In countries with enduring corruption issues, powerful organized crime, and press freedoms under threat, the idea of delivering a more open, effective government through technology is neither an abstraction nor a distraction; it's a necessity for improving public trust, upholding justice, increasing access to information, and securing international investment.
When I went to the United Nations (UN) in New York in September 2014, I was thinking about those issues while I listened to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto speak about his country's aspirations for open government, as well as President Barack Obama, French President François Hollande, and members of civil society from around the world.
When Mexico took over the leadership of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in 2014, I wondered how the country's ability to address corruption and crime domestically would affect its ability to lead. After all, that's a dynamic that has traveled with President Obama, who has been criticized for his administration's record while he promotes open government abroad.
As it has grown and matured, the OGP has faced challenges and opportunities. Russia's withdrawal from the OGP remains a useful litmus test for the limits of national behavior and membership. While the partnership provides a platform for civil society to hold government accountable, growing threats to civil society and journalists globally have to occupy the same conversation and mindspace as the opportunities for technology-driven innovation, collaboration, and participation that I've chronicled here and elsewhere. Political leaders often prefer to pursue initiatives focused on digital government and open data, while members of civil society may wish to see fundamental reforms focused on access to information, criminal justice, or corruption.
Mexico's action plan for open government and open data is ambitious, extending to all three branches of government. That ambition always faced not only the challenge of corruption but its implementors' capacity to provide a fundamental element of the social contract governments form with their people: protecting the vulnerable against violence, from organized crime to corruption of members of law enforcement.
To say that the events of the past few months have shifted the context for its implementation, however, would be an understatement. Powerful Mexican drug cartels killing journalists and bloggers have been an ongoing tragedy for years. The recent murder of 43 students in Iguala and the subsequent arrest and detention of a fugitive mayor and his wife, however, reportedly included an order for police to attack them. The aftermath has focused international attention on the ability of Mexico not only to maintain law and order in the face of organized crime but to ensure that police are not complicit in criminality.
This context for this renewed violence is crucial, as Diana Villiers Negroponte, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, wrote this fall:
"If the Mexican state is to be trusted, its officers must carry out their functions with respect for the law. If the state abuses its authority, organized criminal gangs which trade in illicit drugs and people, will emerge the winners because their criminal acts can be attributed easily to public officials. Despite government assurances, Mexican citizens do not know whom to fear more: criminals or state protected officers. This is a sad condition for Mexico, but one that can be corrected. Peña Nieto and his government have announced that they will prosecute and punish identified military and police personnel, but the legal process must be transparent and the sanction must comply fully with the pertinent laws."
While President Peña Nieto may have preferred to focus on economic development and the potential of open data, his administration is now promising to overhaul 1,800 municipal police departments throughout Mexico, install a national 911 system, and even outright dissolve the governments of 2,400 municipalities if they are found to be corrupt.
While the nation is facing a crisis in governance that no technology alone can address, the systems and contracts that Mexico implements in the years ahead will be integral to reforms. As is true in Brazil and around the world, the more that Mexican society becomes networked, the failures of the state are becoming transparent to its citizens and the world through technology.
After the UN event in September, I interviewed Alejandra Lagunes, the coordinator of the national digital strategy for the Presidency of Mexico, about the country's plans for open government and digital innovation. Our conversation, condensed and lightly edited for clarity, follows.
How did Mexico create its most recent open government plan?
Lagunes: Mexico is one of the cofounders of the OGP initiative. President Peña Nieto, since the beginning of his administration, has been very focused on transparency and open government. He created the national digital strategy. When we began, months ago, we began to work with access to information in Mexico with an independent institute and with 86 organizations of civil society. We worked together for almost nine months in the planning and creation of the action plan for the next year. This is unprecedented in Mexico, and also worldwide. This is the first case of how we worked in collaboration with civil society. It was a great experience in terms of how government is beginning to participate at a high level in the creation of a plan that's very, very ambitious in its objectives in Mexico. The 26 commitments have different objectives, in terms of opening data, of transparency, and in terms of innovation. These commitments have the vision of the OGP, and we're very happy in the process.
ABH: One thing I've seen the OGP challenged by is the lack of inclusion of journalists and the recognition of the role they play in holding governments accountable, from reporting on corruption and criminality in the public and private sector to telling the people what governments don't want them to know — which is to say, a crucial part of any open government, any democratic societies. In looking at the OGP action plans in high-level meeting transcripts and documents about the OGP's vision, I haven't seen a clear element regarding the role of the media, or concerns about the ability of the media to do their crucial work. Unfortunately, many journalists working in countries around the world are under great stress today, including threats, beatings, imprisonments, torture, and murder. Sadly, that has been the case in Mexico as well, when journalists dare to report upon organized crime, including the powerful drug cartels, or government corruption. Is there going to be more recognition and protection of press freedom in Mexico's leadership of the OGP, particularly as more and more of what journalists do becomes digitally mediated?
Lagunes: Yes, I agree that this should be part of the OGP initiative. Actually, one of the great organizations that participated in the creation of the action plan is focused on freedom of expression and the journalist's rights of free speech. We are very interested in continuing with this support in Mexico, and we are feeling out how to support [this] through OGP, working with organizations that are very interested in this. Some of our initiatives are linked to the disappeared and to transparency of missing persons and detainees. The two commitments were proposed by Article 19. We know the concerns about this, and we have this as one of the priorities of our action plan.
ABH: Debates about how technology is involved in open government often revolve around "electronic democracy," with respect to citizen participation and social media. Part of those conversations now include personal data, surveillance, privacy, and how governments protect the rights of people who use these devices and services. How is Mexico thinking about protecting the privacy and security of citizens who are participating in open government processes?
Lagunes: In Mexico's action plan, 11 through 12, is promotion of transparency. This is about the transparency of the rights of the people to have free speech, to have access to information, to have the ability to do this while protecting their privacy. We have conversations with telecommunications firms in which we talk about users' rights on the internet. In the laws, it is written that the freedom of speech is a universal right. The right of the user to have free speech and have privacy is [also] protected by law. Mexico also has a law of data protection. We are trying to protect users' rights to privacy and freedom of speech.
ABH: A policy for open source software is part of the US National Open Government Plan. How is Mexico thinking about sharing data, software, or research that has been created with public funding?
Lagunes: Here is where OGP is linked with the digital strategy. In the digital strategy, one of our main goals is to have an open data policy. We launched that policy some months ago. It's going to be a presidential decree. This establishes how information is usable and accessible for everyone. 70% of our commitments in OGP are related to open data. I think it's going to be a very interesting process as we begin to open information.
We are working with entrepreneurs so they can innovate and be a platform with open information. In terms of open research, we have a lot [invested] in open research, as the president presented three months ago. I think this is one-of-a-kind, because the research is going to be in open source. The priorities of the president are towards opening information. In terms of open source platforms, what we are trying to do is build platforms in open source so that our states and municipalities can use them. It's great for a country like Mexico to foster innovation in the states.
ABH: Mexico passed an access to information law in 2002. If technology is part of open government in Mexico, how will the government move towards improving access to information?
Lagunes: One of our main objectives in this year is to go to the next step in the Open Government Partnership. The OGP hasn't gone mainstream in Mexico. There's just a few people talking about OGP. Some of the civic innovators are talking about it. What we want to do is for people to really begin to live what open government is, that people really feel the change in an open government. I can give you some examples of what we have already done and will keep doing.
In terms of the budget and the infrastructure plan, the biggest infrastructure plan in years, we are building platforms that will [enable] proactive transparency, in terms of budget, in terms of contracts, in terms of the process of construction, so that people can, without asking, without having to make requests through the institutes and access to information law. The government has to change and really be proactive, in terms of transparency.
The other thing is in terms of disaster relief. Every year, Mexico has hurricanes and earthquakes. We are building the platforms so that people can know, in terms of prevention, what is happening. Last year in Acapulco, a hurricane really almost destroyed Acapulco. The government gave funds to rebuild the state. We made transparent every penny spent in the reconstruction of Acapulco. This is really a change of priorities in Mexican government. Always before, it was just when people asked strategic questions. Now, what we're doing with the open data policy, open research policy, the public challenges, is that government has to open all of the information, before people have to ask for it.
ABH: Open government should matter to everyone in democratic societies. Many people in the US remain impoverished, as is true in Mexico. What steps is the government taking with technology to make sure that the various benefits advocates for open data embrace, from education to broader access to information, extend to everyone in Mexico? How are you ensuring that their voices are being heard and included in the creation of policies, laws, and programs that are intended to benefit them?
Lagunes: The cause of the digital strategy is inclusion. Almost 50% of the Mexican population doesn't have access to broadband. We are working in several projects to accelerate the inclusion of these people. It's very important in terms of financial inclusion, in terms of innovation, in terms of access to information.
ABH: What other taking steps are you taking to provide inclusion, specifically?
Lagunes: The telecommunications reform is bringing more competition to the market and changing the whole ecosystem. We've had a very different policy, and competition is essential for having better prices and broadband services. That is going to happen in the middle of the term. We will have more competition that gives more access to telecommunications services. On the other hand, the government has a commitment of connecting to the internet all of the public buildings. 265,000 public buildings: hospitals, clinics, schools, government offices, and libraries. This will happen in the next four years. When you have connected all of the government buildings, in that moment all of the schools will have internet, all the hospitals, that's going to be huge in terms of inclusion.
We are also working in collaboration with third-parties, like Facebook, in very interesting projects like Internet.org. They have made that [connection] in one country in Africa. We are talking about doing that in Mexico, to give connectivity via mobile with no cost to the user, so they can connect to specific services and information. We are working on a number of things to really leapfrog the problem we have with inclusiveness.
Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.