For some years in Mexico, I had the chance to teach a course on public policy. Its focus was not whether particular policies were good or bad, but instead on how government decisions are made. I tried to emphasize that policy outcomes are frequently the result of the leaders’ decision-making method, a reality frequently overlooked. The main policies of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration in Mexico have been the subject of an intense debate that will certainly continue even after his term ends in 2024. However, less attention has been given to his decision-making process and it seems that his daily morning press conference (also known as mañanera in Spanish) plays a significant role in it. Any new government naturally has to adjust past bureaucratic structures and processes whenever it arrives in power. The López Obrador administration has gone way beyond adjustments and actually takes pride in this. The President seems to have a special dislike for the traditional means by which the policy development process has taken place in Mexico.
The mañanera is probably a unique exercise worldwide. On weekdays, the President López Obrador engages in a press conference that sometimes will go on for up to three hours, covering anything from the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, public insecurity, electricity prices, to anecdotes of Mexico’s political history. Cabinet members as well other government officials and guests are usually invited to participate. López Obrador’s supporters defend the mañanera as a good example of transparency, accountability, and open government. The President himself describes it as positive “circular dialogue” between him and the press. On the other side, his critics point out that the President is not really informing the public but promoting propaganda. They also say that López Obrador extensively uses his press conference to polarize the country instead of uniting it, to attack his adversaries and to even go after Mexican media critical of his government. Be that as it may, the point I want to make is that this the President’s daily press conference is probably not conducive to an efficient decision-making process.
To start with, people who have studied leadership and presidential institutions often point to the fact that a President’s time is an unbelievably valuable resource. The sheer amount of time employed by López Obrador in his daily mañanera is actually quite high. According to SPIN Taller de Comunicación Política, a Mexico City’s political communications firm, López Obrador has held 598 mañaneras out of the 882 days he has been in power as of last April. Per the same analysis, an average mañanera lasts 108 minutes. This implies an important toll on President López Obrador’s time. Similarly, public policy literature argues that Presidents should try to concentrate their time in urgent, high-impact and transformative issues, delegating to the extent possible the rest. A daily press conference has the effect to focus the leader’s attention on day-to-day affairs to the detriment of cumbersome and tough public policy choices that usually require time to be planned and implemented effectively.
Scholars of public policy, as well as practitioners, also focus on the process by which issues actually reach the President’s desk for a decision. The role of a Chief of Staff as the President´s “gatekeeper” and “honest broker” among cabinet members becomes crucial in this process. The morning mañanera almost blurs the role of the Chief of Staff with that of the person who handles press and communications for the President. In the present case of Mexico, cabinet members are rumoured to have learned about López Obrador’s instructions to them through by listening to the mañanera (which is usually broadcasted live via YouTube and other platforms). In some cases, the rumours have been confirmed. This may very well be an exaggeration, but as it appears, López Obrador seldom relies con group deliberations, the one exception being his daily meeting with his security cabinet.
Like in other parts of the world, many of the issues that Mexican policymakers must deal with are cross-cutting among different government agencies. Mexican public administration statutes contemplate the figure of “inter-governmental commissions” as a way to address these types of issues. Even when they might seem overly bureaucratic, these mechanisms serve the purpose of allowing different views to be aired before the President. They are also repositories of institutional memory and means for follow-up on adopted decisions. I personally believe that these mechanisms have proven useful and usually do not imply additional costs. Unfortunately, they do not seem to be part of López Obrador’s toolbox to any significant extent. The mañanera is perhaps only a reflection of a managing style which in the case of López Obrador it appears to be highly centralized and top-down. To his credit, this places the responsibility of all decisions very much on him –the good and the bad ones. This is also relevant in terms of public opinion. Whether this in fact serves the President in the long run is different story.
* Gerónimo Gutiérrez Fernández is senior advisor at Covington and Burling, LLP and partner at BEEL Infrastructure. Twitter: @GERONIMO_GF