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Accountability in Times of Crisis: Federalism and the Pandemic in the United States and Mexico

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mauricio Covarrubias
March 11, 2022

COVID-19 has highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of institutional capacities considered essential in crisis situations. As the media has documented, the coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every nation in the world, with outcomes varying according to the individual responses taken by each government. Such crises require governments to take urgent action, and in turn, can sometimes make it difficult to balance urgency with careful accountability, transparency and integrity. In these circumstances, policy formulation is a complex task which requires a process of continuous feedback process and real-time evaluation.

Accountability and COVID-19

Emergency situations can lead to the suspension or bypassing of basic control systems, combined with a weakening of accountability systems and oversight. This can cause increased levels of waste, mismanagement and corruption at a time when government resources are already under immense pressure. In the pandemic, the effectiveness of the government response is directly related to the rates of contagion, disease and mortality, as well as the degree of social, economic and educational impact.

According to the International Budget Partnership’s report Managing COVID Funds: The Accountability Gap, when measuring adherence to the principles of public access to relevant information, adequate oversight arrangements and opportunities for citizen engagement, findings were bleak. In about only 25 percent of 120 countries surveyed, government auditors were able to publish audit reports before the end of 2020. Many governments bypassed legislatures, took shortcuts in procurement and avoided consulting citizens.

The United Nations Development Program warns that the consequences of the lack of transparency and accountability are felt not only by healthcare service delivery, policymaking, procurement practices and the management health funds, but also by governance systems, undermining the effectiveness of response and recovery measures to the crisis.

Federal Systems Responses

In North America, the response has been mixed. According to the Mexico Institute, although all three countries have been severely affected, Mexico faces additional challenges due to a limited availability of resources. In this column we explore the mechanisms for accountability and monitoring of the Federal response to the pandemic in the United States and Mexico. The COVID-19 crisis has brought to light the issue of public health as a primary dimension of a highly interdependent bilateral relationship, offering an opportunity to learn from experience in this area.

United States

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 and the Coronavirus Response and Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 provided fast and direct economic assistance for American workers, families, small businesses and industries. The CARES Act includes a provision for U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct monitoring and oversight of the Federal government’s preparedness for, response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, including issues related to public health, the economy and federal spending.

To fulfill this role, GAO reports periodically on these matters and briefs congressional committees on a monthly basis. The Act also asks GAO to conduct a review of Federal contracting under CARES Act authorities and report annually on programs that provide loans, loan guarantees and other assistance to companies under it.

From March 1, 2020 to Dec. 1, 2021, GAO’s work on COVID-19 included 8 full reports on the Federal response to COVID-19, 86 reports on specific aspects of the Federal response, 20 congressional testimonies and 10 science and technology highlights. It also made 246 recommendations to agencies and legislators regarding public health, service delivery, economics and program integrity. To date, agencies have partially, or fully implemented about one-third of GAO’s recommendations.

Mexico

At the governmental level there are two types of control: internal and external. Internal control is carried out before, during and after a management period. In the case of the executive branch, the Secretaría de la Función Pública (SFP) is responsible for coordinating this task. However, in the emergency situation of COVID-19, its strategy was limited to promoting actions of transparency.

External control corresponds to the Auditoría Superior de la Federación (ASF), a specialized technical body of the Chamber of Deputies formally endowed with autonomy, whose mission is “to supervise public resources to prevent irregular practices and contribute to good governance.”  However, the control of the ASF is exercised a posteriori and on an annual basis. In other words, it is not continuously monitoring like that of the GAO in the United States.

Thus, key decisions about the pandemic in Mexico have not been subject to systematic independent oversight. The lack of institutional controls and independent deliberation in the decision-making process led to significant failures in the response to the crisis. Decision-making authority has been excessively concentrated in the executive branch of the central government.

The Importance of Auditing the Central Government Response

Federal systems have the opportunity to evaluate and improve their decentralized governance system. It is imperative to establish mechanisms that provide greater guarantees that public funds reach the intended recipients, are used for the intended purposes, help guarantee the integrity of programs and address the risks of corruption and fraud.

On the other hand, it is equally important to evaluate the decision-making processes, especially within central governments because, as we have been able to see, after two years of the pandemic, the effectiveness of the leadership of Federal governments has been a key factor in expanding capabilities, mobilizing and joining forces to face the crisis.


Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico.  He co-founder of the International Academy of Political-Administrative Sciences (IAPAS).  He is the founder and Editor of the International Journal of Studies on Educational Systems (RIESED). Coordinator in Mexico of the TOGIVE Project: Transatlantic Open Government Virtual Education, of the ERASMUS + Program of the European Union. Member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT.  He received his Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.  He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @OMCovarrubias and LinkedIn @ http://linkedin.com/in/mauricio-covarrubias-2b49bb57

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