Overseeing a city as diverse as Buenos Aires is not for the faint-hearted. Rich in diversity and eclectic neighbourhoods, it encompasses nearly 80 square miles and stands as the gateway to Argentina. While its wide avenues reflect the European heritage of many of its three million citizens, this is very much a Latin American city, one endowed with passion aplenty – for football, tango and much else besides.
The city’s mayor, Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, has been in post for only three months – his predecessor having been elected president of Argentina – and he appointed Fernando Straface as general secretary to the cabinet, a position of broad reach and responsibility. “My role is to assist the mayor in following the strategic priorities of the city, alongside the chief of cabinet,” he says. “This means that our teams track the progress of his most important commitments and work with the cabinet to fulfil these commitments. I also work to promote and represent the city internationally.”
Designed to deliver
So how does he do this in practice? After all, the pursuit of ‘delivery’ takes many forms. It turns out that Straface believes in the power of both metrics and meetings to ensure progress.
“The first and most important thing is to promote understanding of the strategic priorities in government,” he says. “At the outset it is crucial that everyone knows what the priorities are and what we are working towards. The mayor made a public announcement of 20 ‘commitments’, with specific targets and deadlines, so everybody knows the government’s priorities. And then we set accurate trajectories and metrics to follow them. Once a month there is a meeting between the mayor, the chief of cabinet, sectoral leaders, and myself and my team. This is where we analyse the trajectory of these goals – the progress of the implementation, the barriers to delivery and so on. We dedicate an hour each month – one hour per goal – in order to stay on top of how each one is progressing.”
To help them in this task is a new delivery unit – which falls under Straface’s supervision but is run by his colleague, Martin Alessandro, a former consultant at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). “The delivery unit has the specific role of following the implementation of each objective, using metrics and other data tools,” explains Straface. “It works closely with the Planning Department at the chief of cabinet’s office and is responsible for developing and monitoring the execution of the overall government plan. The delivery unit also benchmarks each goal against the progress of other cities and regions in Argentina, and brings and deploys new ideas on how to best achieve our aims.”
Interestingly, few cities in Argentina – and indeed in Latin America – have a similar system, but Straface says that this is starting to change, albeit relatively slowly. “In the last few years the recognition of the delivery approach has been growing in Latin America but not especially so in Argentina,” he says. “Older approaches have continued to hold sway, but Buenos Aires is leading the way in focusing more heavily on implementation.”
He goes on to point out that the political success of those who pioneered this approach would suggest that others would do well to follow their example. “In Buenos Aires it was first introduced by the then chief of staff, who is now the new mayor of the city, and the former mayor, who is now the president of Argentina. So I would argue that it is a system that also has a strong payoff politically. Delivering good results in government delivers good political results, too.”
Steps to success
Straface has enjoyed a career that has taken him to many high-profile positions – in his native Argentina and overseas. Previous roles include a six-year stint at the IDB in Washington, DC – where he perfected his excellent English – as a senior governance specialist. And he also served as executive director of CIPPEC, one of the most important think-tanks in Argentina and Latin America. Such experiences have shaped his personal credo for how to turn an idea into impact.
“I would say that the most important thing is to identify your strategic priorities,” he reflects. “This sounds simple when you say it, but is much harder to achieve it. Once you start a new administration there are many things that seem important, but you will only be remembered for performing very well against some specific high-profile issues – those ones that resonate and support most strongly the overall vision of the new government.”
He also speaks highly of the value of aspiration. “Aiming high is very important,” he says, “but there is a balance to be struck. You also need to be realistic in terms of the goals that are set. They are aspirational in terms of challenging yourself and your government to achieve something out of the ordinary, but you shouldn’t aim for something that is impossible to achieve because that will create frustration – and being seen to fail is never good from a career perspective.”
And clear and transparent communication is also critical. “You need to send a clear message to your bureaucracy and those who work in government that you will live for these priorities,” he says. “You have to devote time and political will, and send different signals to different constituencies, so that everyone – including the public – understands that these are the priorities. This is why the fourth component of this whole strategy is to have clear accountability to the public about how the priorities are being met. It’s not a process that you’re only dealing with internally – you have to involve the public as much as you can.”
The citizens of Buenos Aires, benefiting from their city’s continued growth and advancement, would surely agree.
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