Dialogando Buenos Aires is an open policy-making forum involving experts and the public. An initiative from the city’s Office of the Under Secretary for Political Reform and Legislative Affairs, Dialogando BA gathers external experts and citizens to discuss specific policy topics which are part of the reform agenda, with a goal of informing legal or regulatory proposals. To date, thematic roundtables have been conducted on a new law governing port operations, reducing electoral campaigns-related vandalism, lobbying and conflicts of interest, electoral reform, and access to information. A recent series has also addressed changes to the civil registry regulatory framework (births, marriages, etc.), and the transfer of new judicial authority to the City.
The goal of Dialogue is to create empathy between people who probably have different points of view ideologically, or different experiences. [People will learn] to process that difference properly, not necessarily how to make [their views] coincide.
Undersecretary for Political Reform and Legislative Affairs, City of Buenos Aires
When contentious and complex issues require a policy response, political sensitivities and technical details often present daunting barriers to progress. In such cases, legislators often lack incentives or feel ill-equipped to develop solutions on their own, leaving the problems to stagnate or worsen. Many formats for citizen engagement do not provide the opportunity to share in-depth policy views and often focus on political posturing than policy analysis.
How’d They Do It?
Dialogando was born out of a decade in which the City’s leaders felt that dialogue and debate had generally been devalued. “Civilly exchanging ideas was a challenge unto itself,” according to Hernan Charosky, Deputy Secretary of Political Reform. To meet this challenge, the City was careful to approach the early Dialogando subjects with as much transparency and participation as possible, in order to avoid any perception that the City was trying to prejudice the outcome of the debate.
During each Dialogando BA event, expert presentations by legislators and subject-matter experts are followed by debate in breakout groups, Q&A, and a summary of any conclusions. A draft document is shared among participants for comments and then is published to the Dialogando BA platform. A final report of recommendations is then prepared to complement the political reform process and is also posted on the platform. The goal is to be able to use this format for dialogue with other government agencies and in other public policy processes.
A significant characteristic of the approach is that it isn’t designed for all policy questions - like other major democratic cities, the residents have elected political representatives for the very purpose of debating and developing appropriate policy solutions. Instead, the city deploys the Dialogando model to only a limited set of issues - those requiring a public policy solution that should be informed by technical expertise, specialized personal perspectives, and/or input from a uniquely impacted population. As part of the process, a curated collection of experts and other key stakeholders are invited to participate in the policymaking process; however, the forum is also open to other residents who wish to contribute to the solution. By engaging knowledgeable stakeholders in the creation of these policy proposals, elected legislators are provided a degree of political cover to enact the proposals despite perhaps lacking a personal grasp of the specialized subject matter.
In an effort to ensure that the subject matter is appropriately tailored to the process, the City breaks big topics into approachable subparts before presenting them for debate. For example, when using Dialogando to reform the City’s civil registry regulations, the issue was not taken up as a single topic; rather, reforming the civil registry was presented as a “theme,” under which five discrete issues have been addressed through separate roundtable discussions, such as marriage regulations, gender identity, and issues concerning assisted human conception and reproduction.
Taken together, the approach opens up the possibility for government to respond to pressing issues without getting bogged down in parochial political considerations.
How’s It Going?
To date, Dialogando Buenos Aires has engaged experts and citizens around the following major policy themes:
- Civil registry reform;
- Transfer of justice administration from the federal government to the city;
- Conflicts of interest and lobbying in city affairs;
- Reduction of vandalism during electoral campaigns;
- Electoral reform;
- Access to Information; and
- Issues concerning the Port of Buenos Aires.
As an illustration of Dialogando BA’s success, the City used this approach to write an electoral code, which established control measures in the use of electoral technology, mechanisms for the management of funding, transparency in campaign funding, and public funding. More than 230 people attended the four different roundtables organized around the theme of electoral reform, and the notes from all four roundtables are currently published online.
In another example, the City used Dialogando BA to reform access to information regulations. The reforms included new procedures for accessing government information, requirements for proactive government disclosures, and implementation changes. To develop these results, nearly 300 people from government, civil society, academia, and the public participated in five separate roundtable discussions.
Representatives from the City believe that the approach is creating breakthroughs on issues of importance to residents. “On difficult issues such as these, we are responding to the citizens’ need for answers,” says Dr. Ana Laura Pitiot, legal manager for the Office of the Civil Registry. “And behind that need, maybe there’s an underlying right.”
The Dialogando approach combines expert-level engagement with a process that is also open for public participation. Due to the complex nature of the issues being addressed, cities should think about how to ensure that these different levels of expertise or familiarity with the issues can be harmonized throughout the process.