Mexico: a country wrapped in red tape

Mexico City - Montserrat Contreras Castaneda had her eyes set on a job opening in Mexico's state attorney general's office, but first needed proof of residence for a competition that ended the next day.

A simple undertaking, she thought. But after an hour and a half in line, she found out that her identification alone would not suffice. She either needed three years worth of bank statements or could head to her local representative's office to seek another document to expedite the process.

After more lines, wrong directions, and bureaucrats on lunchbreak, she made it back to the original line with the right paperwork under her arms. But it still was not enough: the process would not be over until someone visited her home within four days to verify that the mass of documentation was indeed valid. Needless to say, she didn't get the job. She couldn't even apply.

Welcome to the red tape that seems to wrap the whole of Mexico, turning the most mundane tasks - changing a sign outside a small business, obtaining a birth certificate, or reporting a stolen license plate - into mega-missions.

Now Mexican President Felipe Calderon is trying to change all that. Ms. Contreras was recently awarded $7,500 for her troubles, as a winner in a government-sponsored contest to identify "the most useless procedure." It's an effort to turn Mexico's famously inefficient officialdom into a well-oiled machine - both for the sake of a saner citizenry and for a state hindered by processes that make it more prone to corruption and far less productive.

"We want a government that is economic and agile, where public spending does not get stopped in the morass of bureaucracy," says Salvador Vega Casillas, head of the federal comptroller's office. "Much of the paperwork serves no purpose, or is complicated and expensive. With the contest, we wanted to see complaints from the citizen's point of view."

Mexicans don't take to the streets demanding less paperwork the way they have protested against presidential election results, or spiraling crime rates. But the contest alone reveals how they feel: since the contest was announced in the fall, over 21,000 Mexicans submitted their stories.

A bureaucratic mentality has been well in place in Mexico since colonial days. The mind-set works something like this: if it doesn't have a stamp, it doesn't move.

Today there are 4,200 tramites or registered procedures. The government's goal is to reduce that to 3,000 by the end of Mr. Calderon's term in 2012.

For most of the past century, Mexico was governed by one party, in which state goings-on happened behind closed doors and with a pat on the back. Perhaps it is ironic that, as Mexico has attempted to modernize and become more transparent, it has become more littered with paperwork.

"There is a paradox; there was an aspiration to have a leaner state but on the other hand, with laws such as the transparency law [of 2002], there was a push to keep a historic memory," says Irma Sandoval, director of the Laboratory of Documentation and Analysis of Corruption and Transparency at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She says, however, the state was left with neither: it is still burdened by paperwork and yet access to information is still restricted. "We have been left with the worst of both worlds."

The submissions handed in for the "most useless procedure" contest spin tales of lengthy lines, unfriendly bureaucrats, bribes sought, and senseless requirements. Requirements that should take one hour take one week.

"I left crying," wrote Contreras in her submission.

The winner of the contest at the federal level, Cecilia Deyanira Velazquez, who won $22,000, told the story of how her son's prescription drugs from the Social Security Institute take four days each month to access. Some people lose crucial income to stand in line, especially those who live in rural areas and have to travel to cities to fill out requirements. Ms. Velazquez's solution? A computerized database for all clients that need prescription drugs.

Mr. Vega says the point of the contest was to use the 21,000 submissions as a diagnostic tool to map out solutions. The bureaucrats and bureaucracies cited were not punished, but their jobs might change: some procedures will be eliminated, others will be better streamlined. Officials hope that a better functioning government will also lead to a less corrupt one - the requirements to get the simplest task accomplished often lend themselves to bribe-seeking and bribe-paying: it's often easier to pay $20 than to lose a day standing in line. The non-profit Transparencia Mexica says that Mexicans pay over $2 billion a year in bribes, for everything from getting water tanks to getting their trash picked up.

For Vega, the contest shows Calderon's commitment to a leaner government. "It's not very common that a government hands prizes to those who criticize it," he says.

And it is part of a larger plan by Calderon introduced in September calling for better government management, including a series of studies on how technology can make a more agile government.

"We have taken the responsibility to simplify, eliminate, fuse, or cancel whenever possible bureaucratic procedures that impede us from assisting Mexicans with the quality they deserve," Calderon said upon announcing the winners of the contest.

Ms. Sandoval has her doubts, however. "We don't need contests," she says. "This is all simulation; there is no serious commitment to combat corruption."