Blumenau, a city of just over 350,000 people in the south of Brazil, is home to an eclectic mix of cultures of German and Italian descent, Portuguese, indigenous and African. The city is vibrant and innovative and boasts a variety of traditions that have been preserved.
According to the Human Development Index, it's a city with one of the highest standards of living in all of Brazil.
Napoleão Bernardes, a Blumenau native, was the youngest and most voted mayor in the history of the city, before retreating to an academic sabbatical at the age of 37. He served as mayor for two terms and credits his success to his close relationship with the community, innovative use of media, and transparency of public administration, involving the citizens in the decision-making process and promoting collaboration between government and civil society. This was very important in dealing with the many problems the city government was grappling with, in a period of limited resources. It helped to strengthen the people’s trust in government and in our politics, enabling us to deliver better public services for all.
In a conversation with the GPSA, Bernardes shares key moments of what makes the city one of the most successful in the country, along with challenges he overcame on the way.
He is joining us as a keynote speaker at the opening of the GPSA Global Partners Forum in Washington D.C. set for November 19 to 21 to share more. .
Follow the conversation @GPSA_org for updates.
You were a young mayor, please share with us some key moments of your journey to that position.
Politics is my calling, but I started out by understanding my community first. For many years, I ran a community radio program in which I sought to help the simplest people – sharing tips on things like active citizenship and finding jobs, and on other day to day needs.The program was also a space where people felt heard by the public officials. For me, deeply understanding people’s needs was a powerful experience. This helped strengthen my relationship with the community immensely.
I was 25 when I was elected city councilor and 29 when I was elected mayor and all the odds were stacked against me. Polls were showing me in the third place, but I never lost faith, hope and courage to follow my calling. I got involved in politics and ran for public local offices when I was 17 and 21. I lost both. My election as mayor of Blumenau in 2013 was a surprising, but sweet victory.
What prompted you to run and what was your vision for the city?
Some life decisions cannot be easily and objectively explained in words. It was a calling for me. I decided to run for mayor because I really believed that I could make a difference both in the present and in shaping the future of the city. By involving the people and by engaging the community, the city benefited greatly in terms of quality of life and development overall.
What was the most challenging problem you had to deal with as mayor?
The challenges were many. Running a city is like managing a permanent crisis. Blumenau is a city where floods often happen and that leads to human, social and economic challenges.
The main challenge that I had to face as mayor was the collapse of the public transport system. About 120,000 used the bus daily. The most affected were the simplest people. I had to terminate the contract with the company that was running the entire public transport system due to poor quality and management. This company belonged to a well-known family in the city. It ran the transportation system for over 60 years through the concession modality.
I made a public statement that there would not be a single bus running in the city for a whole week, and for the next year, the running buses would be very old. These buses were, at the time, the viable option as part of an extraordinary measure, while a new concession process was being designed and implemented, with new standards for the service and the public-private relationship. This was, again, affecting the most vulnerable people. It was not an easy decision.
We also talked to the prosecutor – to ensure we did not undermine peoples’ rights. But sometimes you need to consider short and long-term commitments when you make decisions. I put myself in the shoes of the affected people and it was painful to think about the short term. What comforted me was the certainty of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the solution for those who most depended on the transportation system.
All this happened during my re-election campaign. The emergency bus service turned out to be extremely unreliable. I had a close relationship with my constituency and gave them my word. They trusted me that we were on the right path and I delivered. I was re-elected with about 60% of the votes, the largest proportional vote in the state of Santa Catarina, in the second round of that election.
Today, the fleet of buses in Blumenau is the newest in all of Brazil and it benefits us all, including the most vulnerable people affected. This was possible due to radical transparency and collaboration of stakeholders in a process that was intensely participatory.
Did you have an “Aha” moment and what was it about?
Yes! It happened when I made transparency the main principle of my administration and little by little, I involved leaders within the civil society in the monitoring and follow-up of the government activities and in the decision-making process. When community and government work together towards a common goal, things become easier.
I have many anecdotes of how this helped me become stronger to withstand political pressures or how I persuaded come colleagues in politics about the merits of opening up the government. But I’ll tell you more at the GPSA Forum.
We had a positive outcome when we recruited public administrators in key positions. During the hiring process we mixed experienced city officials and well-trained young professionals. We also valued civil servants with low motivation and morale, yet relevant experience. We invested time in keeping an open dialogue with the legislature, the judiciary and the prosecutor. Moreover, being transparent and frank helped us anticipate the demands from citizens and solve problems, working collaboratively with them. Managing a city is always very complex. Crises and challenges never end. Therefore, it is essential to have a team of well trained, qualified and talented people.
Like you, we at the GPSA believe that collaboration between governments and citizens helps to improve governance and can benefit society, and indeed ensure that everyone is included. How did you work with the local civil society leaders towards these goals and what were the most common problems you and they had to address?
Civil society and city government must add up. The quality of their collaboration, and accountability of government to the citizens, are vital to the health of the city. The goal of both must be rooted in increasing quality of life and in promoting the welfare of the population. That is why it is necessary to create the conditions for this synergy and collaboration to happen, which can increase the population’s confidence and trust in the government and motivate them to participate and to make their contribution.
A good example is what happened in the road paving program. Many streets were unpaved (many still are) and the public administration alone could not have paved many of these. Neither could the people alone. So, we made a joint effort and the community paid for a part of the works and the public administration for the remaining costs. Still, there were many more roads to be paved than the public administration could afford.
Normally, people with access to politicians would get their streets paved first. They skipped the line. In order to reduce asymmetries in access to the service, and curtail line skipping, our government created a single line system, with full transparency. In this way it would not have been possible for a mayor to decide on their own, according to their electoral or political advantages, which road should have been paved first and which later.
Objective and previously established criteria were used in order to determine which road would be paved first. The population approved the idea because it felt more confident that priorities would not be changed because of political or electoral considerations
You have a record of implementing policies to open the government in your city; why do you think transparency, accountability and participation from citizens in the city in the governing process are so important?
My experience and academic training convinced me that efficiency and responsiveness in public administration needs three factors: transparency, objectivity and social accountability or social control, meaning participation and involvement. When government creates the right conditions, and actively collaborates with the citizens, the whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts. Transparency, accountability and participation are important in building citizens’ trust in government and improving government responsiveness and effectiveness.
What are your personal expectations from the Global Partners Forum 2019?
To listen and to share from my own experiences and indeed to learn too. I am extremely thrilled with the prospect of talking about the work in which I was involved especially as a mayor, but also the richness of learning that will surely take place by participating at the GPSA Forum. I look forward to sharing practical cases of what I have lived, as well as exposing some of the anxieties and dilemmas inherent in leading public administration. I also believe that participating in the GPSA Forum will enrich me and inform my future actions.
We’re looking forward to hearing you share your experience with all of us at the Forum. In the meantime, please tell us – very briefly - the main message we can expect to hear from you?
Opening the government to be informed and influenced by engaged citizens is one of the defining priorities of our time. Collaboration of governments and civil society has, in my experiences, contributed to better and more responsive city government. These commitments were also good for election! It is what citizens wanted! I was elected and reelected, with historical voting results, waving the flag of management professionalization and collaborative governance, in order to increase efficiency and, together with this, to do more and provide citizens with better public services in essential areas.
As time goes by, I am more and more convinced that promoting transparency is the path to increasing people’s trust in government; and the confidence of people towards the government is the fuel for their participation, towards better and healthier cities today, and in the future.
This interview was carried out by Diana Iovescu Tatucu, Community Specialist at the GPSA.