In 2016, Mexico City had an opportunity to draft its first-ever constitution, a chance to define and reshape social, political and economic structures for the Western hemisphere’s largest metro area. In the face of deep public mistrust, the city administration appointed a diverse, non-partisan drafting panel and then opened up channels for public input. First was a collaborative drafting tool, then a visioning survey, and most effectively, a Change.org petition campaign which generated more than 350 proposals signed by more than 277,000 users. Twelve proposals exceeded 10,000 signatures (with four of those exceeding 50,000) and saw relevant language included in the draft constitution.
Truly opening up public consultation processes poses a significant challenge—of how to solicit, organize and incorporate input from thousands of residents. And the more successful the outreach and engagement, the more difficult the task. Smartphones and the internet now offer public agencies a wide array of tools to engage residents (or more commonly, their intermediaries) and reach consensus on important policies. However, there are still serious barriers to participation, including lack of time, poorly designed user interfaces and skepticism that public contributions will be valued. And inside government, new competencies need to be built around outreach, designing consultation systems, processing input and closing the feedback loop.
How’d They Do It?
Mexico’s capital is hundreds of years old, but its structures for self-governance are quite new. It was not until 1997 that the city gained an elected mayor, limited local powers and a legislature that could enact local laws. Nearly 20 years later, in January 2016, Mexico’s national Congress gave the city formal home rule, approving a constitutional amendment to grant more autonomy to the federal district.
“In the process, we strengthened every mechanism of public participation.”
Dr. Manuel Granados
The first order of business was to draft a brand new local constitution. But the political legitimacy for this exercise was already in question, because the amendment granting local rule had been negotiated between political party elites with almost no civic participation. Acknowledging this challenge, Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera appointed a commission with 28 local representatives. Notably, commission members did not need to belong to a political party. They were chosen in an attempt to provide a cross-section of the city’s intellectual life, with historians, artists, politicians, human rights organizations, sports figures, activists and scholars represented, and with gender balance. They were tasked with formulating a constitutional drafting process and developing a first draft.
Mancera also instructed his general counsel to develop a mechanism to solicit opinions and ideas from city residents at large. And so staff set to work experimenting:
Experiment #1: collaborative editing.
The initial attempt at public participation took the form of a digital platform for two-way exchange of information and ideas. (The general counsel’s office worked with MIT Media Lab and the city’s own Laboratorio para la Ciudad to adapt a PubPub platform.) The 30 official members of the constitutional drafting group could upload essays addressing various constitutional issues and the public could provide comments. These essays would then evolve into elements of the constitution--a sort of shared-document approach to constitutional drafting. But the platform failed to attract many participants, as the essays tended to be complex and esoteric.
Experiment #2: survey.
Next, the city tried a 15-question survey called “Imagina tu Ciudad,” (Imagine your City) in which residents imagined their ideal city and identified any obstacles standing in the way of creating that reality. Responses could be submitted on the city’s online platform or physical stands located in high-traffic areas. The survey attracted more than 31,600 responses.
Experiment #3: online petition.
The final strategy for public participation was a crowdsourcing project in collaboration with Change.org, the free online petition platform. Mexico City’s ‘movement’ was entitled “Voces Ciudadanas en la Constitución CDMX” (Citizen Voices in the Mexico City Constitution,) and it invited residents to submit and sign on to proposals for the constitution. An incentive structure rewarded popular proposals—any idea attracting 5,000 signatures would be reviewed and analyzed by city technical staff. At 10,000 signatures, the author would present his or her proposal to the drafting committee. And at 50,000 signatures, the author would present directly to the mayor. (Four proposals reached this last threshold.)
Experiment #4: citizen-led events.
The platform also included an event calendar where participants could pre-register and advertise their own events, in addition to learning about constitutional milestones and official opportunities for engagement. They could also share conclusions following an event; these were delivered on a weekly basis to the Drafting Group.
As part of its outreach efforts, the city deployed representatives with mobile devices across the city to provide access and gather signatures directly from residents. The kiosks were deployed in public spaces and transportation hubs with high transit volume and/or social relevance. "The participation was more relevant because they had different social benchmarks throughout the city,” General Counsel Dr. Manuel Granados said.
How’s It Going?
The city’s Change.org site attracted more than 277,000 unique signers on more than 350 petitions with specific proposals for the Constitution. (Only recent petitions and those marked ‘victorious’ were visible on the site at the time of publication.) The site was able to connect with a large, politically engaged pool of users who have indicated particular interest areas, and it also allowed for different levels of engagement based upon one’s level of interest. “They generated a participation pyramid that triggered social participation with the city, but fewer people went deeper,” Granados said.
In May 2016, the legal counsel’s office broadcast on Periscope a meeting between representatives of the LGBTI Citizens Alliance and members of the constitutional drafting committee. This was the first meeting held pursuant to the city’s commitment to reward successful Change.org petitions; the Alliance’s proposal to recognize and enshrine equal rights for LGBTI people in the new constitution received more than 11,000 signatures. The draft constitution did include language protecting the sexual orientation, identity, and expression of gender of all people, including those of the LGBTI community.
A proposal for extended maternity and paternity leave gained over 15,000 signatures on Change.org, leading proposal language to be included in the draft constitution presented by the Mayor. However, the Constitutive Assembly eliminated the article in December 2016, arguing that the issue was a “federal matter.” Advocates of the proposal called supporters to express their dissatisfaction to the President of the Assembly via social media.
The city used the constitutional drafting process to address and codify public participation in the city’s legal DNA going forward, with regard to referendums, plebiscites, public consultation, and conflicts of interest. “In the process, we strengthened every mechanism of public participation,” Granados said.
The decision to anchor the consultation process in a commission that was broadly representative of residents, rather than of political parties, was surprising and confidence-building, receiving praise even from the administration’s critics. The pressure brought to bear by social groups was also fundamental to the process, according to the general counsel’s office. “If we had broken along the ideological axis of the city, we wouldn’t have been successful,” Granados said.
Despite the success of the initiative, the number of people taking part in “Voces Ciudadanas en la Constitución CDMX” represents 0.03 percent of Mexico City’s official population (and only 0.01 percent of the metropolitan area.) Moreover, there is no guarantee that all signatories are Mexico City residents, which creates uncertainty about which proposals truly represent residents’ wishes.