Buenos Aires has adopted a management culture that combines highly visible commitments to the public, in-person performance updates, and publicly accessible accountability data to motivate government agencies to deliver on the city’s top objectives. As a former chief of staff and performance czar for the City of Buenos Aires, Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta has worked to instill a culture of results-based management and public accountability across his administration. In two particularly interesting ways, the government has elevated these principles into public visibility and embedded them into the culture of the workforce.
First, the administration launched an initiative that publicly commits the government to specific, priority goals. The government’s list of public commitments (“compromisos de gobierno”) includes 54 objectives, each with specific metrics and timelines for progress. The delivery of these promises is overseen by the Secretary-General and Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Fernando Straface, who reports directly to the Mayor and facilitates a series of monthly meetings dedicated to performance on the commitments. Significantly, the public are invited to monitor progress on the commitments via an online dashboard.
Second, in addition to the commitments, the government has identified seven core values to guide the administration’s work on behalf of the people, a concept referred to as “Vivamos Juntos Nuestros Valores.” These values - Doing, Humility, Proximity, Austerity, Time, Teamwork, and Creativity - are posted visibly in virtually all public buildings, and municipal employees are periodically recognized for exemplary commitment to these principles.
Setting public commitments and infusing them with clear values helps build accountability and cohesion inside the government. It connects the agencies through specific goals (with clear definitions of success) and persistent oversight (with a routine of monitoring and problem-solving), and helps build a sense of shared purpose.
The agility, effectiveness, and morale of large municipal or city governments can be inhibited by operational and cultural silos, in which departments do not feel connected to one another or to an overarching sense of mission. Lacking mission and purpose, the municipal workforce can experience a deficit of cohesion and accountability in its approach to solving problems, serving the public, and interacting with government colleagues.
How’d They Do It?
The overall government plan for the Mayor’s term consists of over 1,200 programs and projects. By 2016, the government committed to 20 high-priority goals, either corresponding to a specific program or project from the government plan or, most often, an aggregate goal combining several programs or projects, sometimes involving more than one ministry.
Because of the positive effect of the initiative, additional commitments were taken for a total of 54 goals during the first three years of Rodríguez Larreta’s term. These commitments were selected after taking into account two different criteria (often in tension): impact and the feasibility of delivery. Based on an initial definition of priority policy areas set by the Mayor, a team within the Secretary-General’s Office (a “Delivery Unit”) identified a set of potential public commitments. These goals were discussed within the Center of Government (a policy unit team including the Mayor himself, the chief of staff, the communications office, political advisors, and the planning and budget office) and with the sectoral ministries, in order to assure the right balance between ambition and realism. Finally, the list of goals was narrowed and then announced.
“To ensure that the public commitments achieved their purpose, it was critical that they were not perceived as ‘just another announcement,’” Fernando Straface said. “Thus, they were set very early in the Mayor’s term: this would help them actually align the ministries’ work before other sectoral agendas took over.”
Also, the City launched its effort to promote its core values across the workforce, including special recognition of government employees who exemplify the values in their work.
Many cities articulate values, and even major government priorities, but Buenos Aires has undertaken considerable efforts to ingrain them into the day-to-day culture. In conversation with municipal experts, they offered several perspectives on why the approach in Buenos Aires may be working:
- It’s simple. The values are easy to understand and communicate across agencies.
- They’re well marketed. Walk into virtually any public building or office and you’re very likely to encounter color-coded posters displaying the values alongside another poster displaying progress on the public commitments.
- They resonate with core issues for the city. The commitments are viewed as priority issues of importance to residents, and are targeted toward improving quality of life in popular ways. Similarly, the values are consistent with ideals that municipal workers are likely to encounter in the communities of their city. In that way, they are sensible objectives for the workplace community as well.
- They are not necessarily easy. Particularly in government or political environments, prioritizing values like humility and time can be challenging. In this way, the City is signaling to residents that the government is making an effort to improve and challenge itself.
These elements have combined to create a prominent, and highly visible effort to keep the government accountable to its promises.
How’s It Going?
Through the Compromisos initiative, Mayor Larreta’s administration has made 54 public commitments. Progress across these commitments can be tracked online; currently:
- 27 commitments are 100% completed;
- 17 commitments are over 70% complete;
In February 2018, Mayor Larreta hosted a public convening to highlight the progress on current commitments, and to announce the addition of four new objectives to be completed by 2019. These newest commitments included:
- A program to make home ownership possible for 20,000 families;
- Providing public school students and teachers with an access card permitting them to enjoy the public and private, commercial and independent cultural offerings of the City;
- The creation of a new public theatre space in the Arts District of the City’s La Boca neighborhood; and
- The construction of 8 new educational centers in the City.
Two main effects were expected when applying the public commitments: first, that they would align a broad and complex public sector (the government of the City of Buenos Aires has an annual budget of US$8 billion and almost 150,000 employees) behind certain clear priorities, set by the Mayor. Second, that the commitments would increase citizen trust by raising the bar in terms of accountability and transparency.
On the first point, when new initiatives are elevated to the level of a public commitment, officials noted that it gives ministers a sense of how to structure their priorities, and has helped to order many internal processes and the allocation of resources across departments. “The existence of an already embedded routine of review meetings and a culture of collaboration across the government helped to avoid the adversarial relation between the Center of Government and the sectors that was typical in other cases,” said Martín Alessandro, Undersecretary of the “Delivery Unit. “As of January 2019, less than 10 percent of the public commitments were at risk or delayed in meeting their trajectories.”
On the second point, as the City works to institutionalize new governance approaches, the common values of the Vivamos Juntos Nuestros Valores initiative are seen as helping to establish a public expectation of accountable governance. In particular, officials say that the “proximity” value has helped to close the gap between the government and people, and that public participation in the online monitoring makes it difficult for the government to back away from its promises.
It must be noted that every year, Mayor Larreta gathers in a town hall meeting with residents (referred to as vecinos, or neighbors, by government officials) in order to report on the public commitments’ progress. These town hall meetings are broadcast live by both public and private media outlets, as well as through the Mayor’s social networks. During these annual accountability sessions, Mayor Larreta and his Cabinet also answer questions raised by residents.
The website helps to promote the commitments policy and expand public participation⸺in June 2017, only 14 percent of Buenos Aires’ residents were aware that the Mayor had made the Public Commitments; by September 2018, this proportion had grown to 30 percent. Some specific goals are much better known than the overall initiative (e.g. in September 2018, 63 percent of residents were aware of the goal of achieving 100-percent LED lighting in streets and parks.) Part of the reason for this expansion was the increase in unique visitors to the online dashboard, which passed the mark of 1 million unique visitors in late 2018.
It’s important to distinguish between a mere marketing campaign and an impactful approach to improving the culture and accountability within government. For this reason, it’s important for cities to articulate clearly the ways that success will be measured, and to evaluate progress regularly.
To ensure that employees are willing to embrace these types of workforce initiatives and values, Cities should consider opportunities to involve a cross-section of municipal employees in the development and ongoing implementation and evaluation of the programs.