In recent years, ICMA-México/Latinoamérica (ICMA-ML) has made significant strides in promoting the importance of public trust in Mexico through the Public Ethics Consolidation Program (PEC, or CEP in Spanish).
The initiative was established by ICMA-ML and eventually supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which provided funding for its expansion. Although funding from USAID is ending, ICMA-ML will use the program’s achievements to continue encouraging ethical behavior among public servants as part of its mission to promote professional management in local government.
ICMA’s work in Mexico began in 1992 with a group of members from the Phoenix area who visited municipalities south of the Arizona border to provide pro bono technical assistance. Ever since, ICMA’s efforts in Mexico, which would later become ICMA-ML, have permanently emphasized the relevance of public trust in government to better serve its citizens. During this time, many ICMA members have come to Mexico to share their experiences on technical issues. Invariably, as ICMA members interacted with local Mexican officials, the importance of public trust and the role of public officials in solidifying that trust were often discussed.
As corruption in Mexico escalated in the latter part of the past decade, and the movement on the part of civil society (citizens and nongovernmental organizations) to push for a national anticorruption system gained steam, ICMA-ML saw the opportunity to develop strategies and tools to promote ethical behavior among public servants. This led to the conception of the PEC program in 2016, and its launch in 2017 in the state of Quintana Roo. Later, thanks to USAID support, the program expanded to five states: Jalisco, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Baja California Sur. Between 2018 and 2020, 16 public entities have participated and over 25,000 ethical exercises have been completed by at least 8,000 public servants.
ICMA’s 100 years of experience in promoting ethics in local government provided important validation for the PEC model, which emphasizes independence, confidentiality, and impartiality. In Mexico, where ethics has not been explicitly part of public service, there is somewhat of a natural resistance to participation in these types of efforts. Although there have been efforts to promote the development of a code of ethics in Mexico, it was not part of any legal mandate until the creation of the National Anticorruption System in 2016. As a result, there is limited knowledge of and experience with how to promote and enforce ethical behavior.
The program is based on two main premises: (1) the majority of public servants want to do the right thing, and (2) there is a need to create an environment that encourages and facilitates desired conduct and that holds public servants accountable for abiding by the code of conduct. The program includes a civil society component to provide oversight to public entities to ensure that they have developed the mandated anticorruption structures, as well as mechanisms to truly promote ethical behaviors. The PEC program has developed two main instruments to work with public entities and fulfill its objectives: the Ethical Decision Exercises System and the Questions and Claims Anonymous System.
Ethical Decision Exercises System (SEDE)
The Ethical Decision Exercises System (known as SEDE in Spanish), is an online platform that allows public servants to anonymously examine various ethical dilemmas and determine the right course of action in each situation. The platform provides insight into why a selected answer is correct or not. In all cases, the participant can submit his or her comments, providing a rich analysis for further training. An independent assessment of this instrument with a sample of more than 1,000 users revealed that over 85 percent of users classify the SEDE as a good or very good tool. Initial trials showed that on average 40 percent of responses were in line with the suggested response, and as the program has progressed, that figure has been closer to 60 percent. However, this hasn’t been the basis of the program’s success; the focus of the SEDE is to use the responses and analysis of users to help team leaders understand the decision-making processes of their staff. The SEDE provides an opportunity for team leaders to help their staff anticipate ethical dilemmas, preparing them to exercise better judgement in reacting to those dilemmas. The fact that the SEDE is anonymous allows for this type of reflection and feedback.
Questions and Claims Anonymous System (SAADD)
The Questions and Claims Anonymous System (known as SAADD in Spanish), is an online platform that allows public servants to anonymously submit questions related to situations they know about or have direct experience with that present an ethical dilemma. Through an exchange of messages, trained advisors help SAADD users identify the ethical dilemmas associated with their questions, along with a broad overview of possible responses to the dilemma and potential consequences. Over 90 public servants have undergone training as SAADD advisors with an interactive tool developed to simulate the remote interaction with SAADD users. The system also allows for anonymous claims to be presented, which is critical in Mexico where protection for whistleblowers is practically nonexistent.
Citizen Index of Institutional Strength for Public Ethics (ICIFIEP)
The program also developed a tool for evaluating the capacity of subnational institutions (such as state and local governments) to sustain ethical conduct called the Citizen Index of Institutional Strength for Public Ethics (known as ICIFIEP in Spanish). The index, which is applied by civil society organizations with active participation of state or local government, identifies the norms, structures, and mechanisms necessary for the entity to continuously promote good ethical conduct, prevent unethical conduct, and establish corrective measures. The tool assesses nine areas: a code of ethics, guidelines of good ethical conduct, the unit responsible for promoting public ethics, the unit responsible for receiving and addressing ethical doubts and complaints, ethics committees, citizen participation, strategies for promotion and prevention, programs to strengthen public ethics, and lessons learned. The nine areas include indicators related to norms, instruments, and results. Each indicator has a value and at the end of the assessment, each entity receives a score based on a percentage of the total points the entity has gathered, divided by the total number of points possible.
ICIFIEP is a very useful tool for NGOs interested in fighting corruption. Five NGOs have already applied the index to 10 public entities; in seven of them, at least twice. The progress in the second application is notable: whereas the average of the entities evaluated the first time barely reached 18 percent of the total points possible, for the second application the average rose to 43 percent. The ICIFIEP is similar to a tool developed in 2001 by ICMA in Mexico to measure transparency in local government known as Citizens for Municipal Transparency (CIMTRA in Spanish) that 20 years later continues to be used throughout the country by NGOs (cimtra.org.mx/portal).
As part of the PEC program, ICMA-ML has also launched a broad campaign in partnership with a private sector publicity and marketing nonprofit organization in five northern states. The campaign invites both citizens and public servants to seek integrity in all that they do and demonstrates the consequences of corruption. It makes clear that integrity is the antonym of corruption, and promotes five core values that public servants should incorporate in their personal and professional conduct: honesty, responsibility, legality, respect, and impartiality. The campaign includes billboards, posters at bus stops, and social media posts aimed at the general public. The campaign also targets public entities and their digital networks and social media through digital posters, video clips and infographics.
The PEC program seeks to offer ways that public servants can abide by what Mark Twain said, “It is never wrong to do the right thing,” a phrase that has been echoed and demonstrated by ICMA members who have provided valuable support to ICMA-ML’s work over the years.
OCTAVIO E. CHAVEZ is director of the ICMA-México/Latinoamérica office (ICMA-ML) (email@example.com).
SALVADOR TORRES is the deputy director of ICMA-ML (firstname.lastname@example.org).