Building a better Mexico
Politicians the world over like being linked with new construction. It's seen as an effective symbol of new energy and growth, of improvements and forward momentum. That's why so many photocalls have taken place with a politician wearing a hard hat against a background of new buildings, transit systems or other physical infrastructure essential to any modern industrial economy.
Fortunately for Francisco González Zozaya, he never has to look far for a new construction site. State of Mexico's infrastructure minister since last year, his is a varied and crucial role overseeing his state's ambitious plans for redevelopment. The state - one of the 31 in Mexico - is densely populated and divided into some 125 municipalities. Based in its capital city, Toluca de Lerdo, he and his team are currently midway through a programme of investment. These are much-needed investments, which come nearly two centuries after the State of Mexico's creation and aim to make its infrastructure fit for purpose in a rapidly-growing 21st century economy.
His ministry combines oversight of communications, transport and utilities, ranging from airports and toll roads through to library buildings and water sewage facilities. He agrees with the suggestion that it is an extensive array of responsibilities. "Yes, it is very broad, but you have to be conscious of your primary responsibility, which is ensuring that public services work properly for the population," he says. "The priority is that these services and the work of public officials enable all my fellow Mexicans to have better communications and better services - leaving no-one out."
Public works in progress
Infrastructure has been a key priority of the Mexican government at both state and national level. For example, the administration's National Infrastructure Programme for 2014-18 ring-fenced an investment target of 7.75 trillion pesos for a total of 743 projects in six strategic sectors - transport and communications, energy, water, health, housing and urban development, and tourism. And at state level, too, there has been much emphasis on infrastructure in recent years. State of Mexico is encouraging public-private partnerships on projects to upgrade transport and power networks, for example, in order to safeguard an economy which is the second largest in the country - and similar to Colombia's in terms of GDP.
Zozaya can call upon a mix of public and private sector experience - hugely useful given the scale of the funding necessary for these projects. "I used to work in the financial sector, and to plan such projects has always been very important," he says. "But when you witness how a person loves a basketball court that was built nearby, or how they come to rely on new public transport systems, it is only then that you genuinely see how crucial this work is for their wellbeing. So I would say that the great achievement of this administration is how these works have sought to benefit all Mexicans in the state, bringing their needs together to benefit society as a whole."
A good example of the impact that new infrastructure has on communities large and small is in the new digital libraries which have sprung up across the state. "There are now 125 digital libraries," he explains. "The financial cost is not huge - maybe 200 to 300 thousand US dollars, the equivalent of 4 to 6 million pesos - but the impact is huge. Suddenly, a library like these can offer internet services and access to digital information and digital collections from Mexico and abroad to men and women, boys and girls, who previously did not have that access. This generates a lot of innovation. We now have digital libraries in areas that have a higher income, but they are also common in more marginalised areas and they are used just as much."
Another area which has taken precedence is that of crime and security. Mexico - at both national and state level - has some deep-rooted challenges to overcome here, but better infrastructure is helping security forces turn the tide in the worst of the crime hot spots. For example, Zozaya's team has constructed new C5 centres (Control, Command, Communication, Computer and Quality) to help coordinate the fight against crime by using new data and technology, with a network of more than 10,000 new security cameras. He does admit, though, that this is a long-term project - the gains won't be felt by the population overnight.
"Of course, security is a very difficult issue, because people's perception of crime won't be affected by the improvements straight away," he says. "If you were assaulted this year, three years later you are likely to continue to have the perception that there is a crime problem, because of the long-term impact of such an incident on you and your family. We have to improve, but we are working to make it become better and better."
Always more to do
The minister goes on to admit to a certain level of frustration, conceding that there are always issues that prevent further progress from being made. "We have the restriction that every administration has, which is the budget," he points out. "You always want to do more, and it's always more complicated. And we must also remember that in Mexico the tax system for states is the most complicated. Why? Because in Mexico, income tax and value added tax are not administered by the states but by the federal government. But taxes like land, construction rights, retail - they are all overseen by the states. It's not a simple system."
Overcoming such issues means that there needs to be close coordination between the different levels of government in Mexico - from federal to state to municipality - and this does not always happen. "I would say that this is the great challenge," observes Zozaya. "We usually throw the ball to each other and say 'this is not mine, it's federal, or this is municipal'. But the reality is that people do not have to know where the responsibility lies. For them, they simply want to be able to turn on the tap and have running water, turn on the switch and there is light, and so on. This is what we have to remember, and so we have to improve our planning and coordination systems."
Such teamwork will, inevitably, improve the public impact of the government's policies, but he goes on to say that you can tell if a policy or programme is working by the number of complaints. "You can measure people's reaction," he points out. "So if a citizen turns on a tap and clean water comes out, then he or she is unlikely to think of the public servant responsible. But the day they do not get the water, at that moment they remember the public servant and the protests start. Sometimes the big public impact does not mean that you have a million happy people, but a new segment of population is benefiting from something that wasn't there before. Take a new cable car transport system, for example. When you see that this is helping those marginalised areas with lower incomes, then that is the real impact we're all seeking."
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