• News
  • September 3, 2018
  • 7 minutes
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Three ways Latin America can make dealing with government less painful

The average "government transaction" in the region takes over five hours

Does dealing with government have to be painful? For many in Latin America and the Caribbean, the answer is yes. One telling satirical cartoon, reproduced in a new report from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), shows an elderly woman queuing with a young girl in red outside the social security office. The caption reads: “Maybe you should just take me to the wolf, Little Red Riding Hood.”

According to the IDB’s research, “government transactions” — interactions between citizens and the state such as requesting a birth certificate or paying a parking fine — in Latin America and the Caribbean are slow, costly and rarely possible to complete online.

“In Latin America and the Caribbean, the phrase ‘government transaction’ (‘trámite’ in Spanish) is synonymous with ‘headache’,” the report says. Drawing on success stories from the region and beyond, it identifies three lessons for governments who want to end the hurt.

Lesson one: put people first

The average time it takes someone in the region to complete a government transaction is a painful five hours, according to the IDB research. Some 25% of the time, transactions take three or more steps to complete.

However, the report looks in depth at four countries — Chile, Estonia, Mexico and Uruguay — all of which have succeeded in simplifying and digitising many dealings between people and government. In Mexico, for instance, 74% of government transactions can now be completed online, the only country in the region where that figure is over 50%.

The first lesson the report draws from their experiences is that governments should move away from organising their transactions in the way that is most convenient for the state, and start to provide an experience designed with citizens in mind.

To achieve this, the report says, countries should set themselves goals that cut across all departments. Chile’s cross-government “Digital Agenda 2020”, for example, aims “to achieve massive use of online services and to guarantee their quality”.

Tools that make it easier to share information between departments are also crucial to delivering citizen-focused services, the IDB found. For example, having a unified system to verify people’s identity online makes co-ordinating services easier. Mexico, Uruguay and Estonia all have digital identity systems in place.

Meanwhile, citizens must be able to access services using interfaces that are simple and look similar to one another. For example between 2010 and 2014, Chile launched its “ChileAtiende” program, which began by bringing together services provided by 20 different government institutions. Citizens can access all these transactions face-to-face in a single office or via the program’s call centre or web platform.

“Making it easier for people to interact with the state can be time-consuming and expensive”

And finally, the report found, government must seek the participation of its citizens in the process of improving its transactions with them. Uruguay’s Public Social Innovation Laboratory brought people in for a two-day workshop aimed at brainstorming ideal versions of 35 different government transactions.

Lesson two: the buck stops here

Making it easier for people to interact with the state can be time-consuming and expensive, often requiring resources that individual departments don’t have.

For that reason, the report found, countries should put in place a “lead agency” that ensures its strategy is put into practice.

All the countries studied in the report that have made significant progress set up agencies responsible for streamlining and digitising government transactions. In Estonia and Uruguay, this responsibility is held by one single agency.

“The more consolidated the leadership function, as in the cases of Estonia and Uruguay, the simpler coordination efforts become,” the report found.

For example, in both these countries citizens no longer need to provide birth certificates as proof of identity for central government transactions. But in Mexico and Chile, where the process of digitising and simplifying transactions is less co-ordinated, you can obtain a birth certificate digitally, but must then provide it for other government transactions.

Lesson three: get governance right

Simplifying and digitising citizens’ dealings with the state needs government agencies to work together on complex projects that often aren’t aligned with their immediate priorities.

“Making it easier to pay a fine might not sound revolutionary, but the consequences could be colossal”

Both Estonia and Uruguay have deployed one effective tactic: letting different agencies compete for funds. Winners must show that the money will be spent on furthering the government’s digitisation and simplification agendas.

While all four governments built measurement and reporting of progress into their systems.

Making it easier to pay a fine or obtain a document might not sound like the most revolutionary step. But, the reports authors argue, the consequences could be colossal.

“If we could find a project that could, at the same time, boost competitiveness, increase citizen trust in government and promote social inclusion,” writes IDB’s Ana María Rodríguez-Ortiz, “it would be the find of the century.” — Josh Lowe

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