How can cities fight corruption? In Mexico, various cities have successfully worked with open data as an accountability tool that also improves service delivery. Ania Calderón and Eduardo Bohorquéz explain.
Corruption has devastating impacts in cities that are already cash-strapped. When money that should be spent on police cars, streetlights, adequate equipment for firefighters or other local public services ends up in the hands of corrupt private contractors and officials, people’s lives are at stake. Yet rarely can citizens assess the impact that corruption has on their everyday lives, making it hard to channel the public pressure needed to demand structural reforms at the local level. Denouncing corruption on social networks is one thing. Reforming a local public service seems unsurmountable. Open fiscal data from parking meters in the city of San Luis Potosi, Mexico proved to be one example that this does not always have to be the case.
Parking Meters as Test Beds for Open Governance Schemes
Parking meters have been used in car-jammed cities to stimulate turnover, countering traffic congestion and carbon emissions. They are seen as part of the solution for many public agendas ranging from mobility to climate change. But they have also been part of the dark area of government and poor management: opaque concessions, poor fiscal transparency, and embezzlement of public funds. In August 2019, one of the biggest municipalities in Latin America, Mexico’s Naucalpan, “discovered” that US$1.5 million in parking meter revenues gathered during 16 months of operation had simply vanished.
When you pay at a parking meter, it may be hard to imagine what these devices have to do with controlling corruption through the use of open governance schemes. In Mexico, with many different governance models applied in cities of all sizes, parking meters have acted as a test bed of new modes of participation around the resources collected through the private or public vendors managing them. For example, Mexico City devised a participatory budgeting model with substantial contributions to the development of new public space typologies. Most recently, the city of San Luis Potosi has proven to be a first in using its parking meter programme as an example of open governance to counter corruption in benefit of critical safety services, in this case the fire department.
San Luis Potosi, a beautiful colonial town with a legacy of mining industry, is known more for its UNESCO-protected architecture than for its role as a beacon of municipal innovation. Earlier this year, the mayor of San Luis Potosi in collaboration with Transparencia Mexicana, transformed its fire stations and fire infrastructure into ‘open stations’ as a result of a collaborative effort using open data. By analysing the operational and revenue data from the parking meter programme—and effectively disclosing it—the government was able to identify corruption leaks and the public was able to scrutinize the real operation costs masked by a previous administration.
Tracking this meddling in public funds allowed the fire station to acquire two additional fire trucks and equipment, increasing its ability to respond to emergencies. Most importantly, it established a new type of commitment with the Fire Commissioner, transforming all fire stations into ‘open stations’ so citizens can follow in real time how the money is spent. This is a small yet powerful example of open governance at its best, where the fight for corruption is not just lip service, but actually expands the capacity of a city to provide critical care for those who need it most.
Benefits of Engaging Local Governments in the Anti-Corruption Agenda
Open government reform is often perceived to be about abstract bureaucracy, operating miles away from citizens’ daily lives. The complexity of national governments, where most of the anti-corruption advocacy has centred, has at times prevented the development of engaged citizenry in a sustained manner. The fight against corruption is systemic, so advocates and reformists tend to focus efforts around building broad and powerful coalitions, maintaining high-level political engagement, and effecting change mostly around a legislative or judiciary agenda.
Engaging local governments in the anti-corruption agenda opens up a completely different set of actors and opportunities. The proximity of government at this scale allows for a more responsive conversation, where people can engage directly in improving services they use on a daily basis. The sheer size and distance allow for openness outcomes to be truly achievable, and its positive impact tangible to those who benefit from it. The challenge of tracing how corruption hurts public life is dissolved when the issue at stake is connected to basic public service provision such as water, waste, and security. When services this critical are affected by graft, the damage is quickly felt.
Given that city governments have suffered from decades of austerity, most are struggling for resources in order to satisfy the increasing needs and demands of their citizens. Therefore, it is critical for people to understand the resource shortage they are confronted with, and the importance in making sure the public funds available are spent in a fair and accountable manner.
Open Data as a Service Delivery and Accountability Tool
Opening local government data is a critical tool to achieve this. Not merely for the moral benefit of transparency, but for making information accessible to people in a way that allows for real and direct social accountability. As Da Silva and Abramovay state in a recent study on Latin America’s anti-corruption movement, “increased levels of accountability for perpetrators of corruption, in the form of investigations and prosecutions, will not necessarily lead towards more democratic, ethical and responsible practices.” Opening critical data to investigate and take action goes beyond prosecution—it can help give agency to people to improve their communities and embed effective response mechanisms in public institutions.
The City of San Luis Potosí is now discussing how to make the most of the additional resources. Besides fire-trucks and hoses, there is a lot of room for improving fiscal measures. For instance, they are considering to create a new pension fund for the municipality workers in order to make the most of the projected income via parking meters. And with Transparencia Mexicana on board, it will have to be open by default.
Every context has its particularities and it would be amiss to generalise in which exact way data availability will improve urban life. However, there are aspects of a city and its governance that many urban areas have in common, and types of data around them that can be made public in an accessible, comparable, and timely manner. Budgets, procurement data, public registries, concessions in transport, water and sanitation, or geospatial data around local taxes such as cadasters are universal sources of information for good local governance and effective social accountability.
We call on cities to build data systems designed to be open by default, one of the Open Data Charter’s core principles. Not only will citizens be able to better understand what officials are doing, but most importantly, opening data will improve public services and hold governments to account. What we can learn from parking meters in San Luis is that anti-corruption advocates need to target their efforts to the struggles affecting people’s lives. By engaging citizens at the city level, we can build more trustworthy and better resourced public institutions in the service of their communities.