Regulators behaving badly

By Peter Strong*

The Council of Small Business of Australia (COSBOA) is the country’s peak body exclusively representing the interests of small businesses, a vital sector of the economy.

Founded in 1979, we exist because small businesses don’t have the time, the resources and often the expertise that is required to be alert to the myriad of legislative and regulatory change that affects them on an ongoing basis.

Interaction with government is at the core of COSBOA does and we are now well and truly represented on government red tape busting forums and task forces.

The big one is the Council of Australian Governments, where we are on the business leaders forum that will meet with the Prime Minister and State Premiers in December to work out the best way to streamline regulations across the nation.

One main issue we have identified is that when it comes to dealing with government, it is often not the forms or even the process that is the problem (although there is plenty of that). It’s the attitude and understanding of the regulators that is the real issue.

That may sound tough, but look at it this way. When a policy is developed or a process or form created that’s not small-business-friendly, the real problem is that the people designing the policy, forms and processes either don’t care about the impact on a small business person or don’t understand that impact. Sometimes both.

We are addressing these issues with federal government agencies and they have been positive in their initial reactions. So now we need to see some results. But more and more, we hear that the biggest problems are to be found at the local government level. Regulators of local rules and regulations can be constructive, supportive and understanding of the best ways to communicate with the small business people in their community.

Or they can be arrogant and dismissive. We hear that the second type of local government regulator is more predominant than the first. That is it not good for the business community and that means it is not good for the whole community. Some examples include: the amount of time it takes to get a development approval which can cost a small business person a lot of money and even cause closure; the way regulators behave when they enter business premises; the length of time it takes to get an answer on a phone and the process needed to get licenses.

The best local governments have easy-to-use online processes. The worst have old fashioned forms and a need for the business person to take time out from their business and visit council offices, or worse yet several different offices. The best local governments have staff who are good at communicating needs and issues and are willing to offer advice on how to meet their regulatory needs while you are still maintaining a functioning business.

The worst local governments have staff who will walk into a business unannounced and state “I’m not here to listen I’m here to tell”.

Interestingly, an underpinning tenet of one of the main areas of regulation, safety, is good communications. The regulators of safety who cannot communicate fail themselves and their role. Communicate with empathy, clarity and professionalism and the chances of success will always be higher.

Communicate poorly and everyone is at risk. We have placed the issue of local government regulations and regulator behaviour on the COAG agenda and expect that sometime in the next twelve months we will have some “good and best practice” case studies completed. Then we can go out to the poorly performing local governments and tell them to get their act together for the benefit of their own community.

*Peter Strong is the Executive Director of the Councilof Small Business of Australia (COSBOA).

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