Sunset over Corregidora in Querétaro, Mexico
Sunset over Corregidora in Querétaro, Mexico

During a visit to Mexico in the 1940s, one of the world’s most eccentric surrealist painters, Salvador Dalí, was quoted as saying, “Under no circumstances will I return to Mexico, as I cannot stand being in a country that is more surreal than my paintings.” A bold statement from a bold artist. But what could be more surrealist than melting clocks in a desolate landscape, such as those seen in his most famous painting, “The Persistence of Memory”? What could evoke both terror and beauty more than “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus”?

The idea of Mexico being fantastical is not novel. Its history is filled with intricate juxtapositions of darkness and light that surpass even the wildest fantasies of Dalí, Breton, or Magritte. I was born in this wondrous place. I grew accustomed to various moments of cognitive dissonance and developed the very Mexican attitude of turning hardships into learning opportunities, much like the alchemist turns lead into nuggets of gold.

This surreal essence extends far and wide into all aspects of society, and public administration is no exception. It is widely known from news articles and historical facts that Mexican public administration is closely knit with politics and corruption. In Mexico, the politics-administration dichotomy does not exist, and the strong mayor form of government is the rule of the land. Under this form of government, public administrators navigate the murky waters of rapid policy shifts, organizational ambiguity, and challenges to long-term planning. This has created ethical implications so ingrained in the socio-political and cultural landscape that they are often overlooked by Mexicans as “just the way things are.”

Learning about the Corregidora Municipal Government

So, how can there exist a municipality that pushes for the professional and ethical administration of the public good? Enter the Corregidora Municipality in the state of Querétaro, population 210,000. Corregidora is adjacent to the city of Querétaro, which is the capital of the state. In recent times, it has experienced high economic growth and prosperity derived from the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) (formerly NAFTA) and its strategic location in the Guanajuato – Querétaro industrial and economic hub. Its slogan: El Orgullo de Querétaro, the pride of Querétaro. Its mission: to provide best-in-class services. Its most valuable assets: the accountable, dedicated, and tireless public servants. This is the story of my experience during my service in Corregidora as an ICMA Tranter-Leong fellow.

As a public administrator, I carry the notion that we are all part of something much larger than ourselves, and if we can change the way in which we serve the public — without preconceived notions and with a sociological perspective — we will make public service decisions that benefit the whole. With this in mind, I made the decision to apply to the Tranter-Leong Fellowship, which gives ICMA members the opportunity to experience local governance in a different country while promoting ICMA’s mission of professional and ethical public administration.

I was put in contact with Salvador Torres Davalos, executive director of ICMA-México/Latinoamérica (ICMA). Maestro Salvador, as I formally address him in Spanish, met with me to talk about ICMA’s efforts in different Mexican municipalities. For the past 32 years, ICMA has played an important role in promoting public trust and combating corruption in Mexico. In 2001, the then-mayor of Corregidora, Antonio Zapata Guerrero, participated in the development of the Sistema de Indicadores de Desempeño (SINDES) Program, an ICMA initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development focused on measuring and comparing the performance metrics in comparable municipalities of Mexico. Projects between Corregidora and ICMA were suspended with subsequent municipal governments, and it was not until 2012 that efforts were reactivated. In that year, Mayor Zapata was again elected as mayor of the municipality. Since then, mayors Mauricio Kuri (today governor of the state of Querétaro) and Roberto Sosa (current mayor) have also sought out ICMA to develop projects such as the Results-Based Budget, training in new management models, and the creation of comprehensive plans.

Maestro Salvador mentioned the work currently being done by Nelly Patricia Sosa González, coordinator for the Unidad Municipal del Sistema de Evaluación del Desempeño (UMSED), the performance metrics division of the Corregidora finance department. González’s goal was to provide a “why” behind what most believe to be burdensome data mining; she wanted others in the municipality to gain a new point of view on the importance of ethical performance metrics. I was immediately interested! Not only because I discovered that we shared the same vision for sustainable and ethical service provision, but also because I was born in the state of Querétaro before coming to the United States at the age of four.

Creating Ethics Training Tools

I developed a training, “Ethics Applied to Performance Metrics,” that presented the philosophical study of ethics:

1. The first part of the training explored how ethics is defined through the following principles:

  • The Socratic principles of continuous improvement and life-long learning.
  • Kantian deontology, which focuses on treating others and processes as ends in themselves and not merely as means.
  • Aristotle’s virtue ethics, which stresses the importance of embodying the virtues we’d like to see in the world.
  • Ethical egoism, the concept of finding self-interest in doing the right thing.

2. The second part applied these systems to decision-making in data-driven management and performance measurement in local government based on:

  • Transparency and responsibility.
  • Respect for the democratic process.
  • Evidence-based decision making.
  • Continuous improvement.

3. Lastly, I delineated the benefits of having ethical performance metrics systems in place as a way to protect the people we serve. The training also used more contemporary literature such as The Leadership Challenge by Barry Posner and James Kouzes to explain the benefits of ethical leadership.

After presenting my Ethics Applied to Performance Metrics project to ICMA, I was granted the fellowship in October 2023. One month later, I was on a plane headed for Querétaro to serve for two weeks.

The first week consisted of 16 Ethics Applied to Performance Metrics training sessions, three per day for all secretarias (departments), and one governance training for the UMSED staff. My service at Corregidora was organized by González and her team of two performance metrics analysts, Vianney Perea and Karen Fernandez. All three quickly and graciously onboarded me and helped with logistics.

In my training, I focused on equipping the departments with the ethical toolbox necessary to view themselves as ethical leaders, and shared the perspective that performance metrics are an opportunity not only for growth, but for legacy as well. The strong mayor form of government carries the potential for patronage, where individuals are rewarded for their political loyalty rather than their qualifications or tenure. Some of the employees shared that their contracts might not be renewed due to reelection. I asked González how employees navigated working toward goals that they might not get to see come to fruition. She stated that while it was uncertain that their positions would be renewed come election time, it was their duty to leave a track record of policies, procedures, and key performance indicators for the next administration, should they not be asked to come back. While researching performance metrics programs in other Querétaro and Guanajuato municipalities, I was surprised to find that Corregidora was the only entity that had a dedicated unit for keeping a record of municipal performance. Others had incomplete or no performance metrics reports.

The second week I spent shadowing González, Perea, and Fernandez as they held workshops with each department to discuss new key performance indicators or modify current ones depending on data availability or the needs of each department. While at the workshops, I learned about the “veda politica” or the prohibition of delivering non-critical public services during the political campaigns before the election day (usually three months). Employees at the workshops were all expecting KPIs to drop during this time—through no fault of their own — and had to be cautious of avoiding non-critical provision during the political ban. All directors, leads, and analysts in charge of performance metrics cared deeply for the residents that would go without. Such is the case of the Sistema Municipal de Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (SMDIF or Family Services) and the Secretaría de la Mujer (Women’s Department). Both entities provide much-needed social programs and services to underserved and low-income communities. SMDIF has seen an uptick of child abuse cases related to the migrant crisis affecting cities across the Mexican republic. The halt or dwindling of social services due to the political ban on services inhibits progress in these areas and puts lives at risk. Nonetheless, González, Perea, Fernandez, and the whole UMSED team are tireless in their promotion of excellence in service. They follow up with directors and performance metrics departmental leads to make sure all data is counted and complete. Their efforts are a testament to accountability and righteousness in the face of ambiguity.

Reflecting on Lessons Learned

During my stay, I couldn’t help but think of how different the life of a public administrator is under the council-manager form of government. The separation between politics and public administration provides a sense of security and continuity for the administrator and the people they serve. It ensures quality in programs and services, reducing ambiguity and unethical behaviors. While it is true that there are many organizational issues affecting municipalities across the United States, such as the lack of DEI initiatives, the silver tsunami, or the exodus of administrators to the private sector, we can work without the fear that our job and livelihood will be uprooted every two to three years. We can see projects from inception to completion, and are able to leave a lasting impact on those we serve.

During my visit, I gained immense respect for the Mexican public administrator. Corregidora’s UMSED is proof that municipalities can do good work in spite of systemic obstacles. They are highly dedicated, adaptable, and emotionally intelligent. They navigate an intricate form of government that has been imposed on the nation for hundreds of years with integrity and savoir-faire.

While there, I took many walks around town and admired the beautiful El Cerrito Pyramid overlooking the town square. The pyramid served as a political and ceremonial center for the Toltec, Chichimeca, and Otomi empires dating from 300 BCE until the late 15th century. Immediately west of the pyramid is the Shrine of Our Lady of Pueblito, patron saint of Corregidora and one of the first virgin saints of color. Having pre-Columbian rituals and Catholic rites coexisting in a less-than-a-mile radius was not far off from a Dali painting.

Corregidora’s people were warm and welcoming; I could not walk a block without someone greeting me with a “buenos dias!” I saw children enjoying the holiday decorations put on by the municipality, playing about the square as their mothers looked on. I saw elders drinking their coffee, sitting in the park. I realized then that public service transcends borders, languages, religions, and political ideologies. Beyond our surreal existence, we are all looking for a safe place to call home.



ANA ELIZÁRRAGA is a housing and economic development analyst for Evanston, Illinois.

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