José Mario Brasiliense

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2006
This description of José Mario Brasiliense's work was prepared when José Mario Brasiliense was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006 .


José Mario is improving local governance by promoting communication between community leaders working across government, private, and civil society sectors. By creating dialogue where there was none before, José Mario is building a system of governance that functions more efficiently and more accurately represents and serves the public. Through tailored workshops that train community leaders about political processes and participation, José Mario builds networks of peer groups among leaders across sectors that understand and are motivated to work together. José Mario’s model is transforming local governance and contributing to changes in federal law, increasing opportunities for local sustainable development, and improving local management.

The New Idea

In direct response to the wave of government decentralization and increasing civic participation currently taking shape throughout Brazil, Jose Mario is working to fill the enormous gaps between civil society and local government. Rather than create new governance structures altogether, he works with existing leaders from a variety of sectors and activity areas, and helps them to realize their collective potential. His Oficina Municipal offers a number of courses, fellowships, and programming designed to help local leaders identify common objectives and build upon one another's strengths in matters of governing and policy-making. The ultimate goal is to improve local autonomy and reduce municipalities' long-held dependence on state and federal institutions.
His courses and seminars target a number of different audiences, providing continuing education to public servants and locally elected officials, intensive exchange programs for municipal mayors, and coursework for university students. His goals are two-fold: To improve existing structures and enhance local democracy, and to encourage a new generation of leaders to enter local politics and actively engage in the citizen sector. 
Recognizing the intricate links between local policy-making, human rights, and environmental sustainability, he is also developing a number communication tools to better coordinate activity between towns and cities at the regional level. His goal is to strengthen sub-national structures in order to influence federal policy-making, and ensure that it better responds to the local needs of ordinary Brazilians. To this end, he helps mayors and city councilors realize their collective power when they choose to work together rather than compete with one another. For example, the Brazilian Constitution provides for what are known as “Municipal Councils,” that are responsible for influencing both the design and implementation of public policy. However, few of the councils’ members fully understand their duties and rights, seeing themselves only as extensions of the mayor's office. Jose Mario thus offers them a number of tailored courses designed to improve participants’ effectiveness. He has further created a system to connect members to their counterparts working on similar issues elsewhere, in order to better tackle common regional issues.
José Mario’s model is thus transforming local governance and contributing to changes in federal law, increasing opportunities for local sustainable development, and improving local management.

The Problem

Brazil is home to 5,564 municipalities, each of which in turn may host twenty or more Municipal Councils. The councils focus on a particular theme, ranging from healthcare, child and family services, to education, and urban planning. While the councils are intended to play a critical role in providing public services and maintaining effective public management, they often remain poorly equipped and ill-prepared for governance. Many municipalities have yet to establish Councils, and some of those that have treat them merely as subsidiaries of the executive power: a system which hardly aligns with fair representation. Even those that function according to their mandate often fail to provide meet public demands at the local level, thanks oftentimes to their poor relations with civil society. The situation demands considerable capacity-building in both the public and private sectors, and a strengthened framework through which to work together.

These problems are compounded by widespread ignorance amongst many of the country's local leaders about such issues as how to effectively gauge public opinion, and develop practices that uphold both the interests of the public and the environment. New political leaders often struggle to come to power in the face of political dynasties and excessive campaign expenditures. Faced with this environment, the citizen sector often finds itself at odds with its counterparts in government and the business world, often pointing out the problems without working toward meaningful solutions. These structural disconnects are found within the country's universities as well, which remain far removed from local realities. The result is a lack of theoretical bases and teaching that would effectively prepare emerging leaders in the government and citizen sector to work together.

The problems extend to Brazil's cultural and economic make-up as well. The country’s vast inequality and structural injustices have left a profound rift between the government and the private and citizen sectors. Having realized that politicians' speak rarely translates into change for those living below the poverty line the Brazilian public has come to adopt growing distrust and disinterest in politics. Faced with too many public officials who take little interest in actively responding to the needs of the people, the current political landscape demands an increase in civic education and better preparation for its current and future leaders.

The situation has been further aggravated by the fact that many of the country's political representatives, and even its leaders in the private and citizen sectors remain detached and unaware of the day-to-day needs of the public. Few municipalities have access to an effective information system, and accurate statistics regarding their economic, social, and political health. It is thus difficult to identify underlying structural problems, and to accordingly establish effective public policy and services.

This confluence of factors has left Brazil largely devoid of effective local governance and strategic planning, which has only worked to fuel public disenchantment and unrest.

The Strategy

José Mario created the Municipal Workshop in 2002 to transform the structural relationship between different community sectors. The workshop serves as a “citizenry and local management school” for government, private sector, and civil society leaders. By targeting community leaders for education and training about effective governance and participatory political processes, José Mario hopes to improve public policy, helping it to better serve the public and improve local and national development and democratic initiatives.

José Mario develops courses, speeches, and publications for the workshops that fill gaps in the civic training of each of the different types of leaders. Each of his workshops is tailored to its specific location, taking into account the relationship between the public and local leaders, and pressing issues in the community. The workshop covers five themes: Politics and Public Municipal Administration, Urban Planning and Environmental Management, Laws of Fiscal Responsibility and Financial Management, Inter-municipal Cooperation, and Municipal Schooling System.

He works with a wide range of target audiences, and has developed different content, materials, and methodologies for working with each. In addition to his work in universities and with members of the Municipal Councils, Jose Mario works closely with the mayors themselves. In partnership with a prominent German foundation, he has created a unique international exchange program, wherein Brazilian mayors travel to Germany to learn and participate in the country's cooperative model of federalism. Every two years, a group of twenty mayors travel to Germany for an intensive series of meetings, speeches, and visits in fields such as environmental policy and management, regional infrastructure, and urban government. His Mayors’ Network is soon likely to expand to other Latin American countries, and talks are already under way for further collaboration with institutions and organizations in the U.S. and the EU.

In each of the last three years, between 4,000 and 5,570 people participated in Oficina Municipal’s courses, including mayors and municipal authorities. In order to choose and to invite participants, José Mario’s Oficina Municipal developed a strong data bank, which is filled up with information coming from Federal and State governmental agencies and from some of Oficina Municipal’s partners in the public sector (political authorities, political parties, local governments, municipal associations, public universities etc.). This strong network that Jose Mario has been developing since at least fifteen years covers also private organizations as universities, COs and third sector institutions (private foundations and institutes). Within each community where Oficina Municipal is operating an important effort is done to come closer to local leaders in public and private sectors. Those leaders are a great help nominating public servants, associations, religious leaders, and outstanding young people, usually university students.

After completing a course or a workshop, participants are more conscious of their roles as leaders and citizens and their rights and responsibilities within the democratic and governmental processes. Through the activities, participants begin to establish mechanisms to better communicate with their counterparts and other members of other sectors. Bringing together the different stake holders involved in the public policies of local interest is the first step to change the governance existing structures.

In the last six years José Mario has promoted programs in five municipalities to establish concrete outcomes. For example, in Cajamar, close to Sao Paulo City, he worked with political leaders, the staff of a Brazilian multinational business company with a plant in the town, and a local environment CO, aiming to establish a complete report about the social, economical, infrastructural and fiscal situation in the municipality. The report was completed within four months, and they then developed a strategic plan designing the possibilities for investments towards a sustainable development under the twenty-one Agenda methodology. Leveraging this success, José Mario’s goal is to spread its methodology and vision about the role of each actor in a governance structure based on solidarity to different municipalities. If the national and international challenges facing the world both now and in the future are to be adequately met, people in each locality of the country will have to learn how to work together to overcome their real and ideological tensions. To that end, Oficina Municipal is well on its way to becoming Brazil’s leading reference institution.

The Person

José Mario was born in São Paulo and grew up in the middle of the political militancy of his grandfather and father, a historic moment in the fight for social justice in Brazil, which encouraged him to study law and the University of São Paulo (Largo São Francisco). During this time, he became involved in the social sector, first with the Academic Management of the Law Department, where he attended to, voluntarily, people with low income. Through this experience, he deepened his understanding in human rights and the rights of the public. At the same time, he interned with the Secretary of State Planning of São Paulo in the area of Regional Socio-Economic Development.

After completing university, he began work with the Secretary of Transportation, in the area of infrastructure and regional development, where he was responsible for the management of information on the maintenance of the rural dirt roads program. He then became interested in the management of hydric resources and worked for five years with the municipalities and the management of the hydrographic basins. During this period, José Mario experienced first-hand the problems between government personnel and agencies responsible for local and regional development. He used this experience as his focus area for his Masters thesis in Public Administration.

He later worked as a Monitor and Staff of the Children International Summer Villages for nine years, leading campaigns and international meetings with groups of young people. At these events, people from twelve different nationalities met and discussed cultural, social, political, economic themes and youth engagement. He also volunteered at Pastoral da Criança, working with poor families and children that live in São Paulo slums. He also coordinated a project with Amyr Klink (a well known Brazilian navigator), called “Invernagem Polar,” which was a complex expedition that involved technical projects with difficult executions and required management of high complexity in virtue of the multiplicity of agents involved (about fifty professionals and thirty companies).

During a work/study trip to Venezuela during the end of the 1980s, José Mario met with Konrad Adenaur Foundation and learned about the work they did outside of Brazil. Because he wanted to work in an organization that interacted with different sectors (public, social and private), José Mario ended up working with the Foundation for ten years. At the Foundation, he was responsible for creating institutional relationships with different groups in the social, business, governmental, academic and journalistic sectors. With the construction of these relationships, José Mario amplified his vision of Brazil and the possible strategies for confronting the social problems of the country.

Through these experiences, José Mario began to realize that large transformations take place at the local and regional level because creative articulation can be carried out by society. With this insight, in 2002, he began to think about the creation of an organization capable of working directly with all the actors on the local level. This idea culminated in the creation of the Municipal Workshop, a space dedicated to the strengthening of the citizenship and local governments.