In the recent June issue, we published a captivating piece by Christopher Lau on what governments need to do to attract more foreign companies to settle in this country. His conclusion, drawn on what is happening in the United States and Canada, was that governments need to “sell” the quality of the workforce, the education of the population, the peacefulness of society and other soft attributes. These were far more likely to attract capital than mere tax breaks.
For nearly fifteen years, an entirely different sector of public servants has also been obsessed with discovering how governments could best serve business. Inspired by the work of the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service on Citizens First, it figuratively passed around a hat and collected sufficient funds from twenty government organizations to fund a similar study on the needs of business owners and managers. That remarkable desire to learn has triggered a great learning wave.
The first Taking Care of Business survey in 2003, based on close to 6000 responses, established baseline information on business expectations and levels of satisfaction with government service delivery. The idea was to discover what businesspeople thought about the information and services that were offered to start a business, and to gauge the reaction to the forms and processes that were considered necessary for governance. It also hoped to better understand the burden of regulation being imposed on the private sector.
The survey confirmed that business are far more consistently in contact with the state than individual citizens. The study concluded that service improvement strategies should focus largely around five themes: communication of information; minimizing burden; providing timely service; ensuring fair treatment; and achieving the desired outcome (when possible).
The study had an immediate impact on government services as they sought to improve their performance. A few years later, Taking Care of Business 2 (2007) sought to confirm the first results and recorded little improvement in service satisfaction. Taking Care of Business 3 (2010), however, showed a slight decline in satisfaction. Although the telephone was still the primary means by which businesses communicated with government, 51 percent of operators expressed a need for faster, more convenient service: they wanted more Internet.
The study, moreover, discovered that the majority of business respondents felt that they received a poor return on their tax dollar. Almost one-half (44%) of respondents felt that red tape had increased over the past three years, while a similar proportion (47%) felt that the regulatory burden had remained the same. Only 4% of businesses reported a decrease in overall regulatory burden.
Taking Care of Business 3 also discerned that Canadian businesses wanted more involvement in the decision-making processes of government. Less than one-quarter of businesses contacted agreed that they were sufficiently consulted about regulatory/bylaw changes; that they had received sufficient information about such changes; or were provided with adequate time to respond to proposed changes. Governments had a job to do!
Taking Care of Business 4, released in 2013, was funded by eleven agencies and reported on 4300 business responses. It reported that satisfaction among respondents was still declining, recording a slight decline in overall satisfaction. 64.1 percent of respondents were satisfied in 2010; 63.4 percent said so in 2013.
But what was remarkable was that for the first time, preference for the online channel exceeded that for the telephone. Over 75% of respondents indicated an interest in accessing all routine government services online. On the issue of red tape, the majority of businesses reported that the red tape burden has either increased (48%) or stayed the same (49%).
The latest Taking Care of Business, #5, is now out and its key features are highlighted by Mr. Michal Dziong in this month’s issue. It shows some good news, but more importantly demonstrates that work must continue on this file. The work of government-to-business relations (G2B) is vital for the prosperity of this country. It starts with attracting business, but it also means keeping it here, and that can only be done by providing all-around great service. Needless to say that if Canada is to grow its own businesses—and see them flourish on the world stage as exporters—all levels of government are going to have to do a better job of Taking Care of Business.