8. Towards sound public governance in El Salvador

Sound public governance is about how governments can shape policy making in order to meet the needs of, and improve outcomes for, citizens. They do this by making strategic use of enablers, policy instruments, and management tools, to pursue effective, equitable decision making, and successful reforms, in a sustainable and inclusive manner.

The Initial Assessment of the Multi-dimensional Country Review of El Salvador (Chapter 2) identified key challenges in the area of public governance. It identified as key constraints the lack of institutionalisation in certain policy sectors, and the existence of obsolete legal frameworks and cumbersome co-ordination mechanisms that hinder the capacity of the Salvadoran administration to perform effectively in a structural manner. It also presented some of the challenges that arise in the process of state modernisation, for instance in the area of human-resources management.

This chapter will analyse in greater depth some of the key public governance issues that were identified in the Initial Assessment and will benchmark El Salvador against OECD standards and good international practices, as well as against available data on how other governments are performing in Latin America and the Caribbean. This assessment, which will be accompanied by a series of practical recommendations that El Salvador could consider adopting, may help the Salvadoran administration to identify possible areas of opportunity to improve its capacities for policy making, implementation and evaluation. Consequently, the recommendations could help it to provide better services to its citizens.

The first section of this chapter provides an overview of El Salvador’s Centre of Government (CoG) as a key actor to lead whole-of-government co-ordination efforts across administrative units and agencies. As such, it promotes policy coherence in cross-cutting initiatives, and aligns sectoral policies with government priorities, both with regard to public policies and to institutional modernisation efforts. In particular, it analyses the current mandate, composition and reporting arrangements of the institutions and agencies that make up the CoG, and the mechanisms put in place to co-ordinate both whole-of-government strategies and sectoral policies. It also looks at how decision making by the head of government could best be supported.

The second section analyses the strategic planning instruments put in place in El Salvador over the past decade, and identifies possible pathways for the implementation of the political commitments presented in the Plan Cuscatlán. This is the main strategic document that is currently being used by government institutions and agencies, as of the change of government in 2019. It also discusses the importance of developing detailed action plans that are bound by budget constraints and other available resources (human, material, etc.), while ensuring an effective monitoring of progress made in their implementation.

The third section provides an assessment of the reform efforts undertaken by El Salvador in key areas of state modernisation, to improve the efficiency of the public administration. It highlights elements such as the harmonisation of the national civil-service strategy for the management of the workforce, the simplification of administrative processes in public-service delivery, digital transformation to tackle digital divides and improve services provided to citizens, and the use of open government principles to promote transparency, integrity, accountability and the participation of stakeholders. The chapter then concludes with a summary of the main recommendations that El Salvador could consider adopting.

Governments are increasingly adopting whole-of-government policy responses to address emerging crosscutting policy challenges (OECD, 2020[2]). To this end, OECD countries are progressively strengthening the institutional and financial capacities of their centres of government (CoG).

The OECD defines the CoG as the body, or group of bodies, that provides direct support and advice to the Head of Government/Head of State and their Cabinet and the Council of Ministers (OECD, 2014[3]). Its main mandate is “to ensure the consistency and prudency of government decisions, and to promote evidence-based, strategic, and consistent policies” (Box 8.2).

The first section of this chapter will analyse how the CoG of El Salvador is performing in some of these key areas of work identified by OECD countries as priority tasks.

Countries are facing a number of complex, multi-dimensional policy challenges, such as climate change, mass migration, and the management of the COVID-19 pandemic. These have proven to be particularly difficult to tackle, as they require integrated approaches that cross over policy silos. El Salvador is no exception. Climate-change risks are increasingly pressing, and are expected to affect El Salvador’s agricultural production, costing around 7.2% of GDP by 2030 (ECLAC, 2018[6]). The insecurity of citizens, and the search for better economic opportunities, have triggered waves of internal and external migration, which require ambitious infrastructure and urbanisation plans in order to deliver basic services, and to limit the ecological impact of these demographic shifts (Knox, 2018[7]). Like many other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), El Salvador also suffers from low fiscal revenues and capacity. In 2019, for instance, taxes only represented 20.4% of gross domestic product (GDP), which is far below the OECD average of 34.2% (OECD et al., 2019[8]). This severely limits the government’s fiscal space. Although they are daunting, these pressures are not unique to El Salvador. Increasingly complex “megatrends” such as demographic changes, technological innovations, and financial crises, are affecting all OECD governments (Laegreid et al., 2015[9]).

Tackling these complex, cross-cutting challenges requires a coherent, whole-of-government approach that transcends traditional administrative siloes to design, implement and evaluate responses through sustained co-ordination across administrative units (OECD, 2020[2]). While effective horizontal co-ordination has always been a challenge for governments, the atomisation of administrative structures, and the size of many governments, have compounded these issues. Indeed, when governments become larger and more fragmented, more stakeholders with a multitude of interests enter the decision-making and policy-making process. Without adequate co-ordination across government units, policy makers may base their decisions on incorrect, biased, or incomplete information. This results in flawed services and policies, which are not assessed accurately with regard to their costs and benefits, impact, legality, and coherence with existing policies (World Bank, 2018[10]).

In El Salvador, the centre of government has evolved extensively over the past decades. This has led to the creation of multiple units, which to some degree requires the development of more robust co-ordination mechanisms. The highest-level decision-making body of El Salvador’s executive branch of government is the Council of Ministers. The Council is enshrined by Art. 166 of the Constitution of the country and is in charge of providing coherence to government action (Asamblea Legislativa, 1983[11]). It comprises the President and Vice-President of the Republic, plus State Ministers. Moreover, the Internal Regulation of the Executive Branch of government (Consejo de Ministros, 1989[12]) sets up both the institutional framework, and the mandate, of the various ministries. It also establishes other entities, such as the Presidential Commissioners and Deputy Commissioners, and the Secretariats of the Presidency, and sets out their responsibilities.

The main institutions that shape El Salvador’s CoG are the bodies of the Presidency. The OECD includes in its analytical definition of the centre of government units that fulfil key cross-cutting roles for public governance, and for the co-ordination of strategic priorities between units and levels of government. In this spirit, a broader definition of the CoG in El Salvador would also include the Ministry of Governance and Territorial Development, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Economy.

  • The Presidency of the Republic. Its current structure comprises the Presidency, the Vice-presidency, two presidential commissioners, seven secretariats, two organisms, two agencies, one institute, and three other institutional bodies (Gobierno de El Salvador, 2020[13]) (Figure 8.1). The following units of the Presidency carry out core CoG functions in El Salvador:

    • The Presidential Commission for Operations and Government Cabinet (Comisión Presidencial de Operaciones y Gabinete de Gobierno) is in charge of co-ordinating the institutions of the Executive Body, in line with the objectives of the general government plan.

    • The Presidential Commission for Strategic Projects (Comisión Presidencial de Proyectos Estratégicos) is in charge of planning, co-ordinating and monitoring the execution of all priority projects and actions, as assigned by the President. It is also in charge of guaranteeing the prompt execution of Presidential initiatives in the areas of social development, security, migration, labour, international affairs, industry, production, technology, economy, finance, development, public works, and territorial development.

    • The Secretariat for Innovation (Secretaría de Innovación) is the unit in charge of planning, co-ordinating and promoting state strategies for innovation and modernisation. This includes digital-transformation actions. This unit also aims to develop the capacities of public servants to improve the quality of the services that are provided to citizens.

    • The Secretariat for Commerce and Investment (Secretaría de Comercio e Inversiones) is the unit in charge of participating and representing national interests in the formulation of bilateral trade policies, as well as contributing to the definition the national position in international institutions in the field of international trade and investment.

    • The Secretariat for Communications (Secretaría de Comunicaciones) is the unit in charge of leading the communication policy of the government. It is also tasked with co-ordinating the Inter-institutional Communications Committee (Comité lnterinstitucional de Comunicaciones). At the president’s request, it acts as a spokespersons’ service for the government.

    • The Private Secretariat (Secretaría Privada) is the unit in charge of planning, co-ordinating and managing human and financial resources within the Presidency.

    • The Legal Secretariat (Secretaría Jurídica) is the unit in charge of providing legal advice to the President in relation to legislative decrees, as well as any draft normative texts that are required for the application of the laws. This unit contributes to executive functions in the process of law formulation. This involves the President of the Republic and the legislature (Asamblea Legislativa).

    • The Audit Secretariat (Secretaría de Auditoría) is the unit in charge of strengthening internal control mechanisms in the Executive, through audits and preventive and corrective actions.1

    • The Organism for Better Regulation (Organismo de Mejora Regulatoria, or OMR) is a deconcentrated institution that is attached to the Presidency. It is in charge of leading and co-ordinating the institutionalisation of the Better Regulation System, as well as ensuring its implementation in accordance with the Law for Better Regulation (Asamblea Legislativa, 2019[14]).

    • The Salvadoran Agency for International Co-operation (the Agencia de El Salvador para la Cooperación Internacional, or ESCO) is the unit in charge of co-ordinating international co-operation in El Salvador, channelling and supporting different needs in terms of technical and financial support.

    • The Agency for Development and Nation Design (the Agencia de Desarrollo y Diseño de Nación) is tasked with programming, co-ordinating and following up on cross-cutting plans, programmes and projects for development, and on sectoral programmes as determined by the President.

  • The Ministry of Governance and Territorial Development (Ministerio de Gobernación y Desarrollo Territorial, or MIGOBDT) plays a role in the co-ordination of policy implementation across El Salvador, including at the sub-national level. Its mandate includes functions as varied as: the management and administration of the centres of government at the departmental level; the co-ordination of the articulation of decentralisation processes; the promotion of development initiatives; and the management of the system for the prevention and response to emergencies and disasters. Among others, the current organigramme of MIGOBDT (MIGOBDT, 2021[15]) includes a Directorate for Territorial Development and Spatial Planning, a Directorate for Departmental Governments, and the Administration of Centres of Government.

  • The Ministry of Finance (Ministerio de Hacienda) is the CoG institution in charge of leading and managing the public finances in order to guarantee fiscal sustainability in El Salvador, while promoting inclusive economic and social development. Its mandate includes functions relating to: financial administration and innovation; customs; internal taxes; treasury; financial management; economic and fiscal policy; budget; investment; and public credit.

The pervasiveness of multi-dimensional policy challenges, and the atomisation of administrative structures, have brought co-ordination to the forefront of the public-governance challenges that El Salvador faces. Addressing the pressing challenges of climate change, urbanisation, insecurity, and the vicious cycle of limited revenues and capacity, depends upon robust mechanisms of co-ordination. Through the creation of sectoral cabinets (Gabinetes de Gestión) as co-ordination entities, and of the Presidential Commissioners, El Salvador has made great strides in this regard. Two additional key areas of opportunity can be identified in El Salvador. The first of these is improving clarity and promoting co-ordination efforts in practice. Correspondingly, the second is the development of clear procedures, tools and methodologies to support decision making, and to align government priorities.

By nature, the co-ordination of public policy requires the participation of multiple stakeholders and can benefit from robust institutional arrangements. Clear functions and responsibilities, both in the centre of government and in line ministries, can improve certainty and legitimacy. In turn, this may implicitly create incentives for other stakeholders to collaborate with the co-ordinating body, thus promoting synergies, and avoiding the duplication of efforts

The Salvadoran government has at its disposal a number of means of co-ordination. The Internal Regulation of the Executive Body (Consejo de Ministros, 1989[12]) broadly states that the President of the Republic is responsible for co-ordinating the actions of government ministries. Within the centre-of-government units, the Presidential Commissioner for Operations and Government Cabinet is the body that is assigned to promote inter-institutional co-ordination. The Presidency’s CoG units not only lead, but also participate in, some of the institutionalised co-ordination mechanisms. These include the Inter-institutional Communications Committee, which is co-ordinated by the Secretariat of Communications. Moreover, co-ordination is also led by other Secretariats of the Presidency, notably the Secretariats of Commerce and Investment, and Innovation. These co-ordinate multiple line ministries around specific priority lines. For instance, the Secretariat of Innovation is in charge of co-ordinating the recently created National Cybersecurity Committee. Among the attributions of the Legal Secretariat, meanwhile, is to carry out co-ordination efforts and activities with all public institutions, in order to promote transparency, accountability, and the participation of citizens in governmental management.

In specific policy areas, permanent and institutionalised mechanisms exist, such as the sectoral cabinets (gabinetes de gestión). These cabinets are constituted as entities of institutional co-ordination and strategic management in areas of public policy that have a key role to play in the country’s development. To that end, they carry out all the necessary co-ordination actions to fulfil the objectives, goals and priorities of the government’s General Plan. Article 2 of the Regulation that creates the sectoral cabinets (Reglamento de Creacion de los Gabinetes de Gestión) (Presidencia de la República de El Salvador, 2019[16]) establishes twelve cabinets. Eight of these correspond to the government teams that were initially identified in Plan Cuscatlán (as is detailed below). To these were added four specialised cabinets for tourism, energy, territorial control, and health.

Additionally, a key mechanism that fosters vertical co-ordination (i.e. between the national government and departmental/local governments) in El Salvador is the National Council of Spatial Planning and Territorial Development (Consejo Nacional de Ordenación y Desarrollo Territorial, or CNODT). It is an autonomous public entity created by Article 14 of the Law for Spatial Planning and Territorial Development (Asamblea Legislativa, 2011[17]). It comprises representatives from the Presidency, several line ministries, and local governments. The work of the CNODT is supported and complemented at the sub-national level by the Departmental Councils for Spatial Planning and Territorial Development. These also comprise representatives from the Presidency, several line ministries, municipal governments, and other public entities. It is also supported and complemented by the municipal councils, and associations of municipalities. These may be formed on an ad hoc basis.

Despite the multiplication of bodies and instruments that are meant to lead the co-ordination of governmental action, the efficiency of existing formal co-ordination mechanisms could be improved though the operationalisation of certain functions. In particular, this includes the functions of the unit for the co-ordination of strategic planning, follow-up, monitoring, and evaluation of inter-sectoral public policies, as well as the unit that takes care of the co-ordination and monitoring of public investment, quality of services, and flagship projects – as defined in its organigramme (Gobierno de El Salvador, n.d.[18]). These units are intended to complement the Direction of Projects, and the Direction of Analysis, of the Presidential Commission of Strategic Projects (Gobierno de El Salvador, 2019[19]). The Directorate for Projects is in charge of the design, supervision and execution of the projects that the Presidency has defined as strategic. It is also in charge of providing strategic support to responsible entities during their execution. Meanwhile, the Direction of Analysis is tasked with evaluating the technical and financial viability of the projects that the Presidency has defined as strategic. The exception to this is infrastructure projects, and the identification of funding options for them. In this sense, the Presidential Commission of Strategic Projects would operate more as a delivery unit designing and monitoring the implementation of projects, rather than intervening in their execution.

El Salvador could establish a periodic review of the composition and mandates of the bodies that perform CoG functions following each transition of government, in order to continue strengthening the strategic role of the CoG. The mandates of both of the Presidential Commissioners are formally set out in their respective Executive Decrees. This facilitates the necessary co-operation from other institutions. It also legitimises them in their challenge function (ensuring that ministerial priorities are aligned with Presidential priorities). While clarity is of primordial importance, CoGs are characterised by a need to balance stability and agility. Some CoG units or assignments can thus be time-limited, or meant to provide advice that is in line with the head of government’s political perspective. Periodic reviews would aim to identify overlaps, gaps, and duplication, as well as units or assignments that need a more permanent footing outside of the CoG, or that can be eliminated. Any reform should ensure that institutions in the CoG that carry out essential functions receive the appropriate human and financial resources. Essential CoG functions include supporting decision making by the head of state, strategic planning, co-ordination of whole-of-government policies, performance monitoring, and strategic communication (OECD, 2018[5]). Bodies that perform these key CoG functions could be maintained across successive governments in order to “retain institutional memory, ensure continuity of process, and develop strategy for long-term challenges”. This also implies a certain degree of continuity among civil servants and professional technical staff (European Commission, 2017[20]).

Finally, the government could improve and foster the use of co-ordination and conflict resolution mechanisms between line ministries. OECD countries have developed a number of solutions to facilitate this process, each of which have potential drawbacks (Box 8.3).

In the vast majority of OECD countries, the centre of government is tasked with reviewing items that have been submitted to the head of government (OECD, 2018[5]). This review role focuses on “assessing whether proper processes and procedures, as well as presentational requirements, have been followed, ensuring that the item is aligned with the overall government programme, that the item conforms to legal, regulatory and financial criteria, and that adequate consultation has occurred” (OECD, 2018[5]). A second, stronger, feature of this function is the authority to return proposals to the responsible entity if these criteria are not satisfactorily fulfilled. By design, setting out to test items for conformity requires well codified and communicated standards, which are accessible to line ministries and public organisations.

In El Salvador, the main role of the CoG in reviewing proposals focuses on the legal, technical and procedural aspects, rather than on the substance of the proposal. The government has recently introduced ex-ante Regulatory Impact Assessments (RIAs). These features of the Salvadoran decision-making process are hugely beneficial, as RIA often increases policy coherence by revealing trade-offs and potential beneficiaries. However, despite a sound legal framework and the existence of co-ordination bodies, they are not sufficient to ensure that the CoG fulfils its co-ordination functions on a technical level. In this sense, the CoG in El Salvador could introduce tools to ensure that items for proposals that are developed by line ministries are aligned with government priorities, and that they meet certain governance standards (quality of decision making, stakeholder engagement, monitoring and evaluation provisions, etc). This is a critical gap, as exercising the challenge function vis-à-vis line ministries is one of the most crucial roles that the centre of government plays in order to promote co-ordination. In this respect, El Salvador would benefit from developing more upstream policy requirements.

El Salvador could develop clear guidelines for the submission of policy proposals, through tools such as manuals or templates (Box 8.4). In particular, guidelines on how to align the content of proposals with government priorities would be particularly beneficial.

Well-embedded planning practice plays an important role in translating political commitments into both long and medium-term strategies and operational action plans, in order to guide the work of government (OECD, 2020[2]). In Latin America, there is a strong culture of strategic planning, and many countries from the region have started to develop instruments to help them pursue their strategic objectives in the long and medium term. These instruments, which have a wide variety of names in the region (National Development Plans, National Development Strategies, Government Plans, Country Visions, etc.), should ideally contain elements such as a regulatory framework, a budget, an action plan, indicators of achievement, provisions for monitoring and evaluation, and provisions for stakeholder engagement.

Up until 2019, El Salvador implemented five-year development plans, the latest of which was the Plan Quinquenal de Desarrollo 2014-2019 (Gobierno de El Salvador, 2014[22]). These five-year plans were customarily developed by the Technical Secretariat of Planning (Secretaría Técnica de Planificación, or SETEPLAN). This was an institution within the Presidency of El Salvador that disappeared in 2019. The Plan Quinquenal de Desarrolo 2014-2019 was designed with an ambitious citizen-participation process that involved over 13 000 people. It also established a monitoring and evaluation system for its implementation. The Plan identified three priority objectives:

  • Productive employment generated through a model of sustainable economic growth

  • Equitable and inclusive education

  • Effective security for citizens.

In 2019, the Plan Quinquenal was eschewed in favour of Plan Cuscatlán, President Bukele’s election platform (Bukele, 2019[23]). According to President Bukele, Plan Cuscatlán is the product of contributions from the population as a whole, collected by his campaign platform (Redacción Equilibrium, 2019[24]). The resulting platform strives to be multi-dimensional, cross-cutting, and aims to obviate governmental silos and personal chiefdoms in public policy. While this instrument provides a series of general guidelines, objectives and action proposals for the government, it does not contain references to a timeline, a budget, or a monitoring and evaluation system. Although it is an electoral programme rather than a strategic plan produced by government agencies, the Plan Cuscatlán has emerged as the main strategic document used by agencies to identify government priorities.

Plan Cuscatlán can be accessed through its website2 and presents eight government teams, each of which oversees several components. These are: social welfare (nine components); migration and labour (five components); international affairs (five components); security (seven components); industry, production and technology (seven components); the economy, social benefits and finance (three components); development and infrastructure (four components); and territorial development (four components). In an effort to tackle the multi-dimensional nature of these components, some are overseen by multiple government teams. For instance, the public health component is co-ordinated by the social welfare team, the security team, and the development and infrastructure team. Each component is driven by a plan. These vary widely both in length and in structure. Figure 8.2. provides a general overview of the structure of the Plan Cuscatlán.

The Plan Cuscatlán also contains thirteen flagship projects (Proyectos Insignia) which can be construed as high-impact priority projects for the government. While all projects are relevant to the themes and components identified in the plan, they are not explicitly linked to any of them. The flagship projects are the following:

  • The Proyecto Dalton, a government strategy to obtain a total of 20 000 scholarships for university degrees abroad

  • “Mi Nueva Escuela”, a project to reassess the design of educational facilities

  • The initiative Franja del Norte – a modernisation of agriculture in the northern strip of the country

  • The initiative Franja del Pacífico – a coalition of infrastructure projects in the country’s pacific strip, aiming to boost social and economic development

  • The creation of the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en El Salvador, or CICIES)

  • “Nacer Crecer”, the epicentre of citizen-led and institutional initiatives that promote nursing schools and pre-natal and early-education centres

  • “Inclusión Social para prevenir la violencia”, a system of community-based prevention programmes

  • “Iluminación 100% del país” – delivering lighting infrastructure across all municipalities, regardless of political affiliation

  • Elimination of the FOVIAL (Fondo de Conservación Vial) tax for fishermen

  • Increase in the Fund for the Economic and Social Development of El Salvador (the Fondo para el Desarollo Económico y Social, or FODES) from 8% to 10% of the country’s general budget

  • Tax exemptions for the 100 000 most vulnerable families in the country, in the context of the fight against tax evasion

  • Creation of sports schools (escuelas deportivas) across the country, through the alliance with national sporting federations

  • The “20 obras por día” commitment to carry out 20 infrastructure projects per day.

While the Plan Cuscatlán has emerged as the main strategic document used by agencies, its roots as an electoral programme generate a number of issues. Firstly, due to its origin as an electoral programme, very little information is available regarding the methodology that was used to identify and develop the plan. Secondly, it reflects voters’ pre-occupations, which do not necessarily harness the government’s existing strategic-planning capacity and data, or indeed reflect the longer-term strategic priorities of the country.

With regard to strategic planning, two key areas of opportunity in El Salvador can be identified. The first of these is to foster pathways for implementation. The second is to lay the foundations for the monitoring and evaluation of key priorities.

A solid whole-of-government planning framework should help governments to articulate priorities clearly; cluster policy initiatives around a small number of policy priorities; steer implementation across administrative units and departments; and enhance policy coherence through effective sequencing (OECD, 2016[25]). Common hurdles in strategic planning tend to include a limited prioritisation and sequencing of activities and objectives. They also tend to include a limited coherence between strategic plans, and limited links between the strategic plans themselves and the specific actions that are designed to implement the strategies (OECD, 2012[26]). This can lead to a fragmentation of approaches. It can also complicate co-ordination. In addition, it can undermine collective priority-setting and resource allocation, as well as alignment with government-led processes (OECD, 2012[26]).

Although Plan Cuscatlán can be understood as the framework that articulates the vision for El Salvador for the medium/long term, it lacks clear guidelines for implementation or prioritisation. To be sure, component plans often provide a list of objectives and associated projects. However, the plans are not harmonised, and initiatives are rarely ever linked to the use of inputs (human, financial or material) with clear responsibility for their implementation. In the absence of another instrument that may provide more specific timelines, sequencing information such as action plans, and the implementation of the various strategic projects, remains subject to the political will of government leaders. Additionally, the Plan Cuscatlán and its components are not anchored to the budget. Costing out a strategy, and linking it to specific funding sources, is important to ensure its implementation, and to avoid fragmentation. Indeed, understanding the flow of resources and funding instruments that are available could allow the government to identify objectives within severe budgetary constraints, thus reducing the risk of not achieving the expected goals.

Government action in El Salvador is led by a multitude of strategic and operational plans, which do not appear to be explicitly linked or aligned. In addition to the Plan Cuscatlán, the Presidency has also launched the “Territorial Control Plan”. This is a multi-step initiative to tackle gang violence and improve security. The Presidency has also launched the “Economic take-off plan”, which aims to create conditions for 3.5% growth. Likewise, ministries have their own operational and strategic plans, although their links to CoG priorities, or to the Plan Cuscatlán, are not always clear.

When a country has such a plethora of strategic documents whose themes overlap, and whose timescales are inconsistent with each other, there is a risk that the rationalisation of resources will be sub-optimal (European Commission, 2017[20]). In this sense, the process of developing the Social Development Plan constitutes a step forward in articulating strategic planning in the country. El Salvador has been working on the elaboration of a Social Development Plan, with a horizon of 2024 as an instrument for planning and co-ordinating the work of the government, and to which other institutional strategic plans will be aligned. According to the interviews that were conducted during the data collection mission, the process of drafting the plan began in 2019, led by the Social Welfare Cabinet. It involved a broad participatory process, with input from key actors from each government portfolio, as well as from civil society organisations, think tanks and academia. It also included a territorial consultation. Furthermore, participatory workshops were organised to define the ten main development problems in El Salvador. These problems were then analysed by inter-institutional teams in order to identify their causes, and to determine what the public administration could do about them. The desired outcomes were then formulated, including intermediate outcomes. Indicators were defined for each outcome, and it was determined which institutions would take the lead in the pursuit of each outcome.

To bolster government effort, and to help to ensure that objectives are attained, El Salvador could consider enhancing its institutional capacity for planning at the centre, developing action plans, and linking the strategic plan to the state budget. Potential actions include the following:

  • The government could assess the quality and internal consistency of individual strategies in order to provide a more coherent framework for action. In this regard, the European Commission suggests seven criteria for evaluation (see Box 8.5).

  • El Salvador could consider bolstering its institutional capacity for planning at the centre of government. To perform its mandate, the CoG in El Salvador needs to be able to focus on medium-term horizons of policy development, and long-term challenges, such as demographic changes due to migration patterns, urbanisation, security and political violence, and climate change. For example, establishing a dedicated strategy unit would create the time and capacity for this type of medium-term reflexion, utilising the best available means and data, and engaging with stakeholders to understand the challenges of implementation. A dedicated strategy unit could help to align sectoral plans with whole-of-government plans by providing guidance on how to develop sectoral strategies and action plans. The Agency for Development and Nation Design was created in 2021, with powers both to design and co-ordinate cross-cutting plans, and to co-ordinate and support sector-level efforts led by other institutions. However, at the date of writing of this report, the scope of this Agency’s action was limited. As such, it was focused on establishing a conceptual framework and supporting specific actions, and it had not participated in the elaboration of major programming instruments. This function within the centre of government should consider the following aspects:

    • Structuring work and decision-making processes though an appropriate mandate, so that the unit can engage actively with ministries and territorial entities.

    • Linking planning with policy and programme monitoring, in order to enable true results-based management.

    • Allocate appropriate human resources to the unit (for example, with capacities in planning, budgeting, etc.), as well as the necessary technological resources, for example for policy and programme monitoring.

    • Establishing avenues for the participation of stakeholders and civil society in strategic planning processes.

  • El Salvador could develop action plans that would be associated with the component plans that make up the Plan Cuscatlán. Good practices that have been identified by the OECD recommend that action plans be prepared in concert with any strategy to clarify and identify inputs and process that are used for implementation (OECD, 2018[27]). In other words, while the government does not need to propose new actions or activities (as the activities can already be reflected in sectoral annual plans), it should seek to explain how and when government action and resources will achieve the output objectives. Actions contained in the plans should be limited in number in order to enable focused efforts in pursuing a small number of high-priority strategic initiatives. More information on the creation of action plans can be found in Box 8.6. Additionally, since an action plan can easily be updated, such a plan would enhance the robustness of the Plan Cuscatlán.

  • In parallel to the development of action plans, El Salvador could consider clarifying the linkages between strategic plans and the budget. It is important to clarify the ways in which the budget supports the strategic plan by including information demonstrating the alignment of sectoral and whole-of-government plans with budgetary programmes. In recent years, El Salvador has developed a number of tools that link medium-term planning and budgeting. These include El Salvador’s medium and long-term fiscal framework, its medium-term expenditure framework, and its medium-term institutional frameworks (European Commission, 2019[28]). The government is also piloting results-based budgeting in key areas of policy (health, education, finance). The government should apply and incorporate these tools during the planning process. The OECD’s Recommendation on Budgetary Governance (OECD, 2015[29]) states that budgets should be closely aligned with the medium-term strategic priorities of government, by organising and structuring budget allocations in a way that corresponds readily with national objectives. Strengthening these links can be a means of assuring policy planners of the availability of resources, and identifying the appropriate medium-term goals against which resources should be aligned (OECD, 2018[30]) Multiple approaches to achieve this are possible (see Box 8.7).

The two key institutions of the Salvadoran CoG that are tasked with monitoring and evaluating the implementation of strategic projects at the national level are the Presidential Commission for Operations and Government Cabinet, and the Presidential Commission of Strategic Projects. As the institution that possess the technical knowledge and capacity to design the monitoring and evaluation systems that are used by all institutions across the Salvadoran administration, the Secretariat of Innovation also plays a significant role. Indeed, the Internal Regulation of the Executive Body (Consejo de Ministros, 1989[12]) stipulates that the Secretariat of Innovation is in charge of the implementation of a national monitoring system.

Under previous administrations, SETEPLAN led the monitoring and evaluation systems of El Salvador, monitoring indicators for the five-year plan (the Plan Quinquenal), as well as for multi-dimensional poverty, and public investment (European Commission, 2019[28]). SETEPLAN also collaborated with the General Directorate of Statistics and Censuses (the Dirección General de Estadística y Censos, or DIGESTYC), by using multi-purpose household surveys in order to develop tools, and to analyse programmes. Following the change in administration in 2019, the extent to which the monitoring architecture that was designed and led by SETEPLAN has remained in place is unclear.

The development of performance indicators, baselines and targets is often considered to be an important aspect of the strategy-development process (OECD, 2018[27]). Indicators here are understood as qualitative or quantitative tools, by which an objective can be assessed as having been achieved. They are, therefore, tied to the objectives and actions that constitute the strategy (OECD, 2018[27]). Without indicators, strategies can remain merely a vague aspirational document that do not properly guide implementers. Likewise, they can lack a clear, measurable and traceable definition of success. A great variety of indicator types exists (see Box 8.8).

In El Salvador, the Plan Cuscatlán was meant to be launched in co-ordination with a technological resource called Sistema BUHO, which aims to monitor the work being done by the different government teams, as well as the progress of flagship projects. This monitoring system was said to focus on the areas of education, health, infrastructure, security, social projects, and employment (Bukele, 2019[31]). As of yet, it is unclear when this programme will be launched in full, and how it will collect data for these various areas of policy. Should the programme be launched, the government could nevertheless benefit from developing clear baseline and target indicators in order for the data to be used efficiently and with purpose. Such work could be developed on the basis – duly adapted and updated – of the database and indicators that have been used in the past to monitor the five-year plan (Plan Quinquenal de Desarrollo).

To better monitor the strategic priorities outlined in the government platform, and to lay the foundation for a solid monitoring and evaluation system, El Salvador should consider strengthening its burgeoning monitoring system, and developing indicators associated to the Plan Cuscatlán.

  • The government could strengthen efforts to increase and improve data production. In this connection it could:

    • Harmonise and integrate various sources of data, including those used for the monitoring system for the five-year plan

    • Improve the capacity to plan and carry out data collection in line ministries, and in agencies themselves.

  • El Salvador might also wish to develop indicators linked to the Plan Cuscatlán, as a means of establishing it as a whole-of-government plan, rather than an electoral programme. In this connection:

    • Each axis or objective within the component plans could be associated with one or several outcome-level indicators

    • Multiple indicators could also be used to capture the various dimensions of each objective: from a service delivery standpoint, efficiency standpoint, etc.

    • Every indicator should include a baseline and a target value

    • Finally, indicators should include some background information, and should be assessed against the RACER (Relevant, Accepted, Credible, Easy, Robust) model (see Box 8.9).

“Policy memory” can also inform and contribute to better policy design through an understanding of the challenges that have been experienced in the past, and what previous good practices could be incorporated into current reform efforts. This underlines the importance of taking stock thoroughly of the existing evidence (OECD, 2020[33]). In this regard, undertaking changes to improve the use of evidence requires a reflection on where evidence advice can enter the system, and on how strong or well-integrated evidence structures should be (Parkhurst, 2017[34]). Box 8.10 presents a summary of initiatives that El Salvador could consider undertaking in order to build organisational capacities for evidence-informed policy making.

State modernisation is the process of designing and executing government reforms in order to improve the efficiency, agility, transparency, accountability, and integrity of the public administration. This process goes beyond enacting laws. The design, adoption, implementation and sustainability of reforms need to be part of a coherent and continuous process that takes into account structural elements, trade-offs, and the sequencing of reforms (OECD, 2010[35]).

The OECD report Government at a Glance in Latin America and the Caribbean 2020 stresses that, in order to achieve a more effective implementation of reforms, and among other issues, LAC governments need to continue working on key aspects such as promoting a merit-based civil service with robust values, simplifying administrative processes in service delivery, ensuring internal and external accountability, and reinforcing administrative capacity and skills (OECD, 2020[36]).

Public administration reforms are often more delicate, politically sensitive, and difficult to implement than other reforms. Government leaders usually struggle to build the “business case” for engaging stakeholders in comprehensive reforms, given that they are not always perceived as a means of addressing policy challenges, but rather of cutting expenditures (OECD, 2020[2]). In addition, given that major administrative reform represents a break from the past and an acknowledgement that current practices, policies and processes must be changed, having a newly elected government with a clear mandate for reform often helps to move forward with implementation (OECD, 2010[35]).

In El Salvador, the Plan Cuscatlán (Bukele, 2019[23]) has a whole component that is dedicated to state modernisation, whose main objective is the construction of a modern, efficient and transparent state, at the service of its citizens. This would allow for the implementation of structural reforms. The Plan Cuscatlán establishes four main axes, or lines of action, in this area (see Figure 8.3), along with a series of more specific associated proposals (Bukele, 2019[31]).

State modernisation processes are long-term endeavours that can sometimes speed up or slow down due to external circumstances, such as an economic crisis or, to mention a present-day example, a global pandemic. Consequently, the components that integrate a modernisation plan might not all progress at the same speed. While the Salvadoran government has started implementing certain initiatives of the Plan Cuscatlán, especially those that relate to digitalisation, connectivity, and administrative simplification, there is still some important work that can be done in the area of civil-service workforce management, or the wider application of open-government principles.

The following sections of this chapter will assess the progress that El Salvador has made in some of the key areas of action for state modernisation that are established in the Plan Cuscatlán, and will identify some areas of opportunity.

A well-designed human-resources management strategy enables governments to align their workforce with their goals. Having the right number of people, with the right skills and at the right place, helps governments to increase efficiency, responsiveness and quality in the delivery of service (OECD, 2019[37]). Axis 1 of the state modernisation component of the Plan Cuscatlán (Bukele, 2019[31]) identifies three proposals that relate to the management of public resources and the professionalisation of the public sector. These are:

  • Proposal 1: Create a real entity for training and regulation of human resources in the public sector.

  • Proposal 2: Harmonise functions.

  • Proposal 3: Standardise positions and posts.

The Plan Cuscatlán also proposes a review of the current Civil Service Law, which dates from 1961. The adoption of a new law would provide El Salvador with the necessary legal framework to legitimise the reform of its civil-service management strategy. To this end, the Vice-presidency of El Salvador established a tripartite discussion group, convened by the Promotion Team for Civil Service Reform (the Equipo Impulsor de la Reforma de la Función Pública). The group is made up of representatives from civil society and academia, state workers’ movements, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Security.

According to interviews held during the fact-finding mission, one of the main challenges hindering the design and adoption of a national strategy is the lack of institutionalisation. Indeed, no specific institution in El Salvador is in charge of leading and overseeing the design and implementation of a human-resources strategy of this kind. Based on the advice of the OECD Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability (OECD, 2019[37]), El Salvador could consider clarifying institutional responsibilities by:

  • Making sure that each institutional actor in the public employment system has the appropriate mandate and resources to function effectively

  • Establishing institutional authority to set and oversee common minimum standards for merit-based people-management

  • Delegating an appropriate level of autonomy to individual ministries or managers, along with clear responsibilities, supervision, and appropriate incentives, in order to align people-management with their strategic business objectives

  • Ensuring appropriate mechanisms for communication and information-sharing among institutional actors in the public-employment system.

In line with Proposal 1 of the Plan Cuscatlán, which relates to the creation of a training and regulatory entity for human resources in the public sector, the OECD Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability advises government administrations to “develop the necessary skills and competencies by creating a learning culture and environment in the public service”. According to interviews that were held during the fact-finding mission, the lack of an effective and functional training facility for civil servants is one of the main obstacles to the professionalisation of the public-service workforce in El Salvador. Such facilities do exist in certain domains. One example is the Diplomatic Institute “Doctor José Gustavo Guerrero” (formerly known as Specialised Higher Education Institute for Diplomatic Training [Instituto Especializado de Educación Superior para la Formación Diplomática, or IEESFORD]). Attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it provides training for diplomatic and consular staff. However, there is still room to extend the supply of training to all areas of the administration.

During 2020, certain institutions organised capacity-building activities in a decentralised manner. For instance, the Secretariat of Innovation provided training courses to selected civil servants in the use of new digital tools. The Organism for Better Regulation also provided training in obligatory subjects in the development and application of regulatory-improvement tools. In order to ensure a harmonised and centralised offering of training for all civil servants, El Salvador could consider strengthening the role of its training institutes (such as the School of Innovation in Public Administration (the Escuela Superior de Innovación en la Administración Pública, or ESIAP), which was created in 2021. In addition, El Salvador could also try to promote a learning culture across the public administration, by embedding it into its day-to-day work. For instance, it could do this through on-the-job mentoring and coaching, or by further developing mobility programmes.

Another key challenge that El Salvador is facing is civil servants’ lack of mobility to move to new positions. One of the most recent initiatives that the government has implemented in order to tackle this problem has been the creation of a competencies centre in Information and Communications Technologies (ICT). Led by the Secretariat of Innovation of the Presidency, this initiative aims to support all line ministries to identify existing specialised qualified personnel who are already part of the Salvadoran administration, and who could potentially be assigned to specific projects as the need may arise. In this context, El Salvador could consider enabling and encouraging short- and medium-term assignments, in order to promote learning and exchange or occasionally to address short-term labour demands. Moreover, ESIAP could also become an important tool to broaden the career horizons of civil servants, by providing them with the skills that they would require to perform functions across different institutions of the public administration.

In order to successfully implement these initiatives, it would, first of all, be crucial to know what competencies and skills are needed or missing across the public administration. Based on the advice of the OECD Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability, El Salvador could thus consider strengthening its capacity to identify needs, by periodically reviewing and updating required competencies and skills based on inputs from civil servants and citizens. Thus, it would be able to keep pace with changing technologies, and the needs of the society that they serve. This would make it possible not only to respond quickly to fast-changing environments in the face of uncertainty, but also to have a better-adapted civil-service system. This would include a better-informed, transparent, merit-based, and tailored process of recruitment, plus training and mobility schemes, among other.

Another challenge that El Salvador is facing is the harmonisation of functions and tasks, as expressed in Proposal 2 of the Plan Cuscatlán. In order to solve this issue, the government is currently undertaking an integral review of all existing positions across the Salvadoran administration, with the purpose of redefining and harmonising all profiles and functions. In addition, El Salvador could consider establishing common frameworks and/or vocabulary in order to identify transversal job requirements and competencies. It could do this, for example, through common competency frameworks and/or standardised job profiles.

This would also contribute to Proposal 3 of the Plan Cuscatlán, which relates to the standardisation of positions and posts. In this connection, the OECD Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability advises governments to determine and offer transparent terms and conditions of employment (e.g. compensation, term length, job security, rights and obligations) that appropriately match the functions of individual positions. In particular, it advises governments to do this by:

  • Clearly defining the categories of civil-service employment, based on transparent and objective criteria

  • Clearly defining the terms and conditions of employment, based on factors such as the nature of the work, labour-market considerations, and needs in terms of developing the capabilities of public service

  • Engaging representatives of public employees in legitimate consultation procedures, negotiating through open and fair processes, and setting procedures for monitoring the implementation of agreements.

While 75% of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean consider that performance appraisal has medium or high importance in defining career advancement and continuity in the civil service, only 58% of the countries report that performance is important to define remuneration. These figures become even lower when we look at the importance given to performance in El Salvador, which is below the average for Latin America and the Caribbean (Figure 8.4).

El Salvador could consider assessing, rewarding and recognising performance by developing indicators and criteria that would regularly be discussed and reviewed. Based on the advice from the OECD Recommendation on Public Service Leadership and Capability, the performance of employees would thus be rewarded by appropriate means, while underperformance would also be addressed. Managers would be entrusted with ensuring the capabilities and support that are necessary to carry out performance management. In this regard, it would be crucial to ensure that the required human-resources management tools and systems that make it possible to monitor and evaluate performance are developed and put in place, and that they are made easily accessible to managers. Once the right systems are in place, and the criteria to assess employees’ performance are defined, El Salvador could then consider introducing performance bonuses, or another type of benefits, in order to reward and recognise good performance.

Although El Salvador does publish most of its vacancies for civil servants, and opens them to external recruitment (OECD, 2020[36]), interviews during the fact-finding mission showed that there are still some opportunities for improvement in this area. In 2017, El Salvador took a big step forward by creating its own Public Employment portal (http://www.empleospublicos.gob.sv/). This is an online platform on which the institutions of the Salvadoran administration can publish vacancies in the public administration. The portal can also include information on all stages of the various selection processes, helping to guarantee fairer and more equal treatment for candidates.

Although this is an important initiative, the vacancies that have been published on the portal have focused mostly on positions that require specific technical expertise, or that need to be filled in sub-national administrations. In practice, it is still the case that many civil servants are not recruited and appointed to their positions through this system, or indeed through other competitive processes. Instead, they are appointed directly, as a result of discretionary decisions. El Salvador could, therefore, consider strengthening the role of this platform in order to ensure that all processes are transparent, open, and based on merit. In order to achieve this, El Salvador could also organise and promote capacity-building activities for employees of human resources departments, and also for hiring managers. This would raise awareness of the existence of this platform, presenting its use and functionalities.

Administrative burden, which is also known as red tape, reduces the efficiency of public-service delivery, and contributes to distrust in governments among citizens and businesses. Most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have taken steps to simplify and improve their administrative processes. However, their programmes often do not systematically target the most burdensome areas of regulation (OECD, 2020[36]).

According to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report (World Bank, 2020[40]), no country from Latin America and the Caribbean ranks among the world’s top 50 economies on the ease of doing business indicator (out of the 190 measured). El Salvador ranks 91st.

Axis 3 of the state modernisation component of the Plan Cuscatlán (Bukele, 2019[31]), which refers to governance and public management of the territory, stresses in its seventh proposal the need to regulate public services. Moreover, it establishes that it is necessary to create a regulatory entity that will ensure the efficient provision of public services.

Following the adoption of the Law for Better Regulation (Ley de Mejora Regulatoria) in 2019 (Asamblea Legislativa, 2019[14]), the Organism for Better Regulation (Organismo de Mejora Regulatoria, or OMR) became the co-ordination and oversight body in charge of promoting, dictating and overseeing the enforcement of El Salvador’s better-regulation policy. The OMR was originally created in 2015, as part of El Salvador’s commitments to improve the business environment through better regulation. These were adopted within the framework of the US-funded FOMILENIO II programme (FOMILENIO II, 2014[41]).

El Salvador has made significant progress in recent years towards adopting strategies of administrative simplification, as articulated through the Law for Better Regulation (Asamblea Legislativa, 2019[14]), and the Law for Administrative Procedures (Asamblea Legislativa, 2018[42]), the activity of the Organism for Better Regulation remains strongly focused on improving the business environment, competitiveness, and foreign trade, and on attracting overseas investment. El Salvador could, therefore, consider broadening the OMR’s scope in order to cover other key areas that encompass day-to-day formalities and procedures based on life events, which are vital for instance to access the health and education systems (birth certificate, identity card, etc.), or to participate in the labour market (e.g. social security/fiscal numbers).

The OMR is also tasked with creating and managing the National Registry of Administrative Formalities (the Registro Nacional de Trámites). This registry includes procedures that have been registered by public institutions according to guidelines issued by the OMR. The OMR has its own technological platform to fulfil this obligation. It allows data entry for procedures and their particulars from all institutions in the public administration. As this chapter was being completed, the OMR had evaluated 672 procedures and their components, for 10 institutions. This initiative might, however, be delayed, as it currently lacks sufficient human and financial resources to be finalised. This reflects once again, and as previously mentioned in this chapter, the importance of strengthening strategic-planning instruments by developing more comprehensive action plans. These should contain specific objectives, an estimated necessary budget, identified resources, a realistic timeline, and a system that would monitor and evaluate the implementation of the plan.

The OECD’s Indicators of Regulatory Policy and Governance (iREG) for Latin America (OECD, 2019[43]) partially cover three of the principles of the OECD Recommendation on Regulatory Policy and Governance (OECD, 2012[44]). These are:

  1. 1. Stakeholder engagement

  2. 2. Regulatory impact assessment

  3. 3. Ex post evaluation, and administrative simplification.

With regard to the first indicator, Figure 8.5. shows that, although the Salvadoran public administration is required to engage with stakeholders during the development of all subordinate regulations, this only happens in practice for some subordinate regulations, and often at a late stage. El Salvador could benefit from engaging with stakeholders at an earlier stage, in order to understand better the nature of the problems that require regulation, and to discuss potential policy solutions in greater depth.

El Salvador’s Law for Better Regulation establishes, in Article 10, a legal framework for engagement with stakeholders. It stipulates the creation of a consultative body that would include representatives of the private sector. Adopted on 15 May 2019, Article 12 of Decree 25 of the Council of Ministers (Consejo de Ministros, 2019[45]) states that this Consultative Council (Consejo Consultivo) will also include representatives of academia, civil society and consumer associations. Its main function will be to oversee progress in the implementation of regulatory policy in El Salvador. It will also formulate recommendations for improvement where it may deem this to be necessary.

According to the discussions that were held during the fact-finding mission, the creation of the Consultative Council was still pending, and was to be operational in 2021. In line with the OECD Recommendation on Regulatory Policy and Governance, which advises that governments “should co-operate with stakeholders on reviewing existing and developing new regulations”, the creation of this council could be a significant step towards ensuring that the private sector, academia, civil society, and other concerned stakeholders can engage effectively in discussions about regulatory policy reform in El Salvador.

With the adoption of the Law for Better Regulation, El Salvador also established its first ever obligation to conduct RIAs for regulation (primary and secondary legislation, regulations, and norms). There are exceptions to this obligation for regulations relating to the budget, the regulation of the financial system, international treaties, emergency situations, public security, and the national defence of state intelligence. The OMR has the responsibility to scrutinise the quality of RIAs according to the standards that are established by law, and of approving the exemption to perform RIA for proposed regulations that do not generate compliance costs (OECD, 2019[43]).

In practice, RIAs have barely been conducted in El Salvador (Figure 8.5). At the date of closing this chapter, 31 regulations had been analysed (including actual RIAs, and resolutions on exemptions from RIA). According to interviews held during the fact-finding mission, this is due to the fact that RIA is a recent requirement that has not been interiorised yet by the Salvadoran public administration. Based on the advice of the OECD Recommendation on Regulatory Policy and Governance, El Salvador could consider supporting RIA with clear policies, training programmes, guidance, and quality-control mechanisms for data collection and use. This could assure that RIA is performed homogenously throughout the administration. The OMR carries out training events on tools for improving regulation, in order to encourage their use in the public administration.

In order to ensure that regulations are effective and efficient, it is necessary to evaluate existing policies through ex post impact analysis. Article 21 of the Law for Better Regulation establishes that ex post evaluation is required for existing subordinate regulations ten years after their enactment, and for all regulations that were older than seven years by 2018, in order to determine whether they are achieving their objectives (OECD, 2019[43]).

In order to make sure that ex post evaluation is performed in an effective manner, El Salvador would benefit from giving early consideration in the policy cycle to the performance criteria for ex post evaluation. This would include whether the objectives of the regulation are clear, what data will be used to measure performance, and the allocation of institutional resources.

Measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have profoundly affected governments’ relationship with digital technologies (OECD, 2020[46]). This has resulted in the acceleration of existing processes of digital transformation, in order to ensure that services are well adapted to the new reality, and that they can still be delivered under the new circumstances. These internet-based activities require reliable connectivity, and the need for an inclusive approach to digital transformation that tackles digital divides. This would ensure that all citizens can access and benefit from the digital services that the government provides.

In 2019, the government of El Salvador decided to entrust the Secretariat of Innovation of the Presidency with the task of leading the country’s digital transformation. The Secretariat’s main project in this regard is the ambitious Digital Agenda 2020-2030 (Secretaría de Innovación de la Presidencia, 2020[47]). During its six-month elaboration process, this project involved not only all government entities, but also academia, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the private sector, and other interested stakeholders, in the discussions concerning the definition of its key axes.

The Digital Agenda presents four key axes of activity: digital identity, innovation, education and competitiveness, the modernisation of the state, and digital governance. Each of these axes includes a series of actions that aim to strengthen processes, to streamline and provide access to public services, and to build and consolidate an institutional framework for digital government. All of these aspects are definitely relevant for a digital-transformation process. Still, a broader and more holistic approach to state modernisation could, among other potential measures, also benefit from including lines of action dedicated to fighting corruption, and from ensuring greater transparency and accountability.

As part of its Digital Agenda, El Salvador is taking concrete steps to solve its limited connectivity. The OECD Recommendation on Digital Government Strategies (OECD, 2014[48]) advises that governments should take steps to “address existing digital divides […] and avoid the emergence of new forms of digital exclusion”. In this regard, El Salvador has started developing a National Connectivity Network (Red de Conectividad Nacional), whose main purpose will be to connect all government institutions, and to bring a free connection to those who have never been connected, via a state-owned fibre-optic network. In order to accomplish this, a public company was merged with a private one. This resulted in a new company, which is now in charge of developing the National Connectivity Network. This initiative will be a key factor in carrying out some of the projects that are planned. It will start with a pilot project to connect 300 schools in the coastal area. It will then be replicated across the country, and extended to hospitals, police stations and prisons, among other institutions, in order to ensure that digital services provided by the government can reach all citizens.

An initiative on such a large scale would require significant investment efforts from the government. Based on the advice contained in the OECD Recommendation on Digital Government Strategies, El Salvador could consider developing clear business cases to sustain funding for, and the focused implementation of, digital-technology projects in the country, as part of its Policy for Commerce and Investment for 2020-2050. The Salvadoran government could also benefit from carrying out thorough assessments of digital-technology needs against existing assets (including ongoing contracts and inter-agency agreements). This would increase efficiency, while supporting innovation and doing a better job of sustaining the objectives stated in the overall public sector modernisation agenda.

Although El Salvador is making progress in the area of cybersecurity, trust in online privacy and the Global Cybersecurity Index are still below the averages for Latin America and the Caribbean and the OECD (OECD et al., 2020[49]). The OECD Recommendation on Digital Government Strategies recommends reflecting a risk-management approach to addressing digital security and privacy issues. It also recommends including the adoption of security measures, in order to increase confidence in government services. Approved in May 2022, the cybersecurity policy includes, among the strategies that it slates for implementation, the promotion of the risk-management approach and provides a framework with a risk-management focus, to be implemented in public institutions.

In this connection, El Salvador created a National Cybersecurity Committee (Comité Nacional de Ciberseguridad) in 2020. It includes several line ministries (Security, Governance, Defence, Finance, Economy, Health, Public Works), the River Lempa Executive Hydroelectric Commission (Comisión Ejecutiva Hidroeléctrica del Río Lempa, or CEL), and the Electricity and Communications Superintendency (Superintendencia General de Electricidad y Comunicaciones, or SIGET). The Committee’s first contribution was to elaborate a national cybersecurity policy that establishes strategies in matters of cybersecurity for all institutions of the Salvadoran administration. The Committee is expected to develop a cybersecurity bill to establish the legal and institutional framework for cybersecurity, the regulatory framework for operators of critical infrastructure, and regulations for the creation and operation of incident-response teams. The Committee could become a key element in securing leadership for, and political commitment to, this new cybersecurity policy. It could be used as a vehicle to promote inter-ministerial co-ordination and collaboration, and to facilitate the engagement of the relevant institutions across different levels of government in El Salvador.

There has also been some significant progress in the development of El Salvador’s own one-stop shop (the ventanilla única de trámites). It is one of the main initiatives led by the Secretariat of Innovation, in collaboration with the OMR. The Ventanilla Unica Ciudadana (VUC, simple.sv) has been operational since August 2022. Alongside this body, a national office for procedures and the verification of one-stop shop portals (the Oficina Nacional de Trámites y Verificación de Ventanillas de Atención) was created within the Presidency. Its objective is to support and co-ordinate the efforts of public institutions to comply with, and improve, the implementation of procedures, and to achieve the highest standards in attending to the public (Gobierno de El Salvador, 2020[50]).

One-stop shops are online platforms that generally provide information and/or serve as a transaction centre (OECD, 2020[51]). The OECD Recommendation on Regulatory Policy and Governance (OECD, 2012[44]) advises governments to “employ the opportunities of information technology and one-stop shops for licences, permits, and other procedural requirements to make service delivery more streamlined and user-focused”. Indeed, one-stop shops allow countries to improve regulatory delivery to citizens and business, while also reducing government resource requirements.

The one-stop shop has been in operation since 2022. Prior to the implementation of this portal, there were 15 different platforms from as many institutions. The VUC includes nearly 2 000 procedures from several institutions. It is expected that the number of procedures will increase progressively as the various institutions from El Salvador complete their migration from their current platforms to the integrated VUC. The OECD report One-Stop Shops for Citizens and Business (OECD, 2020[51]) advises that virtual, transaction-based one-stop shops should form part of broader administrative simplification strategies. It also recommends that they should be user-centred and based on life events.

One of the key elements for implementing the VUC will be the creation of a functional interoperability platform between government services, across the Salvadoran administration. The purpose of this initiative is that when the Salvadoran one-stop shop receives information relating to a citizen or a business, the system can then pass this on, sharing the received information with the other institutions of government that are connected to the platform. Thus, data common to several procedures (general information) is required from the user only once.

In El Salvador, although some institutions have already joined the interoperability platform, its implementation process has not been exempt from obstacles. For instance, one of the main challenges has been the reluctance of some actors to change the working methods and procedures that had been in place in their institutions for years. They argued that they did not understand the need to do things differently.

Resistance to change is not an unusual reaction to a process of government reform. At times, changes and reforms can be unpopular. Indeed, since the modernisation of government seeks to change behaviour and culture by changing rules, incentives, norms, values, and structures, civil servants may feel threatened by changes that challenge their psychological profile (e.g. risk aversion), their personal values, or that may render their specific skills obsolete (OECD, 2010[35]). Sometimes, changes may even imply that decision-making power shifts from one part of the administration to another.

In order to generate support for reform, or at least to curtail opposition from potential losers, compensation tools could be put in place. These tools do not necessarily have to be financial. For instance, altering the scope, tasks and responsibilities of a job position to make it more interesting for the civil servants, thus increasing their job satisfaction, could replace monetary compensation (OECD, 2010[35]). In addition, the availability of information may help to smooth out processes of reform, as it allows stakeholders to understand the need for change, its rationale, and the ways to achieve it.

Governments have also begun to move away from top-down processes of managing change, to processes that integrate both bottom-up and top-down activities, while also including systematic problem identification, the generation of ideas, and a filtering of alternative solutions and their implementation (OECD, 2020[2]). El Salvador could consider adopting this approach to the management of change, as this may help to smooth out reform processes in a structural manner.

Governments around the world have started to adopt principles and practices of open government, with the aim of developing innovative solutions to pressing challenges. These include low levels of trust, the rise of populism, and high levels of inequality (OECD, 2020[52]). Evidence collected by the OECD shows that the implementation of open-government strategies and initiatives also entails numerous benefits for citizens. This is because it may lead to improving citizens’ living conditions, and to better performance of the services provided by governments (OECD, 2016[53]).

The OECD defines open government as “a culture of governance that promotes the principles of transparency, integrity, accountability and stakeholder participation in support of democracy and inclusive growth” (OECD, 2017[54]). The wide adoption of these principles by a government can progressively change the relationship between public officials and citizens, making it more dynamic, mutually beneficial, and based on reciprocal trust.

Most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have open-government agendas in place (OECD, 2020[55]). Moreover, 16 countries in the region are members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP). In this connection, Axis 2 of the state-modernisation component of the Plan Cuscatlán (Bukele, 2019[31]) stipulates that El Salvador’s policy of open government should be based on the international standards and commitments established in the OGP (OGP, 2020[56]).

El Salvador has been a member of the OGP since 2011, but has, since March 2022, been an inactive member. At least until 2019, the country was implementing its fourth OGP Action Plan, for 2018-20 (Gobierno de El Salvador, 2018[57]). This plan, whose co-creation process entailed a broad open consultation with civil-society organisations, featured commitments relating to fiscal transparency, environmental inclusion, human rights, and integrity. However, given the lack of implementation of the fifth OGP Action Plan 2018-20, and also due to the dismantling of the participatory and reporting structure linked to OGP participation, and to the country not elaborating a sixth Action Plan, the OGP decided to designate El Salvador as inactive member in March 2022. This status gives the country a year to present a new action plan in order to maintain its membership of the OGP. Despite the importance of this kind of initiative, an OGP Action Plan is only one out of many policy tools that El Salvador can develop and put in place in order to foster principles of open government.

Taking a more holistic and integrated approach, El Salvador could benefit from adopting a whole-of-government Open Government Strategy (OGS). This would enhance the implementation of the principles of transparency, integrity, accountability and stakeholder participation, across the whole of the Salvadoran administration. An OGS constitutes the missing strategic link between a country’s high-level political direction, and individual open-government initiatives that are implemented by different public institutions (OECD, 2020[52]) (see Figure 8.6).

In the case of El Salvador, for instance, an OGP Action Plan would constitute an implementation effort for the short to medium term, thus being at the lowest level of the pyramid in Figure 8.6. The Plan Cuscatlán, which only provides high-level directions, would be at the top level. An intermediate OGS could, therefore, be beneficial for El Salvador. It would provide an umbrella for all open-government initiatives, while ensuring that they follow similar methodological guidelines, and that they contribute to a shared vision of openness. This would enhance the coherence of whole-of-government policy (OECD, 2020[52]).

Up until 2019, the erstwhile Secretariat of Transparency and Anti-corruption of the Presidency was the body in charge of promoting open-government initiatives across the Salvadoran administration. Following the change of government in 2019, however, this Secretariat was dissolved. At the time of the interviews that were held during the fact-finding mission, no Salvadoran institution had yet been identified to take the lead in this area of policy. Based on the advice contained in the OECD Recommendation on Open Government (OECD, 2017[54]), El Salvador could, therefore, consider providing an institution with the mandate to design and implement an open-government strategy. In so doing, it should make sure that it possesses the adequate human, financial, and technical resources that are required to perform its functions. Given its positioning, and its capacity to develop and oversee policies across government, anchoring this function in the centre of government can help to link open-government initiatives (across different sectors, levels of government, and non-state actors) to foster a shared vision, and to push the agenda forward (OECD, 2016[53]).

With regard to the level of implementation of open-government initiatives, for instance, El Salvador adopted a Law of Access to Public Information in 2011 (Asamblea Legislativa, 2011[58]). Although enacting a law is a good first step forward, it is important to assess whether the law is up to the required standards, and to make sure that the appropriate institutional arrangements are put in place. The major challenge usually comes with its implementation. In a similar vein, the Institute of Access to Public Information (Instituto de Acceso a la Información Pública), which was created as an independent institution with legal, administrative and financial autonomy, can play a crucial role in overseeing the implementation of the Law of Access to Public Information. Examples of good practices in this area are, for instance, the cases of Chile and Mexico.

More recently, in 2018, a National Policy on Open Data, and an open-data portal (datos.gob.sv), were also introduced, as part of an initiative to promote transparency and fight corruption (OECD et al., 2020[49]). However, following the change of government in 2019, these initiatives were no longer pursued. Indeed, El Salvador is still among the few LAC countries that have not yet established a single point of access (open data portal) for government datasets.

In addition, according to the OECD report Government at a Glance in Latin America and the Caribbean 2020 (OECD, 2020[36]), El Salvador only scores 0.06 on the sub-indicator of stakeholder engagement for data release, which is significantly lower than the LAC average (0.14) (Figure 8.7). This indicator assesses the existence of formal requirements for public sector entities to consult open data users to inform open data plans, the availability of guidance on how to conduct consultations, and the frequency of consultations, Overall, El Salvador could consider making more efforts both towards the development of a national open data policy, and towards stakeholder engagement in the process of open data planning, data production and release.

With regard to the participation of citizens and stakeholders more broadly, the OECD Recommendation on Open Government (OECD, 2017[54]) advises public authorities to “grant all stakeholders equal and fair opportunities to be informed and consulted, and actively engage them in all phases of the policy-cycle and service design and delivery”. The OECD recognises that many intermediary forms of participation exist. It has also developed a typology to map out the different relationships that exist between stakeholders and governments (OECD, 2016[53]) (see Figure 8.8).

In line with this recommendation, Axis 2 of the Plan Cuscatlán’s state-modernisation component (Bukele, 2019[31]) includes, in its first proposal, the creation of a platform for citizen participation. However, at the time of the interviews that were held during the fact-finding mission, this platform was not yet operational, and it seemed to be uncertain when it would be introduced.

Nevertheless, El Salvador has started implementing some initiatives on citizen and stakeholder participation for more accountability. For instance, at the national level, the Law of Environment (Ley del Medio Ambiente) (Asamblea Legislativa, 1998[60]) established that the Ministry of Environment has to develop guidelines for the use of public consultation mechanisms during the elaboration phase of policies, strategies, plans, and environmental impact studies, among others. So far, only the procedures for public consultation on environmental impact studies for projects have been defined. Moreover, according to data gathered during the elaboration phase of El Salvador’s fourth OGP Action Plan (Gobierno de El Salvador, 2018[57]), although some consultation processes have been carried out prior to the approval of certain policies and plans, these do not necessarily have the same depth or scope. This results in a heterogeneous application of citizen-consultation processes. At the subnational level, programmes such as Governing with the People (Gobernando con la Gente), The Good Living Festival (Festival del Buen Vivir), and Open House (Casa Abierta), which are held twice a month in different municipalities of El Salvador, allow direct contact with communities across the country to learn about their proposals and needs. In addition, the Houses of Culture and Communal Living (Casas de la Cultura y la Convivencia) operate as centres for encounter and community participation in 162 municipalities.

Although these initiatives show that efforts have been made towards the involvement of citizens in El Salvador, it seems that these initiatives are still scarce, particularly at the national level. It also seems that they mostly take place only during the design phase of policies or initiatives. This is line with results that have previously been presented in this chapter, concerning stakeholder engagement during the development of subordinate regulations, which showed that consultations are conducted only for some subordinate regulations, and often at a late stage. El Salvador could consider developing further mechanisms to strengthen the engagement of citizens and stakeholders during all phases of the policy cycle, including not only the design and development of strategies and plans, but also their implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. For instance, Box 8.13 presents the initiatives that Lithuania and Spain have developed in order to involve citizens during phases of implementation and monitoring. The objectives of increasing the participation of citizens and stakeholders could then be included in the Open Government Strategy, in order to ensure that it applies to all levels of government, and to all public institutions of the Salvadoran administration.

Overall, while some scattered initiatives, have been developed to strengthen participation and access to information, such as the creation of an Access to Information Law (the Ley de Acceso a la Información Pública), El Salvador still has a long road ahead of it when it comes to open government. The country would benefit from taking a more holistic and integrated approach towards open government. The principles of transparency, accountability, integrity and stakeholder participation should become part of every aspect of public governance.


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← 1. Until February 2022, these functions were fulfilled by the Legal Secretariat.

← 2. https://www.plancuscatlan.com/home.php.

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