Building "Citizenship Culture" in Bogota

By Mockus, Antanas | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Building "Citizenship Culture" in Bogota


Mockus, Antanas, Journal of International Affairs


When the citizens of Bogota, Colombia elected Antanas Mockus as mayor in 1995 at the height of violence and bedlam, they expected change, but not the kind Mockus provided. The newly elected leader dressed up in a Superman outfit in an effort to lift morale, dispatched mimes to shame drivers who disrespected pedestrians and showered on television to encourage people to conserve water by turning off the tap while lathering up. Mockus, the former president of the National University of Colombia in Bogota, adapted decades of teaching experience into his unusual governance style and aimed to tackle corruption, violence and social disorder by changing people's mindsets. The city made dramatic improvements during his two terms in office. By 2003, water usage had decreased by 40 percent, the homicide rate fell from eighty-eight to twenty-two per one hundred thousand inhabitants and traffic fatalities dropped from 1,300 to about six hundred per year. In the following essay, Mockus explains the source of his inspiration for transforming Bogota. (1)

The National University of Colombia taught me that everything that can be expressed in legal language is subject to reform. It was difficult to reform the university's laws, but it was accomplished. It was difficult to reform ninety-four undergraduate programs, but that was also accomplished. The same can be said for reforming student regulations, the rules of teacher management and countless other matters. In short, the reformable was reformed.

But what about changing the culture? Take, for example, the habit of more than half of the students to request readmission to a program after failing out three times, even though they would probably fail again because of academic deficiencies or because they needed to work to support their families.

When I agreed to be mayor of the city, I was able to lean on the recently issued Organic Statute, which banned members of the city council from managing contracts, a situation that had led to patronage and graft. As mayor I felt that I assumed a fascinating pedagogical task: learning and teaching in a community of seven million people. I decided to confront the culture of the city, its languages, perceptions, customs, cliches and especially people's excuses--for example, when a student is late to school "because of a traffic jam," even though thousands of others made it to school on time.

During my first administration I governed alongside many academics. Their strength was their ethics, their resistance to outside pressures and their doggedness in rational discussions. Their weakness was their indecisiveness, their need to air one last opinion and, occasionally, their difficulty assuming risks and making decisions with incomplete information. We governed with a combination of imagination and freedom, with classical administrative rationalism: planning, specifying objectives, providing timely responses, consulting affected parties and then budgeting and monitoring the execution of our policies. It was just how they teach it in schools of management. We governed with diligence and probity; we showed results with facts, not publicity, which was unfamiliar.

In November 1995, on the tenth anniversary of the Armero tragedy caused by the eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano, there was a memorial commemoration in the Plaza de Bolivar. (2) During the service, I handed out thousands of whistles, but only one per person. I advised the crowd that if someone took two whistles I would suspend the distribution. And it worked. The purpose of the exercise was twofold: to use the whistles as a symbol of preventative action and to illustrate the discipline that is required in a postemergency situation. A few days later I did something similar before a Carlos Vives concert at Campin Stadium. This time we distributed small carrots and, again, only one per person. The use of carrots was to promote the newly enacted ley zanahoria, or the so-called "carrot law," which required bars and other nightlife venues to close at 1:00 a. …

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