Can we cut red tape with digital scissors?

By Benjamin Roseth

Think of the last time you needed to conduct some official business with your government. Maybe it was to get a copy of a birth certificate, pay taxes, or sign up for a social benefit. How was your experience? Good, bad or ugly? If it was the latter – you are not alone. Millions of citizens region-wide are suffering from inefficient, paper-based and in-person government services. Our new book, “Wait No More: citizens, red tape, and digital government,” does a deep dive on the bureaucratic headache that government transactions often cause and how we can make things simpler and more user-friendly.

The numbers speak for themselves: on average, people spend 5.4 hours each time they conduct a government transaction. A quarter of all transactions require going back to the public institution three times or more. Nearly 90% are conducted entirely face-to-face – only 4% are done completely online. In short, this study confirms a reality that far too many citizens have experienced in their day-to-day lives: doing business with their governments is difficult.

In the context of a recently-signed loan with the Government of The Bahamas, we at the IDB had the opportunity to conduct a survey of nearly 350 businesses to shed light on their experience. The results reveal an unfortunate reality of high costs, lots of bureaucratic paper, long wait times, and influence-peddling:

  • 26% of businesses hired external help to conduct their last government transaction
  • 38% of all transactions required five documents or more
  • 30% of all transactions required more than 8 hours of active time to complete
  • 65% of respondents have used personal contacts at a government agency to expedite a transaction

Fortunately, the Government of The Bahamas has decided to address these challenges with an ambitious “Digital Government for Competitiveness” program with IDB support. However, The Bahamas is not alone. In fact, various Caribbean countries report a significant digital deficit in government. We uncovered some startling findings:

  • Five of the seven Caribbean countries in our survey [ Guyana, Belize, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname] reported not knowing how many government transactions exist, and none have all transactions cataloged. These are key preconditions for any project to increase the ease of doing business with the government.
  • No country has more than 20% of its transactions available to start online. This means that the vast majority of transactions are conducted on paper and in person, with all of the wait times and frustration that entails.
  • Only one country [Belize] has an interoperability platform – making data exchange among government agencies extremely cumbersome.
  • Only two countries [Suriname and The Bahamas] have a legal framework that allows for digital signatures, and no country has a national digital identity. This means that even if governments put services online, they can’t yet live up to their full digital potential.

Will the digital revolution save us from our bureaucratic maze? In short – no, but then yes over the medium term.

We recommend governments take five steps to make government transactions easier.

  1. Analyze the citizen experience:Use administrative data, surveys, and direct observation and other sources to acquire objective, precise and timely information on what citizens’ challenges are. Incorporate this information into iterative cycles of evaluation, adaptation and implementation, constantly refining and enhancing interactions with citizens.
  2. Eliminate unnecessary transactions: Cut superfluous transactions through regulatory reform or process re-engineering. Exchange data between government agencies. Reach out to citizens proactively to offer them services for which they are eligible.
  3. Redesign transactions from the citizen’s point of view: Government services are often designed to meet administrative needs, not the needs of citizens. It should be the other way around.
  4. Improve access to digital transactions: Moving transactions online means more than creating websites. It is necessary to build the foundations for digital government (e.g. interoperability platforms, digital signature and identity, and electronic notifications and payments); maximize user-friendliness, even for users with low levels of digital capacity; expand digital literacy programs; ensure that transactions work from any device (especially mobile telephones); and provide payment methods that do not require a bank account.
  5. Invest in better face-to-face interaction:Although many countries have made big strides in digital government, it will be years before everything is done online. It is thus crucial to enhancing face-to-face interactions. Investing in staff training and recruitment, and bringing together services from different entities under one roof are tried and tested ways of improving the in-person experience.

To paraphrase Chile’s visionary digital government director Andrés Bustamante, government digital transformation is more about “transformation” than “digital” – but in the Caribbean, we need both to improve citizens’ experiences with their governments.

Featured image by Lynn Saghir 

About the author

Benjamin Roseth is a Modernization of the State Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank. He coordinates the analytical work of the Innovation for Citizen Services Division, including impact evaluations, cost-benefit analyses and other research on digital government and public sector reform in Latin America and the Caribbean. As a Young Professional at the IDB, he worked in the Office of Evaluation and Oversight. Before joining the IDB, he was a strategy consultant at Deloitte and a Junior Professional Associate at the Public Sector Governance unit of the World Bank. He has a M.A. in International Affairs with a concentration in Economic Development from Columbia University, a B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University, and a B.A. in Music Performance from the New England Conservatory.



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