Mexico City has committed to publishing information related to the government’s procurement processes, from planning through implementation, using the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS). With support from Bloomberg Associates, the Open Contracting Partnership and the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad, IMCO), the city launched an online interactive platform (Contrataciones Abiertas) in 2016 to publish contract information. To encourage residents to use this information, civil society organizations with support from Mexico City government launched “Your City, Your Data” (Tu Ciudad, Tus Datos) a competition to develop creative uses for this data.
City purchasing contracts often provide lucrative vehicles for cronyism and corruption, which wastes resources but also destroys public trust in government. This is a universal problem, but Mexican civil-society leaders interviewed for this project expressed deep cynicism and resignation regarding weak rule of law, at each level of government. There is a widespread perception that elites act in their self-interest and face no real accountability, while ordinary people encounter bureaucratic nightmares at every turn--and the only way out is through a bribe. This creates a feeling that democracy, in practice, doesn’t work; despite rules and institutions that are supposed to guarantee fair and transparent decision-making, the system still runs on patronage. Accordingly, in the 2017 Transparency International Corruptions Perception Index, Mexico fell to 135th place, tied with non-democratic states such as Russia and Lao.
How’d They Do It?
Mexico City’s open-contracting story represents the kind of big change that can happen when the interests and incentives of powerful, diverse stakeholders come into alignment. These included:
- Political will in the mayor’s office. The mayor who presided over the project, former Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera, came into office with a prosecutor’s persona and a clear platform of innovation, transparency and anti-corruption. According to people who worked on the project, Mancera’s strong push for open contracting helped create momentum and minimize backlash; with the order coming from the leader of government, agencies got on board. Also helpful: the transparency was not applied retroactively—only new contract information would be published, from the launch date forward.
- Support from international partners. Bloomberg Associates—a philanthropic consulting firm founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg—had its eye out for opportunities to increase government transparency while reducing bureaucracy. Its research indicated that global firms were avoiding public-sector bidding opportunities in Mexico City because of opacity around how contracts were awarded and to whom. So Bloomberg Associates recommended an initiative to increase and standardize the amount of contract information being published for Mexico City. Concurrently, the Open Contracting Partnership was looking for a city partner to pilot the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS). The Mexican civil-society community helped connect these two organizations and a collaboration was born.
- Productive engagement from civil society. Mexican civil society is very robust, with diverse and trusted organizations working on the full range of social, economic and business issues. Key groups allied themselves with the open-contracting effort and served as independent advisors, implementers and evaluators. For example, the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO) provided valuable input on the public data portal’s content and design to ensure that it worked for end users outside of government. Transparencia Mexicana (the Mexican chapter of Transparency International) led efforts to ensure that the data being provided was interesting and useful to service organizations and watchdogs, and also led online and off-line strategies for data engagement, including the Your City, Your Data Challenge. (More on this below.)
- Political competition. Mexico City’s adoption of open contracting was concurrent with a transparency push by the national government. (Mexico served as global chair of the Open Government Partnership from 2014-2015.) Mayor Mancera convinced President Enrique Pena Nieto that construction of the new Mexico City airport should be subject to open contracting using the OCDS, which touched off rounds of beneficial competition over which government could pass major milestones first or publish more open data.
- Empowered and skilled staff. The portal project was implemented between the Directorate General of Media and New Technologies and an ICT Services unit. The former sits outside the traditional bureaucratic structure, and is tasked with building relationships with civil society and communicating directly with the public. The latter has the power to set the management of internal policies for the city, and was responsible for developing guidelines to make the open-data standard mandatory and embed it across government.
From political will to administrative reality
The collaboration between these diverse stakeholders allowed Mexico City to go beyond just sharing public information. Most notably, they became the first city in the world to publish comprehensive procurement data using the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS.) The Data Standard is a global, non-proprietary standard developed by civil-society actors, which is structured to include every stage of the procurement process: planning, bid/tender, award, contract and implementation. Data produced according to the standard is shareable, reusable and machine readable. The more entities that use the standard, the more useful it will become, as programmers build open-source tools for analyzing or sharing contract data.
Robust training for city staff was key, given the reasonable trepidation associated with being the first government to adopt the OCDS. On a tactical level, implementers worked very closely with the early-adopting agencies. There were guided-practice trainings, using real contracts being administered by the agency, and trainers stayed onsite for an additional two months following the transition. Strategically, there was a conscious effort toward bringing civil servants toward a ‘yes we can!’ mindset, of striving for and celebrating milestones, and (b) committing to transparency in the project itself. Civil servants could see that new processes were being executed regularly, every quarter, and that they represented a whole new approach rather than a new layer of bureaucracy and ‘double work.’
From administrative reality to social utility
Mexico City also worked thoughtfully with partners, throughout project design and implementation, to help real people use the data. This meant publishing high-value data (as defined by end users,) hiring a social enterprise (Gobierno Facil) to build appealing visualizations, and providing incentives to developers.
The Your City, Your Data challenge was a key mechanism for seeding engagement with the data portal’s API. The competition ran for two months in 2017 and was open to the public. Participants were tasked with pitching innovative ideas to improve the integrity of government contracting. Ideas were judged on their use of the open-contracting data, viability, level of innovation, and team quality. Two winners received 150,000 pesos (USD$8,000) to develop their ideas: Cívica Digital and Spaceship Labs, both of which created products to increase the accessibility of the city’s contracting data. Cívica Digital simplified the data and reformatted it to be searchable by citizens, while Spaceship Labs adapted a program it had already created, Contractobook, to allow citizens to search multiple databases simultaneously for information about contractors employed by the government.
How’s It Going?
The project’s first success came in June 2016, when the Secretary of Finance published 45 contracts. By July 2017, information about 800 contracts had been uploaded from six agencies, representing 700 million pesos worth of public spending. As of September 2018, the portal had over 1,200 contracting procedures representing more than 2 billion pesos worth of public spending from 19 agencies.
However, the new city administration has identified several shortcomings that prevent the project from These include:
- Most data has come from just three agencies: Finance, the Mayor’s Office and Public Works.
- There is no guarantee that all purchases are reflected in the data; rather, it is likely that each department chose which information to publish.
- Many items have incomplete information, such as
- Sustainability. The legal framework for data publication was established by mayoral decree, which could be overturned by future administrations. But proponents said that it’s likely to stick around because it aligns with a national strategy toward more transparency, and because it’s often bad optics to officially roll back transparency reforms.
- Riding fads. Trends and groupthink in NGO funding and programming can present challenges around sustainability (i.e. when interest in a particular topic fades) or impact (i.e. when interest in a new technology leads to solutionism.) But trends can also present opportunities for government reformers seeking outside partners. According to one interviewee, mapping projects were popular a decade ago, followed by a visualization craze about five years ago, and the current appetite for working with ‘technical data.’ Aligning with such a trend can sometimes attract grants to support innovations.