How effectively does Mexico’s government develop strategic policy solutions and foster dialogue in the process?
The Management Index assesses a country’s capacity for reform. Three categories examine the ability to plan and implement policies. Accountability assesses the extent to which non-executive actors are included in the political process.
One of the important events in Mexican governance is the production, at or near the beginning of each new presidential term, of an official plan. The law requires such a plan to be produced. The current plan covers the period from 2007 – 2012. Plans are inevitably in some respects aspirational. There is no formal sanction for official noncompliance, and some of the targets may indeed be too optimistic, though some of the more recent economic problems were unforeseeable when the current plan was being drawn up. There is also an interministerial system of coordination on planning targets, and each ministry also has its own planning unit. Allowing for the vagaries of economic cycles and other unknowables, it is reasonable to conclude that Mexico takes its planning process seriously.
In the Mexican political system, barriers between the government and scholars are comparatively low. It is quite common for any Mexican cabinet to include recruits from academia, and there are also substantial informal contacts involving academics and public officials. By the same token, former government officials often teach at universities. The Mexican government is keen to strengthen this kind of arrangement with the more technical kind of academic expert – economists, international relations professionals and so on – particularly those who hold higher degrees from outside Mexico. This is less the case with “pure” intellectuals, who may often have reservations about working for the government in any case. In some sectors such as education and social spending, the use of highly technical methods for public policy evaluation has become increasingly important. In these cases, the evaluations are generally overseen or prepared by national or international scholars.
Under President Calderón, the technical capacity of the top presidential officials has been high, and they are well capable of evaluating legislation. The presidential office is expected to work closely with line ministries. There were some tensions in the previous Fox administration, due to the rather political nature of the presidential office (where the president’s wife also worked). Due to the absence of a high-level career civil service, both the cabinet and the presidential office are staffed with presidential appointments. As a result, the capacity of presidential governance rather depends on the president concerned, and nothing categorical can be assumed about this from the formal rules of government.
Under the Fox administration (2000 – 2006), the presidential office was much more powerful than most individual ministries. Under Calderón, it remains the case that cabinet ministers are expected to answer to the presidential office.
Ministers in Mexico’s presidential system are subject to discipline by the head of government, and have little room to pursue their own independent objectives. They would risk their careers if they did so. The finance ministry and the minister of the interior, the latter of whom serves as one of the most important interfaces between government and congress, play a particularly important coordinating role within the overall government. The ministries involved in the war against drug cartels have had difficulties in coordinating their strategies due to interministerial rivalries and a lack of trust stemming from the corruption of high-level bureaucrats by organized crime.
Mexico does not have a single cabinet as such, but rather four separate cabinets (economic, political, social and security), which play roles that might in other countries be played by cabinet committees. As a curiosity, the cabinet as such is not mentioned in the Mexican Constitution, though ministers (“secretaries”) are. The idea of plural cabinets with relatively few members is itself a kind of filtering process, in the sense that cabinet ministers normally attend meetings only in areas related to their specialties. The full cabinet rarely meets, while meetings of the various subcabinet groups are frequent.
Senior officials’ role in preparing cabinet meetings depends on the president and to a lesser extent on the ministers of the day. Since cabinet ministers do not generally have independent political weight and the career civil service does not extend as high as in many European systems, there is no hard and fast distinction between officials and ministers. The preparation of cabinet meetings appears to be largely a matter for the presidential office, but the president also organizes his own agenda.
Mexico has no general career civil servants, or clear division in governmental terms between politicians and administrators. Many of the senior civil servants are presidential appointees, although civil servants’ level of meritocratic autonomy varies among ministries. For example, the foreign ministry has its own civil servant career structure. The degree of interministerial coordination has been mostly adequate under the current government, with the exception of activity associated with the war on drugs, in which interministerial coordination has not been as effective as needed.
There are many informal meetings within the Mexican system. They involve, among other things, discussions between senior government officials and politically powerful individuals such as party leaders and state governors. It is impossible to understand the Mexican governmental system without the observation that private consultation is at least as important as formal procedure. Mexico is substantially governed by dialogue. As some observers have noted, the present government is especially open to policy dialogue given its minority status in congress. Dialogue has been sometimes constrained by the fact that the Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolucion Democratica, PRD), one of the major opposition parties in congress, has a strong radical wing which continues to contest the legitimacy of the past presidential election and is therefore against any dialogue with the current government. Moreover, the general political strength and thus the overall coordination capacity of the current National Action Party (Partido Accion Nacional, PAN) government was weakened during 2009 and 2010, as the midterm elections saw a strong comeback by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI), which is now playing a crucial role in congress with regard to pending reforms.
Regulatory impact assessment (RIA) was introduced in Mexico in 1997. In 2000, RIA was implemented broadly through reform of the Federal Administrative Procedure Law. Thus, RIA in Mexico is established by law, and not by presidential or prime ministerial degree as in some other OECD countries. There is a government agency belonging to the Ministry of Economy, the Federal Commission for Regulatory Improvement (Comisión Federal de Mejora Regulatoria, COFEMER), which is responsible for performing impact assessments on new proposals if these generate compliance costs. COFEMER does spot-check existing regulations, but does not assess them systematically. Nevertheless, despite some limitations, it has been quite active since it was established at the beginning of Fox’s term in 2000, and its reputation in Mexico is good. However, opinions issued by COFEMER are not binding on other agencies and ministries. More then 10 Mexican states have also adopted RIAs for subnational regulatory projects. Moreover, evidence-based evaluations of several Mexican public policies in the social sector have gained international recognition, and have had significant spillover effects to the international evaluation community. This is especially true for social policies, where rigorous impact assessments based on randomized control-based trials of the Education, Health, and Nutrition Program (Programa de Educación, Salud y Alimentación, PROGRESA) can be perceived as an international showcase on how to evaluate large-scale social programs. In this area, the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL) is responsible for carrying out rigorous impact evaluations in large social-sector programs. CONEVAL is an autonomous and independent agency created by the Ley General de Desarrollo Social in 2007.
The relevant government agency, COFEMER, contains some 60 officials and is responsible to an interdepartmental committee that ultimately responds to the Ministry of Economy. COFEMER does not have a veto on new proposals, but it must be consulted and can express an opinion. Its position vis-à-vis the ministries was strengthened by an additional presidential order by Calderón in 2007. It can prevent new regulations from coming into force until the consultation process is complete. COFEMER has also been active in negotiating the streamlining of procedures with individual Mexican states. This is significant, as much regulation is generated at subnational levels. After a quiet start, COFEMER has become a significant element in Mexico’s pro-competitiveness policy.
There is a process of consultation that takes place with respect to most budgetary matters. The idea a process of societal consultation is desirable ahead of any policy-making process is increasingly accepted. Some social legislation specifically requires the government to help establish and negotiate with civil society agencies by offering financial and other sources of support in return for NGO help in achieving specific performance targets. More broadly, the government does listen to many economic and social organizations when these wish to be involved in the policy process. The main problem lies in making sure that the individuals consulted represent the various interest groups as a whole, and not just their leadership ranks. Many social organizations are still relatively inexperienced due to the comparative youth of Mexico’s democratization process.
There has been marked enhancement in the general quality of official communication under President Calderón. Under former President Fox, contradictions such as the president and the finance ministry providing conflicting economic forecasts occasionally took place. While Calderón has run a much tighter ship, with a clearer government line, there are sometimes communication problems with regard to the security sectors, as different agencies – the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Defense and the Attorney General – have been competing with each other to take the lead in the war on drug cartels.
The Mexican government does its best to implement its policies, but is not fully the master of its own house. Many policy objectives require cooperation from municipal and state governments, which are mostly run by opposition parties and are rather variable in their policy-making abilities. The government has little control over its legislative program, since opposition parties control both houses of the National Congress. Moreover, to the extent that policy objectives have financial implications, implementation is affected by problems in the world economy and domestic constraints associated with tax collection problems. Within the area that the presidency does control, implementation of policy is reasonably professional. Nevertheless the government has failed to advance several of its major objectives, particularly the war on drug cartels and reform of the state-owned oil company PEMEX. Still, the blame for implementation failure can only partly be put on the current government, because the root causes of these problems were not addressed sufficiently by previous administrations.
The president has “hire and fire” rights over his cabinet, and there is no separate body of officialdom. There is also a national plan which guides policy decisions. The so-called agency problem is not very great in Mexico because – except at the end of the presidential term, when people start to look ahead to the next presidency – the incumbent president has sufficient means to control the executive branch at the federal level. There is one significant exception, however. This is that the finance ministry is to a significant extent autonomous from the rest of the government. Mexico is very dependent on international financial markets, and departures from fiscal orthodoxy can exact a high price. Thus, the incumbent finance minister often has an independently strong position in government.
The presidency has the means of controlling line ministries if the current officeholder wishes to exercise it. Calderón is a hands-on president who has routinely dismissed ministers if dissatisfied with their performance. Ministerial turnover is relatively high for a presidential system.
Monitoring executive agencies tends to vary from case to case. The process of monitoring tends to work better at the national level than at the subnational level, where the general process of accountability is less strongly developed. However, ministries do mostly have the means to monitor executive agencies at the national level.
Task funding is a problem in principle at state level, but has not been a problem in practice for many years. The reason for this has to do with oil revenue. During most recent years, the budget has been based on an estimated value of fiscal oil income, with surplus income from higher-than-expected oil prices being allocated in a different way from the main budget. Since oil price estimates have been very conservative, oil income has almost invariably been higher than forecast. Much of any higher-than-expected income goes directly to state governors. This gives the subnational governments some fiscal cushion if necessary. The current recession and limited fall in oil prices have reduced this margin of autonomy. This is not really a problem yet but may be one in the future. However, state governors are powerful figures in Mexican politics, and they can probably protect their interests if necessary. At the municipal level, participatory requirements have been put into place in order to prevent local spending from being excessively influenced by partisan politics. The success of these measures has varied from case to case. Overall, there is more of a problem with misuse of financial resources than with fiscal starvation.
In Mexico, constitutional discretion is less a matter for the central government than for the judiciary. The courts are independent, and the Supreme Court in recent years has worked quite hard to define the powers and limits of the various levels of government. There have been many cases involving jurisdictional conflict, and subnational governments quite often win them. Municipal autonomy in Mexico is guaranteed under Article 115 of the constitution. The central government would probably like more control over the subnational governments, but it has to respect the law.
The central government, as is likely the case in all federal and decentralized countries, would like more power over subnational governments than it has. This is particularly the case with respect to municipalities. There are indirect ways by which the central government tries to control municipalities, but these do not always outweigh the effect of the variance in local political cultures. There are a number of policy areas in which local government has performed poorly, but in which the national government has found it advisable to look the other way. For example, consultation requirements, which are supposed to be mandatory in order for local governments to qualify for central government financial transfers, are often incompletely complied with in practice. Sometimes, too, participatory systems put in place at the local level can lead to naive decision-making. An important issue here is the ban on reelection at the municipal level. The result is that each municipality has a new government every three years, and the resulting turnover of qualified staff is very high. Another issue is one of rising expectations. There have been improvements in municipal governance, but the people often respond to these by demanding more than the system can afford.
The government is mostly open to international advice, and is pragmatic in its forms of internal organization. One might even say there is too much of a good thing in this respect. There have been problems in the past when Mexican policymakers have attempted to introduce reforms without sufficient awareness of their internal complexities. However, the finance ministry has often been skeptical about significant changes to the structure of governance out of a fear of unexpected financial consequences. This ministry tends to be quite conservative in its outlook on administrative change, and has sometimes opposed new initiatives. Internationally binding agreements have a higher status in Mexican law than do the constitutions of individual Mexican states. However, formal adoption is often easier than effective compliance with such agreements.
Mexico has traditionally been supportive of initiatives promoted internationally, in the hope of reducing the inevitable bilateralism imposed by Mexico’s close and asymmetrical relationship with the United States. It remains an enthusiastic participant in multilateral organizations, including international financial organizations such as the World Bank, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Development Bank. It is proud to be a member of the OECD. It has signed on to the Kyoto environmental protocol. Numerous policy or organizational recommendations made by international bodies are adopted in the Mexican policy-making process. International influence on institutional reform is often evident. However, Mexico’s foreign policy has been criticized in recent years for too much rhetorical activism in international forums, while lacking a clear strategic focus.
The quality of self-monitoring depend strongly on the personality of the president. Calderón is a professional politician and administrative reformer who takes substantial interest in the structure of his own government. He reorganized the structure of his cabinet and abolished several ministries in 2009. Over a longer period of time, Mexican policymakers have tended to engage quite frequently in administrative reorganization, possibly to excess.
Governing institutions are periodically reorganized in the interest of greater efficiency or of bringing them up to date. The process of democratization rendered some longtime institutional arrangements anachronistic, and thus triggered substantial institutional reform efforts over the last decade. Most of these institutional changes have been for the better, although there have been mistakes. One of the challenges, for instance, has been the process of decentralization, which has led to increasing responsibilities for subnational entities that sometimes lack the capacity to cope with these additional duties.
There is sufficient availability of policy information in Mexico to enable the citizenry to be well informed. However, two problems persist. First, there is little public trust in government. This may not be particularly unusual in comparative terms, but is a particular factor in Mexico. The legacy of authoritarian rule has been partly responsible for this, but the continuing evidence of corruption in government matters more. Second, levels of education and of civic awareness are not high in Mexico, though they are on an upward trend. As a result, there tend to be specialized publics who follow particular themes in detail, and are well informed about them. Then there is a general public, which is rather conservative in its views and skeptical as to the merits of high-quality public debate.
Congresspeople have the same rights as ordinary citizens to seek information under the Freedom of Information Act. This is effective, though responses are sometimes slow. There is no evidence of continuous and deliberate obstruction of requests for information.
Under Article 93 of the Mexican Constitution, Congress has the right to summon ministers for the purposes of seeking information. This right is exercised in practice. In fact, a lot of ministerial time is spent in giving evidence in congressional hearings.
The federal Superior Audit Office was set up in 2001 to help the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the National Congress. The Supreme Court has subsequently made it clear that the audit office is to be considered an arm of congress, and not an autonomous agency as such. In practice, the audit office shows a high degree of independence.
Mexico established an ombudsman’s office in a law passed in 1992. The office is generally respected, and the ombudsman can and sometimes does criticize government policy. It does not follow that the ombudsman can make policy. In 2007, the ombudsman publicly advised President Calderón not to use the army in counternarcotics activities. Calderón nevertheless sent the troops in, which provoked an ongoing discussion on the army’s domestic tasks.
Much broadcast and television programming is rather light. This reflects popular demand, and the fact that education levels in Mexico are not particularly high. Unusually, in Mexico the best news programs tend to be broadcast in the morning, with much less heavy coverage at night. However, most news coverage is accurate and reasonably balanced. It is possible to become reasonably well informed about major national and international events through the Mexican broadcast media.
No fundamentally irresponsible party or candidate has won national elections since Mexico democratized, though some people would argue that there have been some narrow escapes. The fundamental dividing line in terms of serious politics is less ideological commitment (left vs. right) than a belief in or rejection of personalism as a serious form of politics. More than one presidential candidate has done well with an appeal little more complicated than the promise: “Vote for me, and I will solve your problems.” This frightens most party elites, which is why independent candidates cannot run for presidential office. Most policy proposals at election time are vague, which is true of many other countries as well. The fact that elections often involve coalitions of parties is another cause for pragmatism – or perhaps vacuity, depending on the outlook of the observer. It is worth mentioning that there has been a visible tendency for noneconomic, and perhaps even semi-religious issues such as abortion or homosexual rights to increase in political saliency in recent years.
Mexico has a relatively small number of very large and efficient businesses, which contribute a high proportion of Mexico’s export income and have international linkages of various kinds. Big business has substantial influence, and its policy proposals are entirely rational from its own standpoint. Smaller businesses have their own representative organizations, but tend to lack resources. However, the government has made efforts to integrate them into the policy process. Business-related policy advice is in the process of becoming more sophisticated.
Mexican civil society is in the process of strengthening, under the influence of democracy and greater pluralism. As a result, public debate is in the process of becoming better informed and more sophisticated. However, there is still a degree of unevenness. Religious groups in Mexico tend to be rather conservative, but their arguments are not lacking in knowledge or sophistication.
Governments in charge
SGI 2011 review period (May 2008 to April 2010) is outlined. Shown are: Prime minister or president, type of government, and ruling parties. Asterisks indicate national parliamentary or presidential elections.
Country scores and texts were produced by the country coordinator, based on comprehensive assessments by two country experts.
PD Dr. Martin Thunert University of Heidelberg
Prof. George Philip London School of Economics and Political Science