CALGARY — The law of unintended consequences is becoming manifest in initiatives seeking to make government more efficient, more responsive and more accountable.
Recently the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, an advocate for the interests of business professionals and entrepreneurs, held its fourth annual Red Tape Awareness Week, calling for Canadians to "join the Red Tape Revolution" in an effort to fight against excessive business regulations. Appealing to citizens, especially politicians and civil servants, with such institutional efforts as online petitions and The Golden Scissors Award are not revolutionary acts but annual traditions. To trademark an initiative for a cause that they wish to minimize or render obsolete is counter-intuitive at best.
While revolutionaries initially thrive on unrest, they typically become so enamoured of process that their final aims later become irrelevant. The CFIB has found some revolutionaries who are already tending toward process. Rules and processes are being carefully devised in order to attack red tape and reduce it. The strategy is backfiring: target converts have picked up the red tape ethos.
In 2010, the federal Canada created the Red Tape Reduction Commission. Ironically, the commission, consisting of seven members of Parliament and six individuals from the private sector, was tasked with devising recommendations to reduce bureaucracy. They generated several reports, the most significant of which is the Recommendations Report. This tedious 79-page summary document comes with an 88-page French version.
Imitating the federal initiative, the government of Alberta launched a provincial clone. The Red Tape Reduction Task Force was a committee of five members of the legislative assembly. It processed 500 online survey responses and held dialogue sessions between December 2011 and March 2012. Its 28-page report was published in March 2012, largely repeating the buzzwords and echoing many of the recommendations of the federal report.
In 2010, never missing a bandwagon, City of Calgary councillors created a Cut Red Tape program. The three-phase program involved surveying employees in March 2011, businesspersons in December 2011, and the general public, concluding the process in November 2012.
Red tape reduction is not an exclusively Canadian phenomenon. Process-loving folks are everywhere. In Europe there have been similar efforts over the years. Targets are repeatedly set to reduce administration and regulation. Awards are offered for the best idea for red tape reduction. In Western Australia, politicians and bureaucrats released a 208-page document of the Red Tape Reduction Group entitled (ironically) Reducing the Burden.
The proliferation of red tape reduction initiatives has led to some licences and permits being processed faster, easing some trade barriers. But successfully implementing the federal rule requiring one regulation removed for every new regulation introduced may be wishful thinking.
Recently, Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi announced a local success achieved through a cut red tape program consultation with people who work at swimming pools. He says, "There was no way to actually [sic] register for the next [swimming] level while you were there at the swimming pool and so it turned out the reason was that the people who work at the swimming pool weren’t trained in taking money or taking credit cards and it was relatively easy to change that so now while you’re watching your kids swim, you can sign up for the next lesson."
The Calgary example above reveals that business-minded persons can reduce red tape when motivated to maximize profit by providing customer satisfaction. But where is the incentive on the part of government officials? Ultimately, we elect politicians to be our representatives, not swimming pool administrators. Questioning the goal and purposes of government would be far more beneficial in reducing useless processes than cutting corners to find small efficiencies in services where government involvement is questionable, anyway.
By encouraging Red Tape Reduction task forces, commissions, studies, and reports, citizens and organizations are encouraging make-work projects for politicians and civil servants already in dire need of a mandate for efficiency.
Cutting red tape should not be about revolutions, ceremonies, and task forces, but rather getting to work and doing it efficiently. The good intentions of the CFIB members and civic enthusiasts should be checked against practical results by independent groups.
Between government-run accountability, transparency, and red tape reduction initiatives at almost every level of government and in almost every province and major city, we may have already achieved the opposite of what was intended.
Amanda Achtman is a research assistant and Marco Navarro-Genie is the vice-president of research at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy