A story in the current Economist captures so much that’s maddening about bureaucratic hassles facing small business. In one story from Poland (which, it must be said, has made much progress in many areas, though clearly still more to be done) a small business owner wishing to change location must go through a minimum of 7 steps involving as many government offices, multiple forms at each, and several weeks of processing between each step. None of it simple, none automated, none online.
Larger businesses, of course, go through the same hassles. They typically have people to deal with it, though, but then that cost is passed along in the price of their goods. Small businesses don’t have such staff, so their time spent on these bureaucratic excesses directly takes away from time spent on basic business issues such as customer care and product manufacturing — directly affecting their growth potential and job offerings.
There are many ways to positively change this scenario. First and foremost, “streamlining” means taking out unnecessary steps. Why must the business contract with its accountant be formally amended and notarized? A simple notification or forwarding address suffices in other places. After a true streamlining minimizes the steps to those most needed, then determine how those steps can be combined, for example by having a single notification for multiple districts. Finally, simplify the access that citizens have to accomplish the needed steps. Oftentimes, this means moving to an online system or at least a single window system. Just skipping to online processes without the streamlining, however, continues the confusion and doesn’t represent a major step forward.
If it’s all so simple, why isn’t it done more often? As usual, look for the incentives and disincentives for change. Bureaucrats rarely have any incentive to cede what is perceived as their sphere of control. Notaries love processes that require lots of stamps. As do the stampmakers, of course. Figuring out who sees themselves as giving up something in the change is just as important as understanding where the drive for change comes from. Together, these help plot the course for successfully advocating real systemic change. It may seem to be about business and economics, but ultimately it’s about the politics of getting things done.