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Opinion

Less red tape for business, why not people?

Published on 27/06/2016

We have made it a full-time job to be poor. To make it through the obstacle course of applications and regulations to access the supports and services that people are entitled to takes time and money that people don’t have. It shouldn’t be this way and it doesn’t have to be. We should take a cue from the work that governments have been doing to make it easier to do business here and apply those principles to making life better for people.

For decades, governments of all stripes have spoken of the need to cut down on the administrative burden of “red tape” for businesses. While the definition of what is unnecessary red tape varies, there is broad support for the idea that making interacting with government and complying with regulations simple and straightforward is good for an entrepreneurial and dynamic economy. Business advocates have done a good job of articulating the economic costs of complying with various regulations, and policymakers have responded with efforts to both make dealing with government easier and limit the total volume of regulatory requirements.

It’s a good principle to make interacting with government as easy as possible. For example the Ontario government has ensured that businesses only have to call one number to get business information — whether about buried utilities or regulations more generally. The federal government has implemented service standards for when businesses need to deal with regulators, and they are reporting on performance. Without the red tape slogan, you might just call these efforts good policy, good governance, or good service delivery.

Despite these efforts, some of the most problematic and unnecessary hurdles have been left untouched: the ones that affect individual people, most notably people living with low incomes. The maze of requirements and departments that low-income individuals have to navigate to access the benefits and services that they need and are entitled to is often more complex than those faced by businesses. This red tape burden exacerbates problems for vulnerable people and runs counter to the point of the policies and programs — which is to help people.

The compliance cost of getting and keeping the support that people are entitled to can be overwhelming. It takes away time and money from things that would improve people’s lives and help them move out of poverty, such as joining a community group or taking a course. Accessing and keeping social assistance can require extensive paperwork, starting from participation forms through monthly reporting, that take up the time of people in need, caseworkers and non-profit agencies. An individual needing support because of a disability could face multiple assessments to prove his or her need in different ways for different programs. To get the tax credits that people are entitled to and rely on, vulnerable people may have to rely on tax preparation services or miss out altogether if they don’t file taxes.

Researchers have found that excessive time spent navigating red tape can exacerbate poverty. Our poverty reduction policies are making things worse at the same time that they are supposed to be making things better. Making it easier to navigate the systems that are meant to help those living in poverty is essential to making it easier for people to improve their lives.

In dealing with businesses, we don’t start from the assumption that they are rule breakers. We should do the same for individuals. Unfortunately, our policies too often treat people in need of assistance as fraudsters looking to live large on meagre social assistance — an unfortunate enduring legacy of some “conventional wisdom” that is discriminatory, untrue and contrary to our policy objectives.

We should start instead from a perspective that respects people’s rights and dignity. That means putting effort into making sure people can access the benefits that they are entitled to, instead of putting up barriers. These barriers lead to bad outcomes — when we make it hard for people to access the benefits that they are entitled to, they are more likely to end up with health problems and other needs, and less likely to access supports like job training. Governments end up paying more, directly or indirectly, for social workers and support staff to help people navigate the barriers that governments themselves have erected around their programs.

There are plenty of elements to build on to improve the path forward. Efforts across Canada to integrate different human services are helping to create a “no wrong door” system for individuals. ServiceOntario and other services are aimed at creating seamless one-window experiences for routine government transactions. The Ontario government is hiring its first Chief Digital Officer with a mandate to be the “ultimate champion for citizen experience with government.” And there are some important moves to simplify and streamline medical reviews for benefits and applications for tuition assistance.

While these are important efforts, it will take more work to make things simple. Governments should make the same commitment to reducing red tape for people as they have for businesses. Not only would this improve the lives of vulnerable individuals – but all people in Canada.

Summary

We have made it a full-time job to be poor.

Topic(s)

Poverty