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Gonzalo Hernandez: Using Policy Evaluation to Promote Democracy

March 1, 2023

In February 2022 the Georgetown Americas Institute (GAI) hosted Gonzalo Hernandez, director of the Multidimensional Poverty Network (MPPN) and a GAI visiting fellow, for a series of conversations with Georgetown students and faculty about his work on public policy evaluation in Mexico.

Over his three-day visiting with the Georgetown Americas Institute as a Fellow, Hernandez served as a panelist in two events, met with students and faculty, and held an open Q&A session on career paths in poverty reduction.

Day 1: Policy Evaluation and Democratic Accountability

On February 27, GAI hosted a conversation with Gonzalo Hernandez to discuss his work on the Mexican evaluation system for public policies and the need for robust, evidence-based accountability systems in democratic societies.

Gonzalo Hernandez leads the event "Democracies Need Robust Evidence: The Mexican Evaluation System."
Gonzalo Hernandez leads the event "Democracies Need Robust Evidence: The Mexican Evaluation System."

At the turn of the twenty-first century, key reforms created evaluation and accountability mechanisms for public policies in Mexico. The country experienced success in enhancing transparency and accountability, strengthening its democratic institutions. In the age of disinformation and increased polarization, these key institutions have now come under assault. Hernandez reflected on the challenges to public policy evaluation and the intersection between evidence-based policy evaluation and democratic accountability.

The Mexican Story

Before the turn of the millennium, Mexico was widely recognized as a single-party state with negligible accountability and a lack of policy evaluation by independent agencies. According to Hernandez, that began to change in 1997 with the empowerment of the political opposition. This led to key reforms that mandated the external evaluation of social programs and the creation of independent auditors such as the Autonomous Statistical Office and, ultimately, the creation of the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Policy (CONEVAL).

CONEVAL was designed as a mechanism to guarantee the independence of auditors and to produce statistics on poverty without government interference. Hernandez, who led the council from 2005 to 2019, witnessed firsthand the development and later the deterioration of the system in Mexico from the heyday of the early 2000s to the current challenges of “post-truth” and disinformation.

Gonzalo Hernandez presents at the event "Democracies Need Robust Evidence: The Mexican Evaluation System."

“Governments can have good ideas, but their success is not always guaranteed. That is why independent evaluations are key.” 

Gonzalo Hernandez, Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network

Evaluation and Democratic Accountability

Hernandez advocated for independent mechanisms with structures and incentives that foster evaluation and data collection as a cornerstone of democratic success. For example, the creation of awards systems that recognized the work being done by cities or states to improve transparency and accountability proved a successful incentive that changed the behavior of Mexican political leaders at every level. Even today—when independent evaluation agencies in Mexico are under assault from the federal government—Hernandez remains optimistic.

“Not knowing or investigating the effects or results of a public policy on the population is like administering medicine without knowing the effects on a patient’s health.”

Gonzalo Hernandez, Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network

Nonetheless, he remained cautious and warned against the threat represented by political forces that seek to weaken or dismantle independent reviewing agencies. Hernandez encouraged students to think about the value of a career in policy evaluation, where public servants play a vital role in ensuring that truthful data remains available for all democratic societies.

“Institutions are still working and doing their job despite these pressures exactly because they know that independent institutions matter greatly for our democracies.” 

Gonzalo Hernandez, Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network

Day 2: Experts Evaluate Social Policies in Mexico

On February 28, Hernandez joined a panel alongside Nora Lustig, Samuel Z. Stone Professor of Latin American Economics and the founding director of the Commitment to Equity Institute (CEQ) at Tulane University; Santiago Levy, senior advisor at the United Nations Development Programme and a nonresident senior fellow with the Global Economy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution; and GAI Founding Director Alejandro Werner to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of social policies in Mexico.

Evaluating Mexican Social Policies in the Past Decade

The panel focused on three themes: defining social policy, its objectives, and the tools the government of Mexico has to reach those objectives. Hernandez remarked that one challenge in creating effective social policy in the country has been the lack of a shared definition of what the term means.

Defining Social Policy

Panelists agreed that the concept of social policy is not clearly defined, impacting programming, administration, and analysis of social policies. Social policy is often simplified as government programs that reduce poverty. However, Hernandez offered a more holistic definition, arguing that social policy should aim to generate more opportunities for more people to participate in the economy.

Levy added that social policy has two large components: 1) Investing in human capital, like programs to strengthen early education and build labor capacity; and 2) Protecting citizens against risk. The ultimate objectives of social policy should be increased economic growth and equality, which will together lead to a reduction in poverty.

Gonzalo Hernandez and Nora Lustig discuss social policies in Mexico.

"Defining social policy is not easy, but from my point of view I believe that the objective of government public policy should be to expand freedom for people."

Gonzalo Hernandez, Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network

Choosing the Right Tools to Address Social Issues

The three panelists agreed it was important to identify which tools the government has to address specific social issues. Hernandez mentioned that often because such a narrow definition of social policy is used, poverty reduction gets assigned solely to the Ministry of Social Development. However, poverty reduction strategies should be implemented across government entities, from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of Housing.

While social programs are an important tool for poverty reduction, Hernandez warned that social policy cannot be centered around programming. He cited that from 2008 to 2022, 17.2 million pesos were spent on social programs, and in the same time period poverty increased from 49% to 53%. Lustig cautioned that the increase in poverty in that period can be attributed to multiple factors, including inadequate COVID-19 pandemic response and lack of access to quality education.

Overall, the panelists agreed that social policies need to move beyond purely monetary objectives and programming. Mexican policymakers need to have a conceptual discussion to define social policy, its objectives, and the instruments the government has to achieve them.

Day 3: Inspiring the Next Generation of Policymakers

On March 1, Hernandez met with master’s degree students in the Global Human Development Program to discuss and advise on their capstone project, which explores public-private partnerships and data-gathering mechanisms used by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Ultimately the project aims to produce database visualization and country-level reports that feed into a UNICEF global dashboard.

Gonzalo Hernandez meets with students in the Global Human Development Program

Gonzalo Hernandez meets with students in the Global Human Development Program

Hernandez shared his insights about youth unemployment rates in Mexico, low-tech data collection mechanisms appropriate for government capacity, and how to encourage governments to improve administrative records and indicators for youth.

Hernandez also participated in a roundtable discussion with graduate students and shared his background, experience in the Mexican government, and perspective on traditional approaches to poverty measurement compared to a multidimensional approach.

Gonzalo Hernandez participates in an open Q&A with masters students.

“What you really want is to get information in a systematic way directly from the country.” 

Gonzalo Hernandez, Multidimensional Poverty Peer Network

He emphasized the importance of having independent bodies to measure poverty indicators, and that these organizations should have a multidimensional approach that includes income and access to social security, health services, education, food, and housing services. He warned there must be political agreement on how to measure these indicators or else the measurements will not be useful. He ended by reiterating that multidimensional poverty indicators create more effective policies that are able to target specific poverty factors.

“I found Gonzalo’s experience to be very inspiring. His work in policy evaluation was a great example for us students, teaching us how there is incredible value in dedicating one’s career to seeking the truth and preserving the health of our democratic systems.”

Ignacio Albe (G'24)