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In Guadalajara, Mexico, as in many cities around the world, the service windows where municipal agents issue land-use permits or business licenses have always been ripe spots for corruption. Pay a small bribe, and the agent handling your case just might expedite the approval. Refuse to pay up, and you may get passed along to another window, be told about some opaque regulations, and see your case drag on for days or weeks.
Guadalajara has found a solution. Two years ago, the city moved these transactions — along with detailed maps showing what land uses are allowed where — into a website known as Visor Urbano. The rules now are clearer than ever, and the discretion agents once had to speed up or slow down the process is gone. The result is dramatic: Bribe requests by municipal agents have declined by 74 percent.
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The study, by Jonathan Mellon of the University of Oxford and Francisco Lara-García of Columbia University, looks specifically at Visor Urbano’s impact on corruption. The researchers draw on interviews with municipal agents, developers, and business owners, as well as surveys of hundreds of users of both the old and new systems, to conclude that “Visor Urbano has successfully and substantially reduced corruption in Guadalajara’s business licensing process.”
Miguel Madero has long suspected that was the case. But now, Madero, Visor Urbano project manager for the municipality, has proof. Before Visor Urbano, “the process was not automated at all, so there were holes in the process where the public servants could make some arrangement with the citizen without any trace,” Madero said. “With Visor Urbano, all the information is online, so they can’t change any step.”
In addition to reducing solicitation and offers of bribes between agents and citizens, Visor Urbano has reduced bribe requests by third parties by 85 percent. This refers to the actions of people known as “coyotes,” who approach citizens offering to leverage personal connections with the agents in exchange for payment. According to the study, this activity also is hindered by the fact that Visor Urbano has made the permitting and licensing processes more clear, standardized, and automated.
Frequent users of Visor Urbano include entrepreneurs who need a license to start a business and builders who need to know what type of construction is permitted in a certain location. They appreciate the transparency. “With Visor Urbano, we all have the same access to information,” said Benjamin Cordero, an architect and real estate developer who has used both the old and new systems. “I have not seen so many people offering you their services to ‘expedite the process.’ Now, we all have equal times.”
In two years, 4,613 small-business licenses have been issued through Visor Urbano, and the system has handled more than 34,000 queries related to development information. While users can handle transactions from home if they wish, most still prefer to visit the municipal offices, where Visor Urbano employees walk them through the online application.
A key feature is the system’s map and database showing what land uses are allowed on each parcel, the product of a significant regulatory overhaul that occurred in tandem with the website development. This means that citizens and government employees have instant access to the same information — a critical factor in reducing corruption. Citizens can search the map to find out, for example, if a noisy nightclub next door is allowed to operate there — and lodge a complaint if it isn’t.
These features put Guadalajara ahead of all cities in Mexico and most in Latin America when it comes to centralizing and streamlining business and development permitting. Visor Urbano won a prestigious national award in Mexico for bringing transparency to government, and is in the process of being replicated by at least seven cities across the country.
Madero is working to help those cities take lessons from Guadalajara’s success. The first of them is that a project like Visor Urbano requires support from top city leadership. “Without buy-in from the mayor or top director, cities won’t be able to implement Visor Urbano,” Madero said. “Because it opens up all the information on urban development. Some mayors don’t want to do that, or are afraid to. They shouldn’t be.”