"There is no innovation if something completely new has not been successfully created"

Javier Arteaga: Technology [...] allows for so many open government initiatives throughout Latin America, Europe and beyond. Español

Avina democracia Abierta
5 December 2017

Within the framework of this year's "Fearless Cities" summit, Fundación Avina and DemocraciaAbierta established a special collaboration to explore some of the most exciting poltical experiences arising from Latin America. 

Bringing together relevant actors in the field that are directly involved in political innovation at the local level, in Latin America, we have sought answers to four major issues shared by all the projects: a) Vision of innovation; b) National political context and limitations of local power; c) Influence of the international political context, and d) The question of leadership.

In this page, Javier Arteaga addresses these topics. Javier is a USAID consultant for the Open Government of Nariño, Colombia, director of PASTOLAb and a professor at the University of Nariño.


I think that the word innovation, if we understand it as it is understood in the business world, means that something new is being created. That is, there is no innovation if something completely new has not been successfully created. In this sense, there may be different levels of innovation, and some innovations are much more disruptive than others, but what is needed is for something new to be created.

In the case of politics in Colombia, it may be relatively easy to innovate for the yardstick, the political standards, is very low when it comes to doing things that are different, or doing them in a different way. It is very easy to break through the established boundaries with things that are sometimes basic, and so, to be able to innovate.

In our case, we base innovation on two factors: First, action. Action is a key concept in innovation. People often confuse innovation with creativity, with doing things which have never been conceived before. We start instead from the idea that what is important is to act - for, if there is no action, if things are not done, there is no innovation.

I think that the very first thing to be said is that things getting done in Nariño. In other words, that there is action. We may fail, and it may be that many of these things have no meaning yet. Maybe later on we will write and theorise about them, because I think that many things will come out of what is happening here that can be useful for the rest of Colombia, and maybe for the outside world. But we start from the fact that "we are doing things" and that, through our action, we generate innovation.

Secondly, I believe that as far as politics is concerned, innovation has to do with focusing on citizens. However progressive or advanced politicians may be, normally they act in the same way. Whether they are from the left, right, or centre, no matter how different their ideas are, their form of action in doing politics is very similar. They are all locked in their offices, deciding what is best for citizens. So, creating change and making it possible to govern from the public space and putting citizens as the centre of our political action - as we have done – that is what gives meaning to the word 'innovation'.


We are doing innovative things, things that have never been done before, at a regional level, and we find that our proposals are not easy to understand from the point of view of national (and also local) politics.

I will give two examples, which are complex but very illustrative of the difficulties we face. The first is our Chair for the Future Program, which constitutes our initiative in the field of educational innovation. The aim of this program is for children to learn, to acquire knowledge at home, and go to school to carry out their projects - in other words, the aim is to invert the educational process. But our national policy is to extend school hours - that is, to keep children in the classroom longer. So, there is a blatant contradiction between national policy and our project, which costs seven million dollars and needs to be publicly financed, which in turn requires the project to be approved at the national level and be supported by the Ministry of Education. They are two completely different, colliding proposals. We argue that we are carrying out a project which represents an educational innovation, but the Ministry is thinking in absolutely different terms, about setting up new contracts for canteens, or investing in infrastructure, and keep up with the whole corruption system that these investments involve. The last thing they care about is the children - that is, the education system – while we are putting them at the very centre of our policy, for we believe that the essential thing is that they should learn. So, this is where the problem lies between our politics and national politics.

The other example is our Peace Actions Program. We believe that we need to empower citizens, to map public spaces that are not currently in use and decide where housing developments should be set up. But national policy tells us that it is impossible for us to get a single peso from public funds unless we previously identify who owns the space, and which population exactly is going to benefit from it. However, in line with our policy of empowerment, we do not know yet what that space will be, for citizens have to map the territory before making a decision. At national level, they say it cannot be done, and so it cannot be done. This has blocked our policy. We invested nine months in this project, but then everything got paralysed by that different vision of politics which prevents innovation.

As for the limitations of local power, this is precisely an issue that we have raised in the department of Nariño. Our Open Government policy, for example, which we have promoted at the regional level - that is, at the level of the regional government -, has not been implemented by any municipality. Not even municipalities which are very close to our regional government have managed to carry it through.

At the national level, our tactics have been different. We ask ourselves how we can generate national public policies on the basis of what we are doing. But this is difficult. The national government, for example, has an initiative called Open Government Index (IGA). What this index measures, however, has nothing to do with what our Open Government Program is all about, so we do not get a single point. In other words, according to national policy, we come in last in the Open Government Index, despite all the things we are doing in this area. In the end, we have been able to exert media pressure to get them to update the IGA and oblige, at the micro level, the 1.100 plus Colombian municipalities to adapt to the new Open Government Index. They have not changed the things they are measuring, they have just added the things we are doing in Nariño. In the end, we have made good progress, and now there is a compromise between USAID and the Attorney General, who is the one who carries out the measurements, to implement an agenda that incorporates up to six actors.

If we succeed in this, it will be a great success: to have the Attorney General change the national policy of measuring an index which is very important for each municipality and each government and adapt it in line with what we have been doing in Nariño. This would set an important precedent, for it would show that it is possible to incorporate a regionally-conceived innovation into national policy.

At the micro level, on the other hand, we are using tools such as the Open Government Index to create things aimed at raising the awareness of municipalities and get them to join in. For example, in the municipality of Santander de Quilichao (Cauca) we were able to get the mayor and his cabinet to launch an open government portal. This is the first municipality in the country to adopt the new Open Government system. So, we have Nariño, at the regional level, and we now have that first municipality in the country. We are working in two directions: upward, changing national policy, and downward, incorporating the municipalities.


Regional and international dynamics do not permeate or have a significant impact on what we are doing in Nariño. Internationally, what we have done is to carry out a joint project with people from Madrid and Barcelona within the framework of their open government policies. And we have developed not only policies, but also personal ties.

In the case of Nariño, we have been visited by people like Marcos Antonio Lafuente, director of Medialab, who is very much of a Commons theorist, and by Raúl Oliván from Zaragoza and Domenico Di Siena, who are both involved in civic design. Not a fortnight goes by without someone coming up to Nariño to share some knowledge with us, and this has placed us on a very interesting radar. I think that the fact that there are coincidental interesting political innovations at the international level is what leads to mutual interest and exchange. Of course, this would not be possible if the international context were not readily available to us through technology, which is also what allows for so many open government initiatives throughout Latin America, Europe and beyond .


 Today, Camilo Romero, the governor of Nariño, is a widely recognised figure in this country for his skills as a leader and his empathic character. But this, while positive, represents a great risk to us within the context of the political map of the country.

Camilo began to appear in the mainstream national media and became a reference point in international meetings. This has afforded him prominence and has placed him in the spotlight, but this also means that they can deal us deadly blows with a single media headline. If a person says that Camilo Romero supports their political group - for example, Senator Claudia López, the candidate at next year’s presidential elections, Claudia López will be constantly monitored. And although this is indeed important for democracy, it could very well be that whatever information can be used to undermine her, will immediately be turned against Camilo Romero.

We live in constant struggle, fearing that a mere disqualifying word in the newspapers could discredit Camilo and put an end to the Nariño governorship's process of innovation. That is not only one of our great fears but also, I think, one of our main weaknesses, because we are a small political actor, we do not belong to large economic groups, we are not part of any traditional political lineage, and neither are we the children of any president - far from it. And this, in the game board of Colombian democracy, is important. We are also aware that the moment we pose a threat to someone or something important, they can finish us off very easily.

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