MSP Logo

Horizontally public in Uruguay

by David McDonald – November 8, 2012

Although Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales tend to grab the headlines in Latin America as representatives of the New Left, the government of the Frente Amplio in Uruguay has been quietly working away building some of the most effective public services in the world. A conference on the topic of ‘public enterprises’ was held in Montevideo last week, hosted in part by the state-owned companies for water, electricity, railways, telecoms and gas.

It was an eclectic mix of public entities, involving a lot of men in suits, but their commitment to publicly owned services that take equity and universality seriously was impressive. The fact that these organizations also work together on broader questions of public finance and shared efficiencies was notable, particularly when one considers the effect that private sector ideology has had on isolating public services, creating stand-alone ‘business units’ with their own financial bottom lines.

Breaking silos

In Uruguay, public enterprises appear to think about ‘public’ in both vertical and horizontal terms. The vertical comes from making decisions about publicness through the entire cycle of production and consumption of a specific service such as electricity or water, taking into account everything from frontline safety for public sector workers to questions of affordability for low-income users. This vertical chain is often broken or fragmented in other public companies.

Horizontal thinking involves collaboration outside the sector. Public services used to be done this way, but the ideology of ‘new public management’ has eroded this practice in most public enterprises, putting the emphasis on narrow sectoral considerations. Railways are often seen to be fundamentally distinct from water companies or from health agencies, creating competition for resources and making external collaboration and more holistic public enterprise planning difficult. Uruguay’s companies seem to be overcoming these hurdles.

How to go from technocratic to democratic?

This is not to say that Uruguay’s public services are paradise on earth. The overrepresentation of men in suits at the conference exemplifies a technocratic, management-heavy, and male-dominant style of reform. Labour relations have improved but unions argue that they are not adequately consulted. Community associations do not participate in decision making in ways that they do in other parts of Latin America. Outsourcing and public-private partnerships remain a concern, with the Frente Amplio government having passed a law last year to promote PPPs in several sectors. Some services, like sanitation, have not been given the investment attention they require.

But no public services are perfect, and the aim of the conference was to critically reflect on the experience of Uruguay’s public enterprises in light of what is taking place in other parts of the world. The fact that such a debate is taking place less than a decade after the Frente Amplio came into power – and after several decades of dictatorships and neoliberal regimes – is itself cause for celebration. In this respect it is essential to see this kind of conference as the beginning of a new international dialogue on publicness, not an end.

David McDonald is co-director of the MSP and professor of global development studies at Queen’s University in Canada. More information on the event including the program and final report are available here.