Transparency and accountability of national and state governments are often used to measure the legitimacy of emerging democracies. However, local governments often fly under the radar. Jaime Villasana Dávila, the 36-year-old operations director of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) for Latin America, makes sure they don’t.
Since 2001, Villasana has been concentrating on the performance of the 2,500 municipalities in his native Mexico. His unsurprising conclusion is that they have a long way to go in meeting world standards of government transparency. “Only 5 to 10 percent of municipal governments have institutionalized formal performance indicators,” he says, compared to 90 percent of Mexico’s state governments.
Villasana’s credibility comes from the fact that he has himself worked in government. He served as assistant to the mayor of his native city of Saltillo, and as sub-director in the Department of Social Participation at the Federal Ministry of Public Administration. His experiences at both ends of the spectrum taught Villasana that local governments must dedicate more effort to improving their efficiency and transparency so that federal institutions, in turn, can maintain their integrity and efficiency.
The Washington DC-based ICMA was founded in 1914 to establish best practices in local governance around the world. Among the programs directed by Villasana in Mexico is Sistema de Indicadores de Desempeño (System of Performance Indicators–SINDES), founded in 2001 and managed in collaboration with the Mexican Association of Municipalities. The program, which is funded by annual membership fees ranging from $2,500 to $4,000, helps municipalities establish performance indicators for accountability and evaluate their progress. The indicators are based on 76 criteria, ranging from the quality of public policy and financial information provided to the public to the quality of public services.
So far, just 47 Mexican municipalities have worked with the program. As Villasana concedes, many municipalities cannot afford membership, while others still don’t see the point. “It is very difficult to convince these governments to publicize their information,” Villasana explains. Nevertheless, he expects more members to join this year. Plans to extend the program to Argentina are also in the works.
The principal challenge faced by SINDES is sustainability. Due to the frequency of local elections and Mexico’s laws against consecutive re-election, there is a high turnover rate among members, making it difficult to create lasting change. But two programs in Chihuahua and Puebla have been successful. Unlike members who only temporarily adopt the SINDES measurement system, these two municipalities institutionalized their own system based on SINDES criteria and reports. In 2008, they scored highest among their peers in several evaluation categories: Chihuaha had the greatest level of investment in public-private partnerships for development (4.4 percent), and Puebla invested significantly more than other states in roadway maintenance ($4,142 per square foot [$385 per square meter]).
Villasana does not attribute the progress achieved in Puebla and Chihuahua solely to SINDES. Rather, he explains, “these changes must come from within.” To ensure a similarly organic process elsewhere, Villasana is constantly on the lookout for emerging leaders who understand the need to change the culture of local governance—people he calls “champions.” If Villasana has his way, there will be many more such champions around Latin America in years to come.