote all of my energy towards crafting my team’s policy recommendation for the city. All of the knowledge filed away from my MPP Core Courses was suddenly recalled into action, as I found myself discussing and debating key notions of democracy and justice, in the context of our project on digitalization, transparency, and accountability.
I was selected for the “digitalization” team, tasked with determining how e-government technology could be used to promote accountability in government, and increase the interaction between citizens and their government.
Mexico enacted a federal law in 2002 mandating that citizens have the right to request government documents. The goal of our team would be to bridge the gap between federal and municipal “freedom of information” legislation, and those citizens that will make use of that critical information to make their government accountable.
We argued that publishing all processes of executive and legislative government on the Internet was a cost-effective means of achieving this level of transparency. While we realized that transparency wouldn’t necessarily ensure accountability — that would require media, civil society and government vigilance that is still developing in Guadalupe — our team believed that this “radical transparency” was the optimal solution.
The policy began to coalesce with the establishment of procedures to mandate the publishing of minutes and agenda of all public meetings, the release of statistics on crime, education, and the provision of city services.
The mayor pledged her support to implement our recommendations, and city officials congratulated us for our work. And the local media declared our project and presentation a fabulous success. The following day, we presented our work at EGAP, and received criticism and feedback from the school’s faculty members and students, which was further incorporated into our policy recommendations and report.
Following our return to Cambridge, I’ve continued working with my team to finalize the production of a policy briefing book for the city. The mayor has continued her pledge to implement our recommendations, and I reflect back on a spring break more meaningful and memorable than I ever anticipated.
Photo: Karina Weinstein MPP ’08

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