The law of unintended consequences is becoming manifest in initiatives seeking to make government more efficient, more responsive, and more accountable.
This week [week of January 21], the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) is having its fourth annual Red Tape Awareness Week™. The CFIB advocates for the interests of business professionals and entrepreneurs. It has launched a call 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 at least to minimize, or better, render obsolete is counter-intuitive at best.
While revolutionaries initially thrive on unrest, they typically become so enamoured with process that their final aims later become irrelevant. The CFIB has found some revolutionaries who are already turning 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 Government of Canada created the Red Tape Reduction Commission. The Commission, composed of seven members of parliament and six individuals from the private sector, was ironically 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 echoing the buzzwords and repeating many of the recommendations of the federal report.
In 2010, never missing a fad, City of Calgary councillors created a Cut Red Tape program. The three phase program involved engaging employees in March 2011, businesspersons in December 2011, and the general public with a survey that concluded 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 ironically titled "Reducing the Burden."
The proliferation of red tape reduction initiatives has led to some licenses 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. Mandating Compacts fluorescent light bulbs alone will result in hundreds of new rules about their manufacturing, packaging, transporting, handling, and disposal.
Recently, Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi announced a local success achieved through the 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 motivated to provide customer satisfaction to maximize profit. But where is the incentive on the part of government officials? Ultimately, we elect politicians to be our representatives, not swimming lesson administrators. Questioning the goal and purposes of government would be far more beneficial in reducing useless processes than cutting around corners to find small efficiencies in services in which governments perhaps ought not be involved.
By encouraging Red Tape Reduction task forces, commissions, studies, and reports, citizens and organizations are encouraging make-work projects for politicians and civil servants who already have a mandate for efficiency.
Cutting red tape should not be about revolutions, ceremonies, and task forces, but rather getting down to work and simply doing it well. 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.