Geographical region: Latin America & the Caribbean
Preparer: Tanu Kumar
This research project was conducted by a team of four researchers from US institutions, who together, have over a decade of experience working in Mexico. In addition to Borde Político, the team collaborated with Data OPM, a public opinion and marketing research firm that helped distribute leaflets and conduct surveys, and Que Funciona Para el Desarollo, which assisted with administrative, financial, and logistical issues in Mexico, as well as helped in conducting post-election surveys.
The project provided information to citizens about local audits in order to highlight how local governments spent money on infrastructure projects—with the aim of helping to empower local citizens to hold elected officials accountable. The study found that, on average, the intervention did not affect voters’ beliefs about incumbent party misuse and misallocation of funds, indicating that voters possessed relatively pessimistic but accurate prior beliefs about incumbent party malfeasance. However, the study also found that the provision of information increased incumbent vote share by an average of 3 percentage points; this increase—as well as favorable updating of posterior beliefs—was especially large where the incumbent party was revealed to have engaged in least malfeasance. The delivery of unsurprising information depressed turnout by 1 percent, whereas delivery of surprising information increased turnout by 1 percent.1
After the study, the research team had extensive discussions about the findings with Borde Político. They also held a dissemination event in Mexico City with key stakeholders, at which Borde Político was able to give a presentation. Attendees at this event included J-PAL staff (co-organizers), Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México faculty, Instituto Nacional Electoral staff, Auditoría Superior de la Federación staff, representatives from State Electoral Institutes (Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, Campeche, Yucatán, Guanajuato), and several top Mexican non-governmental organizations.
The project also produced an APSR journal article, two working papers, and an EGAP policy brief:
In the sections that follow, the brief outlines Borde Político’s decision to partner with the researchers, their working relationship, and a reflection on the dissemination of findings. It also includes Niembro’s policy recommendations for future researcher/implementing partner collaborations.
Decisions to Partner with the Research Team
This was a natural collaboration between the research team and implementing partner. According to Larreguy, it was important for the research team to find an implementing partner that was committed to the project. Borde Político was enthusiastic about assisting with the project and the research team appreciated their “how can we help” attitude. Of course, the research team knew about Borde’s work and political activism prior to partnering with them. As Niembro noted, Borde Político works extensively on election transparency issues and bringing information to voters, which aligned well with the aims of the Mexico project and made for a natural partnership. According to Niembro: “This experience left us with a lot of lessons on how we can impact and change realities with information—this is the main objective of our organization.” The research team and Borde Político engaged in a series of conversations in the planning phase in order to clearly articulate the implementing partner’s role in the project. This was particularly important with regard to the development of the digital platform used during the project. Borde Político was extensively involved in the development of the online version of the platform, which was outlined in a memorandum of understanding that the research team and Borde signed.
Both Larreguy and Niembro noted that there was a fairly clear division of labor throughout the experiment, which made for an easy collaboration. Borde Político’s work was primarily focused on the intervention, including flyer design, and as such both Larreguy and Niembro mentioned that there was not a lot of consultation prior to implementation regarding site selection. However, Niembro said that she understood that the research team intentionally chose the locations, and that these decisions are often made as a result of factors that allow for comparisons between locations or as a result of constraints on research design and funding. Indeed, the research team rigorously selected municipalities based on three factors: relative safety of voters, and distribution and survey teams; variation in performance between incumbent and challenger parties; and distribution of incumbent parties across audited governments. The team further worked to minimize cross-precinct spillovers and reduce the probability that voters would receive information through means other than the intervention.
Working with the Team
Borde Político’s role in the research was two-fold. First, Niembro noted that in Mexico, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are often needed to help with implementation of research projects in the field, as NGOs with a good reputation can help to provide legitimacy, both on the ground and with the authorities. As such, Borde Político helped to draft requests for permission that included information about the work Borde does and their mission statement, as well as provided information about the project itself. These permissions went to National and State Electoral Institutes and the Justice Department, as well as political parties in Mexico that already had good working relationships with the organization.
Second, Borde Político used the information provided by the researchers to help with the design of the digital platform used in the project. This platform provided information to voters on the use of funds by politicians on local infrastructure projects and provided a snap-shot assessment of that spending at the local level. However, Niembro was quick to point out that Borde itself was not responsible for going into the field to distribute the surveys and information leaflets. Rather, Data OPM worked on behalf of Borde Político for this task.
During implementation, as with most field experiments, there were unanticipated issues that Borde Político and the research team had to navigate. For example, in this case, there was significant political pushback from incumbents and local operatives. Ultimately, this resulted in fraudulent leaflets distributed and the development of a fake website in order to provide misinformation to the citizens in the study area. As a result, Data OPM and Borde Político both experienced harassment through a deluge of phone calls to their offices, including from political parties who tried to intimidate the researchers and implementers by saying that they were working with the other parties. In seeking to rectify this, both the researchers and Borde contacted authorities in the justice system, and were informed to go to the media, where Borde issued a press release explaining the issue. Niembro indicated that the researchers were essential in mitigating this harassment by urging the justice system authorities to investigate the intimidation. Larreguy noted that with enough political pressure they were able to get a resolution from Congress condemning these actions and guaranteeing Borde’s right to freedom of expression and the safety of the field staff, though, according to Larreguy, “not much ultimately came from it.”
Borde Político wanted to work with the researchers because of the organization’s activism. Niembro stressed that the process of conducting the research was important in contributing to their work, in general. She also believes that her team learned a lot regarding research methodology, helping Borde “make their work more consistent and more powerful.” Niembro also stated, importantly, that researchers were able to provide feedback to Borde Político about their role in the research and how the materials were being disseminated, and noted that the researchers were available to answer any questions they had about the process as they arose. According to Niembro, the feedback and communication went both ways, with the research team checking in with Borde quite often. Niembro stressed the importance of this constant communication and feedback between researchers and implementing partners throughout the process.
Dissemination of Findings
Niembro and her team received a series of papers and an EGAP policy brief that came out of the research project that she found useful. The research team also organized an event in Mexico City for members of the local community and representatives from the election commissions in the states where they conducted the research. Borde Político gave a presentation at the event as well, in order to ensure that both the academic and policy sides were represented at the event.
The findings for this project were not what Niembro anticipated and she stressed that they have reframed some of Borde Político’s assumptions of their own theories of change. For example, she noted that prior to the research, “we thought that information leads to participation, but after the research, we know that information leads to expectation which may lead to participation.” She went on to explain, “We thought that the political processes were unchangeable, that there is a DNA in elections but from the research we know that political parties are vulnerable and election results are changeable, even if the people do not choose to change the reality.” While Niembro stressed that she understands the extent of work that goes into such papers, she also stated that having something more directly targeted at NGOs and civil society might help with increasing the impact and uptake of the results post-project. She also wished for more direct engagement with the research team post-project regarding the findings themselves. That is, the development of resources that share information gleaned from the research in a constructive way.
She ultimately noted that the most important thing now is to grow the research with other alliances, research networks, national/international universities, and/or think tanks in other parts of the world. This would be useful in order to maintain Borde Político’s work and be able to continue to use the results of the research project to benefit future programming.
This brief examines the collaboration between researchers and implementers who help to administer governance interventions in developing democracies, including in Latin America. Like in other contexts with increased security risks, NGOs help to ensure legitimacy and institutional cover for researchers. They also have specific and refined knowledge of the political and social conditions on the ground. As such, Niembro recommends having implementers be involved in the project design, such as in site selection, which can help to mitigate the risk to researchers and other implementing partners as the research is conducted. The research team on this project was in constant communication with Borde Político regarding their role in the research and how they were distributing flyers and managing calls from community members—this communication was essential for problem solving during fieldwork.
While the research team provided Borde with the final papers and EGAP policy brief with the results of the study as well as held an event to help disseminate their findings to the broader community, Niembro believes there may be other ways to craft more detailed papers or write-ups geared directly toward NGOs/civil society actors, with clear and direct indications of findings and potential next steps for organizations—though she recognizes that this is difficult for research teams to do given limited resources and time constraints. This disconnect between NGO goals and the type of research conducted at EGAP is a difficult one to rectify: where NGOs are often reliant on quick funding cycles – using research results for publicity or for fundraising – and are often searching for direct and quick steps to implement results into their work, experimental research designs such as this study require time to ensure complete and accurate analyses before results are disseminated. Ultimately, as EGAP projects move forward, finding ways to mitigate this tension may be beneficial to both research teams and implementing partners.