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Mexico City was faced with a massive task: drafting a constitution. Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera, who oversaw the drafting and adoption of the 212-page document, hoped to democratize the process. He appointed a drafting committee made up of city residents and turned to the Laboratório para la Ciudad (LabCDMX) to engage everyday citizens. LabCDMX conducted a comprehensive survey and employed the online platform Change.org to solicit ideas for the new constitution. Several petitioners without a legal or political background seized on the opportunity and made their voices heard with successful proposals on topics like green space, waterway recuperation, and LGBTI rights in a document that will have a lasting impact on Mexico City’s governance.
The modern Mexican state was created by the country’s 1917 constitution, which designated Mexico City as a part of the national government, officially known as the Distrito Federal (Federal District), or DF for short. As a result, the city had no elected mayor or legislature and relied on the national Congress to make decisions about fiscal and social policy.
In the 1980s, democracy activists began agitating for reforms to the city’s governance structure as part of a broader push to open up the country — although nominally a democracy, Mexico had one-party rule from 1929 to 2000. In 1987, the national government acquiesced to demands for more direct democracy and granted the city a legislature. It had limited powers, but the body was the first direct representation for chilangos (Mexico City residents) since 1928. The president continued to appoint the mayor until a second round of reforms in 1996 made the city executive an elected position as well.
On January 20, 2016, Mexico City took another step toward local autonomy when an amendment to the national constitution officially changed the capital’s status from federal district to, simply, Ciudad de México (Mexico City, abbreviated CDMX). The renaming was the result of a compromise that began in 2013 when then newly elected president Enrique Peña Nieto struck a deal with his two rival political parties to endorse the Pacto por México, a series of energy, education, fiscal, and telecommunications reforms that had stalled for years. As part of the deal, Peña Nieto secured support from Mayor Mancera, who in turn negotiated for Peña Nieto to support proposed amendments to the Mexican constitution that would turn the DF into a more independent city, officially the 32nd federal entity, on par with a state.
Among the new rights and responsibilities that Mexico City earned, the mayor can now appoint the city’s attorney general and chief of police. The city executive also has more control over the budget and can rely less on congressional approval. The change prompted an administrative restructuring, subdividing the city into districts akin to London’s boroughs. Residents of these districts — which range from a few hundred thousand to almost two million people — now elect a local mayor and council, creating a layer of government closer to citizens. Finally, since every state in Mexico has the constitution, one immediate result of the reform was that Mexico City could draft and adopt its own citywide constitution.
Drafting a constitution for a city of nine million with vibrant social movements and a penchant for street protests was no small task. “This was going to be the most ambitious participatory process in Latin America in a long while,” said Gabriella Gómez-Mont, founding director of Mexico City’s Laboratório para la Ciudad (LabCDMX), which was tasked with collecting citizen input into the constitution. “We were going to have a dialogue and debate of what a constitution looks like socially and politically.”
While the transition from DF to CDMX was the culmination of several decades of political demands, the promise of a new constitution was not met with jubilation from the general public.
This reaction may have stemmed from pervasive lack of faith in public institutions. National polling data from Latinobarómetro, a regional consultancy, found that in the years leading up to the constitution process, Mexican trust in the government ranged from a low of 12 percent for congressional representatives to a high of only 28 percent in the federal government writ large. (The data was not disaggregated to the city or state level.)
In 2016, the city was blanketed with marketing materials declaring: “Adios DF, Hola CDMX.” Bernardo Rivera Muñozcano, former LabCDMX Open City Strategy Coordinator believes this highly publicized name change was a strategic error. “There was a popular culture around being defeño or chilango (from Mexico City), it was part of the cultural idiosyncrasy of the people living there,” he said. “All of a sudden you tell me I’m not living in the DF anymore?”
As a result, the drafting and adoption of the constitution came across as irrelevant to citizens’ everyday lives. “CDMX’s constitution was considered as something superficial,” Rivera explains. “That was part of our diagnosis from the very beginning: We knew people didn’t care and it was going to be difficult to communicate what a constitutional change meant for citizens’ daily lives.”
Mayor Mancera negotiated with his national counterparts — President Enrique Peña Nieto and congressional leaders — to arrive at a process for adopting the new constitution. That process entailed the temporary establishment of a 100-member constituent assembly (asamblea constituyente) that would negotiate and ultimately approve the document based on a draft provided by the mayor. Mexico City voters would elect 60 representatives and the other 40 would be designated, drawn from Congress, appointed by the mayor, or appointed by the president. The actual document that the assembly would negotiate and approve was Mayor Mancera’s responsibility to prepare. But the process to write a constitution came with no specific template other than the stipulation that Mexico City’s document not contradict the federal constitution.
“It was hard to imagine the city as the advocate for the people. This approach was completely extraordinary.”
Mayor Mancera could have drafted the document internally, but instead he appointed a 28-person drafting committee drawn from a range of Mexico City residents, who would be supported by a technical staff able to translate ideas into legal language. The drafting committee covered a wide range of backgrounds and expertise, including economists and legal scholars, a telenovela actor and Twitter star, and a gender activist and artist. In addition, the city created a parallel public input system managed by LabCDMX to generate broad public support and buy-in for the idea of a constitution, as well as provide specific proposals that would inform the text of the final document. This process would ultimately include a citywide survey and a partnership with Change.org.
The idea, according to Mancera, was to “bestow the constitution project with a democratic, progressive, inclusive, civic, and plural character.”
Mayor Mancera instructed LabCDMX and the city’s general counsel to come up with a way to channel the voices and ideas of citizens into useful information for the drafting committee.
“You need different types of input at different stages,” argued Gómez-Mont. “Sometimes you need experts and sometimes you need wider citizen consensus.”
During the first phase, LabCDMX experimented with several methods to engage citizens in the drafting process drawn from past experience with co-creating legislation. In 2015, LabCDMX helped coordinate the collaborative drafting of Mexico City’s Open Government Law, which participants accomplished with a rudimentary tool: group editing on Google Docs. While that basic software was sufficient to reach a targeted group of activists with some working knowledge of laws and legal systems, it was inadequate to engage the general public on a project as large and complex as a constitution.
“There is so much noise around the constitution that we cannot open up participation just like that,” Rivera remembered thinking at the time. “We would get a lot of negative input and useless information.” For example, an earlier open source participatory initiative launched by a senator in the federal legislature led pranksters to orchestrate a change to the document calling for Mexico City to be renamed Gotham City.
LabCDMX had already been experimenting with the MIT Media Lab collaborative editing platform PubPub, an online interface that allows users to make real-time changes in both text and illustrations to documents. LabCDMX loaded an early working text of the constitution but quickly realized that even this tool would not work well because of the nature of a constitution, which includes large amounts of ceremonial and legal text, and the massive number of people they hoped to engage.
“Imagine you are asked to participate in the constitution draft and the first thing you read is the preamble and all the legal jargon,” Rivera said. “People would not even get past the first paragraph.”
LabCDMX went back to the drawing board and realized that collaborative editing was not the right tool to begin to engage citizens. “What we wanted was to get a sense of what the people that live in the city want, what they imagine their city can be, and what they value most about living in CDMX,” Rivera said. “We wanted to appeal to many levels of interest.” That included both people who have an interest in the constitutional process and those who do not but still have ideas and hopes about their city.
To solicit those ideas, LabCDMX came up with a digital platform and methodology that approached citizen engagement from a multilayered perspective. The different layers would appeal to different audiences, depending on their level of interest in public affairs, specialized knowledge in specific matters, and even availability of time to participate. The city strategy included two main components. First was a comprehensive survey called Imagina tu Ciudad (Imagine Your City) to gather resident’s vision for the city. The second was a mechanism on the website Change.org allowing everyday citizens to petition for specific articles in the constitution with a guaranteed hearing in front of constitution drafters should their petition reach a certain number of signatories from the public.
Nuts and Bolts: How it Works
Imagina tu ciudad
The Imagina tu Ciudad survey took about 15 minutes and asked a series of questions designed to stimulate creative thinking about the citizen’s relationship to and vision of Mexico City. Sample questions asked, for example: “What are the three words that come to mind when you think about CDMX?” The top answer was insecurity, followed by contamination, corruption, traffic, and culture. “What future do you imagine for CDMX in 20 years?” Many talked of water, with buried rivers flowing again. There were also more traditional questions like “What is CDMX’s biggest challenge?” Corruption topped the list followed by employment, mobility, water, quality education, and poverty. In response to a question asking for Mexico City’s best qualities, respondents named culture, education, green space, and water. (Water was a recurring theme as a challenge, a quality, and a future vision.)
In addition to making the survey available online, LabCDMX recruited 200 student volunteers from a prestigious public high school. They were armed with tablets and went out to public markets, busy street corners, entrances to subway stations, parks, and other public spaces.
LabCDMX also installed kiosks where passersby could answer the questions on a tablet without a volunteer present. The tablet technology was not foolproof, so LabCDMX created a paper survey as a backup that volunteers could administer and tabulate by hand. In the end, 26,000 Mexico City residents fully answered the survey, comprising 82 percent of total respondents (the remainder reside in greater Mexico City or elsewhere in Mexico. The responses captured perspectives from 1,474 neighborhoods, a feat accomplished with no specified budget.
LabCDMX used tablets borrowed from another city department and the cheapest available computer code for the survey.
Rivera believes one question summed up the genius of the survey: “What have you done about what you don’t like in the city?” He says that question encouraged self-reflection and took the longest to answer. “It’s very easy to always blame problems on the government and not always that easy to ask how can I solve that citywide problem or demand better solutions?” he said. “In Mexico, citizen participation in public affairs tends to be limited to election day, so we get a say once every three years and that’s it. This question was all part of a wider theory of change that the Laboratório has been trying to promote.”
When the users finished the survey, a unique identifier was generated, allowing them to access their answers and drafts already made public online. This was intended to close the citizen feedback loop and link the citizens’ concerns and passions with the specific constitutional articles meant to address them.
At the beginning of constitutional drafting committee’s weekly sessions, LabCDMX provided an updated analysis of the survey, which included charts and graphs summarizing the results and accompanied by an in-person report from the general counsel and other staff members. These reports guided the group’s discussions. The analysis was sensitive enough to reflect changing trends in public responses — for example when “pollution” and “environment” spiked in the survey’s answers during an air pollution crisis in the city.
Additionally, the city created an online tool to register citizen-led discussions about the constitution on a public calendar. Event organizers could then upload their conclusions and outcomes, which were channeled to the drafting group. Residents registered more than 100 events.
While the survey stimulated broad ideas about Mexico City that the constitution might address, it was not a tool for generating specific proposals for the constitution. That method of engagement developed on Change.org, a website for drafting and circulating online petitions. Change.org proved to be the ideal platform for citizens to submit ideas for the constitution that could be translated into legal text.
Quite simply, anyone could suggest an idea for the constitution, but a certain threshold of online supporters was required to advance the proposal into contention for the drafting committee. This method gave petitioners an incentive to promote their ideas and encourage support. Those earning at least 5,000 signatures had their ideas sent to the drafting committee’s legal experts for review. Those with 10,000 or more signatures won the chance to formally present their ideas to the drafting committee. And 50,000 signatures netted an audience with Mayor Mancera.
Change.org promoted promising ideas on the site and to its mailing list and met with the petition writers to help them refine their ideas. Eight petitions exceeded the 10,000 threshold: LGBTI rights, extending paternity and maternity leave, disability rights, river and lake revitalization, digital rights and universal internet access, guaranteeing a minimum amount of green space per resident, and smart city principles. Four exceeded the 50,000 threshold: a petition guaranteeing the protection of animals, another regarding digital rights and smart city strategies, a petition for the recognition of the “right to a good governance,” and a transparency principle known as 3de3, whereby public officials disclose personal assets, possible conflicts of interest, and taxes.
In the end, 500,000 users viewed the proposals and 280,000 people signed on to 357 different petitions. “Perhaps Change.org was the most successful in terms of a mass audience because it was already a citizen-appropriated platform, more trustworthy than any similar tool the government could have come up with,” Rivera said.
While a small percentage of the city’s population participated via Change.org, that level of citizen engagement far exceeded the city’s targets according to Alberto Herrera Aragón, Mexico director of Change.org. “We created a dynamic that was completely new — we hadn’t done anything similar before,” he said.
“What helped guide the process to success is that we always had real and limited expectations of what the outcome could be,” Rivera said. “We never promised petitioners that their proposal would end up in the constitution. We were also clear about what kind of proposals the mayor would take into consideration: We would not accept any proposal that represented a limitation on human rights or social liberties already recognized in Mexico City.”
Allowing citizens to present to the drafting committee, and in some cases the mayor, was a risky experiment. “Neither of the parties were used to having this type of discussion,” Aragón said. “My perception was that both parties were very nervous.”
After the first presentation, it was clear the risks had paid off, as the drafters welcomed the opportunity to hear from impassioned citizens and the petitioners came to believe their voices were truly being heard.
“We thought participation was about making citizens learn about the process, but it was also about making senior officials learn that nothing bad will happen if you have the right rules and expectations in place,” Rivera said. “Participation goes both ways; it’s a pedagogical process.”
“We were writing and we were listening to what people were saying,” said Carlos Cruz, a juvenile justice activist and member of the drafting committee.
Similar to the updates of the survey, the petitions were presented to the drafting group on a weekly basis, and its growth rates were monitored daily by LabCDMX’s team. Once a petition surpassed the 10,000 threshold, the group was notified, and up to three volunteers were asked to meet with the petitioners. After this initial meeting, citizens met an average of two additional times with the legal advisers to follow up on the drafting process of their proposals. Before the draft was publicly presented to the constituent assembly, all 14 petitioners were consulted about the final wording of the constitutional articles related to their proposals. All but one petitioner approved the final text and declared their online petition as a “victory.”
While all the petition ideas that surpassed the 10,000-signature threshold were incorporated into the constitution draft, the two-step constitutional process created hurdles for this experiment in co-creation. Although Mayor Mancera was able to mandate that the drafting committee listen to the successful petitioners, he did not have authority over the 100-member constituent assembly once a draft text was released to them for negotiation and ratification. As a result, petitioners had less input during this stage.
There are already some examples of how the crowdsourced components of the constitution have influenced policy discussion. A candidate in the 2018 mayor’s race outlined an animal protection plan during her campaign, inspired by the animal rights article in the constitution. Mayor Mancera also authorized the construction of a second veterinary hospital and several veterinary clinics, which some view as a response to this popular demand. Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, who was elected in July 2018, has already responded to some of the constitution’s provisions, such as the 3de3 transparency plank, by posting the requisite information about herself and her cabinet. Mexico City is the only state that permits transgender people to change the gender on their official documents without having to go through a judicial process, another right enshrined by the crowdsourced LGBTI provision that will now be harder to take away should a socially conservative government enter power.
“Current generations will benefit from what we have written and what’s been approved,” said Cruz. “Children who are five years old now will have a completely different city when they are 15.”
Unlike the civic experimentation encouraged during the drafting phase, the constituent assembly’s elected and political nature was not designed to engage in civic participation. For example, the assembly lacked a functioning website to release updated documents, and it hosted town halls where 200 to 300 people could each speak only for a few minutes at a time. While LabCDMX cautioned petitioners about the two-step process and made it clear that the constituent assembly was free to edit the constitution as it wished, some petitioners were discouraged that they were shut out of the final decision-making process.
However, they had allies on the assembly who fought for their proposals. “We had to defend one by one each of the topics at the constituent assembly,” said Lol Kin Castañeda, an LGBTI activist elected to the constituent assembly. “It was like an auction from both right and left.”
The constituent assembly was in session from September 15, 2016, to January 31, 2017, with a hard deadline to approve a final draft of the constitution. In the end, 14 of 15 petition ideas that exceeded 5,000 signatures were incorporated into the finished document.
The constitution was formally approved in February 2017 and came into effect in September 2018. It is still early to draw strong conclusions about the constitution’s effectiveness and how significant the planks proposed by everyday citizens will ultimately prove in the city’s policymaking. However, LabCDMX is largely pleased with the outcome and is optimistic about the document’s long-term prospects.
“It will be a couple years until the dust settles from election,” Rivera said, “but citizen participation was a contributing factor in broad-based political buy-in.”
Keys to Success
Gómez-Mont believes the constitution — both its crowdsourced proposals and its internally drafted provisions — serves an important role in solidifying some of Mexico City’s progressive social policies, such as its early adoption of legal same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and medical marijuana.
“Laws don’t always make for identical social realities,” she said. “Having them in our master document gives them much more weight ethically, legally, and conceptually. Our DNA is inscribed in our constitution.”
Moreover, the constitution operates under the principle of progressivity: Rights that have been granted cannot be taken away.
While a single participatory process may not have created a sea change in public attitudes, Gómez-Mont defends the importance of the document and the effort behind it. “The constitution is supposed to be both a blueprint for the city and aspirational,” Gómez-Mont said. “It holds its ground on both fronts.”
A concrete example came in November 2018 when 7,000 Central American migrants passed through the city in a caravan. Under the constitutionally guaranteed sanctuary city provision by which all people, even noncitizens, have rights when they are in the city limits, the migrants were given services such as food and medical care by the Mexico City government.
As for what other cities who are not drafting constitutions can learn from Mexico City’s process, Gómez-Mont believes the civic vision embodied in the constitution is a valuable exercise for any city to go beyond the quotidian aspects of city government, as is the case with Boston’s Imagine 2030, in order to understand a city’s shared values. “Until now it’s been enough for government to be provider of services, a receiver of complaints, and a keeper of the peace,” she said. “We need to rethink the role of government. Maybe government’s role is to catalyze citizen talent and better involve citizens in a vision.”
Gómez-Mont likens the soul-searching that such a process entailed as capturing the ancient Greek ideal of the polis, a city-state composed of engaged citizens.
“So many paradigms of urban governance are based on the idea that efficient services are all we need from government,” she said. “That is why democracy is taking such a huge hit. In the end, politics should be a society going back to first principles and asking how they want to live together.”
The constitutional process in Mexico City was a way for the city government and citizens to go back to those first principles together.