Cutting Red Tape with Hanlon’s Razor

Robert Hanlon of Scranton, Pennsylvania first wrote down “Hanlon’s razor” as part of a compilation of jokes related to Murphy’s Law. Published in 1980 in Murphy’s Law Book Two, More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong, Hanlon wrote: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

More simply, bad things happen not because of bad intentions, but because people didn’t think things through. Anyone who has had a bad experience dealing with the government, and has been left shaking their head at the apparent, utter stupidity of a frustrating, bureaucratic, government process will understand.

Clearly, nobody sets out to create stupid, useless rules…but they will inevitably appear, when “good intentions” are not guided by an understanding of cost and compliance burden, and they aren’t thought through nor well managed.

But don’t mistake this as just another critical swipe government, no…in fact this is actually a good news story.

After decades of paving our dark road to perdition with the cobblestones of tens-of-thousands well-intentioned rules and bylaws, there’s a glint of common sense rising on our regulatory horizon. Governments of all levels, federal, provincial, and municipal are finally figuring it out.

For over a decade, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) has been reporting on the regulatory burden caused by dumb, poorly conceived, rules. Ten Red Tape Report Cards later, the federal government and now the majority of Canadian provinces are getting passing grades on the steps they are taking to fix the problem.

Municipalities too, are now also seeing the benefits of de-cluttering their regulatory closet, modernizing their interactions with businesses, and becoming more customer service focused.

In fact, Nova Scotia is at the head of the parade.

In 2017, Halifax and the province created a joint project to start measuring the problem, fixing rules, and helping businesses and citizens navigate the regulatory labyrinths. My organization, CFIB, alongside the Halifax Partnership, the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, representatives from business improvement districts, the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities, the Construction Association of Nova Scotia, Restaurants Canada, representatives from the development community, and staff from HRM and the Province, have been working for more than two years to find some long-term solutions to very difficult issues.

The travails of the Carleton Music Bar and Grill’s patio in Halifax were a catalyst for a CFIB Paperweight nomination and one of the reasons behind a red tape reduction strategy in the city.

We’re making progress. A ridiculous patio licensing system fiasco has been resolved, solutions are underway to fix long-standing irritants around signage by-laws, a new streamlined municipal permitting and licencing system will be launched online in 2020 to shorten wait times and improve service delivery, staff are looking at regulatory proposals using the critical lens of a Charter of Principles, and the city is now beginning to measure the impact of its regulatory decision making.

In 2019, all five municipalities in Cape Breton also began looking at these successes and are finding common ground on how to make their communities more attractive to business and investment by modernizing and aligning regulations. It’s being driven by community leaders who see the value of decluttering municipal processes and politicians and public servants who recognize the benefit of creating meaningful efficiencies in government.

This is good, but we’re only getting started.

With many governments now understanding and accepting the benefits of regulatory modernization, we are going to continue to challenge politicians and the public service to continue to improve how they do business. The key is remaining focused on simplifying and streamlining processes in government and measuring and managing success. This also means reducing internal barriers for commerce, measuring the burden, and improving government customer service. All things we’ll be keeping an eye on for small business.

Nobody, ever, jumped into public service with an overriding desire of wrapping their fellow citizens in reams of unnecessary red tape. However, with a surplus of good intentions floating around government, the road to regulatory gridlock has been well paved. There is still a lot of work to do to unwind decades of red tape growth, but by applying sound management principles, measuring burden, and thinking things through, we will all end up in a better place.

This was originally published in the January 20, 2020 edition of the Chronicle Herald

 

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