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Mexico rewards tales of red tape

President Calderón is leading a drive to make Mexico's government more efficient, starting with nearly $40,000 in awards for the best stories of bloated bureaucracy.

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"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."

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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 Calderón'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 Calderón 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," Calderón 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."