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From apathy to action: Guadalajara's citizen-led transformation in public oversight

In Guadalajara, 350,000 citizens are actively auditing public funds, ensuring accountability. This showcases the power of participatory audits in strengthening democracy. Photo: Transparencia Mexicana

Transparencia Mexicana

This year Mexico is one of over 70 countries around the world holding elections, yet dissatisfaction with the status quo of democracy in this country is more present than ever. The Latinobarometer Report 2023 reveals that Mexico is one of the countries with the largest decrease in support for democracy in the region with only over a third of the population expressing support for it.

However, a beacon of hope for democracy shines through citizen-led initiatives in Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara, Jalisco. Over 350 thousand citizens – roughly the number expected to attend the 2024 Olympic Games in France – are actively monitoring and scrutinising public finances and ensuring transparency in resource allocation through participatory budgeting and auditing.

In many countries the responsibility of auditing governments’ revenues and expenditure falls under the scope of independent entities such as Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) or Auditors General. Public audits are important for providing credible and timely information on the management of public finances to legislatures, government, civil society, and the public.

In their mandate to monitor public funds, SAIs are increasingly collaborating with citizens and CSOs, involving them in the selection of audits and disseminating relevant and digestible information about audit findings. Here is where participatory audits emerge as an innovative and inclusive instrument to enhance accountability in the management of public funds.

This shift from passive to active engagement is crucial for democratic societies, especially in combating corruption. Citizens who experience corruption firsthand play a central role in detecting, reporting mismanagement, and ensuring integrity. Moreover, the fact that the results from participatory audits are mandatory for the municipality strengthens existing institutional controls through citizen involvement. Setting decision makers accountable for their management of public funds.

Guadalajara's success relies on three principles: simplicity in voting options, low-cost implementation, and binding effects on municipal authorities. This approach ensures broad participation, efficient decision-making, and influence on government actions. Photo: Transparencia Mexicana

Citizens have the right to know how public money is allocated and spent and their active participation in the way this is done implies a step forward. Opening government’s finances to public's input and scrutiny can lead to improvements in budget quality, reduced corruption, and better allocation of resources, ensuring government spending aligns with public priorities, and guaranteeing public resources are used as intended.

Guadalajara is a great example. For three years in a row, and with technical support from Transparencia Mexicana, citizens have been working with the municipality’s Citizen Comptroller in defining which programs, dependencies, and public works should be audited.

How to get 350 thousand citizens to get actively involved in the monitoring of public funds and set the government accountable? Guadalajara's case shows the answer lies in a mechanism based on three principles:

  1. Simplicity: Participatory audits are designed as a straightforward mechanism, offering accessible voting options such as in-person and online official platforms. This ease of engagement encourages broader participation.
  2. Low cost: The municipal government makes a one-time investment in human resources deployment, fieldwork, and technology, enabling citizens to shape the future of their city through two participatory mechanisms. With their vote, citizens influence two decisions: i) which areas of work should receive funding through the participatory budget and ii) which programs, works, and dependencies should be audited through the participatory audit. The areas to vote include citizen’s inputs, which are particularly valuable as they can signal potential programs and public services that should be audited as they involve a higher risk due to the budget size or citizen complaints in the provision. This streamlined process resembles European referendums, where questions are often included alongside elections for public offices, fostering efficiency in democratic decision-making.
  3. Binding effects on the work of authorities: Participatory audits have a binding effect on the work of the municipality's comptroller. They directly enter the Municipal Audit Program, bypassing political agendas and ensuring citizens' voices directly influence government decisions, fostering accountability.

Power to the people: Overcoming the “too technical” argument

Politicians, civil society and academia often talk about people's participation in public decision-making. But these discussions frequently exhibit a bias against involving citizens in technical matters like the oversight of public resources.

In Mexico, laws establish technical criteria for defining audit programs. These criteria also allow for special audits to address sensitive social and political issues, such as COVID care funding. However, citizen concerns are usually not included as part of the government decision of what should be scrutinised.

By advocating for participatory audits, Transparencia Mexicana and the Citizen Comptroller of Guadalajara have challenged this biased perception. Results show that the concerns of citizens, such as social programs benefiting vulnerable populations, delivery of public services, and transportation, differ from those of governments, policymakers, public officials, and experts. People's awareness of these issues emphasize that allocation of resources should benefit the vulnerable communities disproportionately affected by social inequalities.

In Guadalajara, conducting direct participatory audits is now a mandatory responsibility for municipal authorities. The success of these audits has prompted the Presidency of the Jalisco State Anti-Corruption System, as well as social, civil, and academic organisations, to advocate for gubernatorial candidates to commit to implementing participatory audits across all municipalities of Jalisco.

This electoral year is an opportunity to expand the benefits of participatory audits

Policymakers and community members recognise participatory audits as a powerful tool to safeguard their community's interests. Consequently, organised civil society aims to establish direct participation in public decision-making as a guaranteed right for citizens, rather than a privilege. Inspired by the success in Guadalajara, this initiative could extend nationwide and even be adapted to other countries.

In many countries, discontent with democracy is a significant challenge. Representation alone often fails to convince people of democracy's ability to improve their living conditions. Citizen participation can help address this issue by empowering individuals to shape their own realities.

Participatory auditing stands as a powerful mechanism that can improve public trust in government, increase civic participation and political know-how, increase tax revenue, and lead to better development outcomes.

Elections in Mexico and worldwide present a golden opportunity to advance participatory audits. Regardless of political parties and eventual winners, we call on newly elected governments to embrace this mechanism. By prioritising its expansion and amplifying its impact – particularly for the vulnerable populations who stand to gain the most from this initiative – we will ensure democracy remains a participatory process that truly serves the needs of its citizens.