Red tape in Latin America: why we suffer and what we can do about it

How long did you have to stand in line the last time you went to a government office?

Probably quite a while, but hopefully not as much as the average citizen in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), who spent 5.5 hours completing their last transaction to obtain a public service.

This is one of many revelations of our new study, “Wait no more: Citizens, red tape and digital government”. Based on new data, we have quantified the costs of accessing public services for citizens, looked at the use of digital government, and identified some actionable recommendations to improve the situation.

A painful experience

The long wait times to complete public transactions vary between 11.5 hours on average in the slowest country to around 2.5 in the fastest. But this is not the only pain. Only half of transactions were completed in one go, with 25% of them needing three or more visits – which means citizens had to spend time and money travelling back and forth between public offices. This kind of bureaucratic maze can lead to tragedy: such was the case for Domitila Murillo, a 70-year-old Bolivian citizen who died just two weeks after a completing an 11-month and 900 km odyssey to obtain her ID card.

The unwieldy nature of public transactions has other undesirable side-effects. On the one hand, it makes them more susceptible to corruption: almost 30% of Latin Americans admit to having paid a bribe to access a public service. On the other, it has serious social consequences, as less educated citizens tend to carry out significantly fewer transactions with their government – even those that could be extremely important for them, such as social programmes, public health and education. This means that public services are not reaching those who need them the most.

Governments – you need to trust us

There are various reasons why these transactions have become so difficult. For one thing, governments are often simply unaware of the difficulties citizens face when interacting with public offices – leading them to carry on with business as usual. For another, inter-institutional turf wars and incompatible technologies restrict collaboration across agencies, landing citizens with the task of shuttling papers from one office to the next.

Yet there is another, less intuitive, reason. It is common to hear of the crisis of the erosion of citizens’ trust in government, and this is no different in Latin America, where only 25% of people trust their government. But this lack of trust actually cuts both ways – and we found that governments’ distrust of citizens is one of the reasons why public transactions are so difficult. A small survey of directors of various public institutions in LAC revealed that 90% of them think that citizens cheat when trying to access public services. This results in strict requirements and controls that end up making transactions cumbersome. Even more surprising is that citizens themselves tend to agree: 62% of Latin Americans think government should make public services hard to get in order to reduce fraud.

What about digital?

In theory, moving government services online can improve the situation: they are often faster, easier and less vulnerable to corruption. However, LAC is lagging behind on this front. Just three countries in the region (Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay) offer more than half of their government transactions online, and only 7% of citizens used that channel for their most recent transaction. Several roadblocks stand in the way of the digital transition, including limited internet connectivity, low financial inclusion, and poor digital literacy. We also found that not all digital is created equal – governments often have a hard time designing functional websites that allow citizens to complete their transactions smoothly.

Focusing on (and improving) the citizen experience

What can governments do to ensure that their interactions with citizens are easy, friendly and practical? We recommend five actions:

  1. Analyse the citizen experience
  2. Cut out unnecessary transactions
  3. Redesign from the citizen’s point of view
  4. Improve access to digital transactions
  5. Invest in better face-to-face interaction

Take a look at this blog post to see our recommendations in greater detail. 

For many in LAC, government red tape may simply seem a fact of life. But it need not be. To paraphrase former President Obama’s campaign technology chief, Michael Slaby, making transactions easier isn’t complicated – it’s just hard.