Jorge Woodbridge, President Oscar Arias’ newest minister in a newly-created position, wasn’t quite sure of his title yet when he sat down with The Tico Times for an interview.
“What it says exactly is, ‘Presidential advisor in competitiveness and regulatory improvement with rank of minister,’” he said, reading off the decree that formed the new cabinet position.
He looked up: “The quickest is competitiveness minister.”
A transplant from the private sector – with just over a year as Arias’ vice minister of the economy – Woodbridge, 61, has been charged with cutting red tape, or trámites in Spanish, across the Costa Rican bureaucracy to boost the country’s flagging competitiveness. Some excerpts from the interview:
TT: What’s the purpose of your new position?
JW: The idea in the first year is to concentrate on a program to improve regulations by concentrating on all the tramites that are smothering this country. That’s maybe the biggest problem that we have from the perspective of simplifying what it takes to form a company.
It will also involve a re-engineering of many institutions – a modernization, basically, of the state, to make it more competitive. If there’s not more competitiveness in the public sector then there’s not competitiveness in the private sector. That’s one of the big complaints we have for doing business in this country.
What will your priorities be?
We have five or six important focuses. One is opening a company. It takes 77 days and we want to reduce that. (Others include) labor flexibility, construction procedures, and banking, making it easier to do bank transactions.
Is there a trámite that is particularly bad that you would like to change within the next year?
Well, SETENA (the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry) is the biggest challenge. It’s the most complicated because it has to do with the protection of the environment and zoning plans and environmental impact studies. In this, Costa Rica has to be competitive.
What kinds of changes would you like to make?
Strengthen the administration, increase salaries, and start a process (to offer) things like environmental guides and education.
What kind of authority are you going to have to make those changes?
Well, I’ll be a minister.
What results can we expect to see, and how soon?
We have very pointedly determined that we will cut in half the (time it takes to) open
a business and (get) construction licenses, property registry, paying taxes and crossborder commerce. Basically, I’m going to cut them by 50% in half a year. I love challenges, so there’s no problem there.
Has the government tried initiatives like this before?
Not that I know of. They have made efforts, but very marginal ones, without political authority to make things move.
How is this time different?
Well, I mean, I have rank. It’s not the same when you go knock on their doors and you’re not a minister. (As a minister) you are colleagues and you can go discuss things. Anyway, this isn’t about authority but coordination and teamwork, that you coordinate well with each of them.
Panama is consistently a few places above Costa Rica in competitiveness indexes. Do you see it as a threat?
Everything’s a threat. We used to say Panama doesn’t play soccer. Now they play soccer and they beat us. We’re talking about a race here, and a country that wants to be competitive has to improve its infrastructure, its procedures, be efficient. A country can’t stay stagnant. The world changed. Before it was easy, but now it has changed.
Would you say that the recent World Bank report that put Costa Rica in 113th place in the ease of doing business was a wake-up call for Costa Rica?
I think it got our attention. Either we pinch ourselves or we get left behind.