Opinionista Ivo Vegter 22 April 2013

Red-tape tourism

I heard a clever idea the other day. It has some warts, and needs some caveats, but it might just boost tourism, reduce bureaucratic burdens on citizens, and motivate civil servants, all at once: let suburbs and towns compete to become the “cut-red-tape” destination of choice for their provinces.

If you want an ID book, passport or a driver’s licence and you don’t like queuing, you have a few options. One is to employ a professional queuing service, which will handle much of the hassle for you.

I’ve been told the pro paperwork outfits are worth their fee, but they do come with some problems of their own. They tend to annoy other citizens who don’t have the luxury of paying extra, and present significant risks of official corruption to help queuing services jump the queue, or private corruption in the form of lost, copied, stolen or forged documents. Worse, you still have to be physically present for photographs, fingerprints and eye tests. The same goes for a vehicle in the case of roadworthy certificates.

If you prefer not to take those risks with your most important documents, or want to avoid the busier places altogether, there are not many better places to go than a small town or a lightly-populated suburb. So, why not go there?

The idea sprang from a report that the City of Cape Town issues frequently, which charts waiting times for driving and learner driver’s licences.

The waiting time in days varies tremendously. You could wait between eight and 101 days for a learner’s licence, between 25 and 91 days for a driver’s licence, between 66 and 144 days for a heavy vehicle licence, and between 26 and 127 days for a motorcycle licence.

You can get a learner’s and driver’s licence in just over a month, but not if you get both at the same place. Milnerton, Eastridge and Elsies River for example, all score well on learner’s licences, but for driver’s licences, you want to be at Brackenfell, Durbanville, Goodwood, Lingelethu West, New Ottery, or Somerset West.

The quickest combo – Elsies River and New Ottery – will get you a learner’s and driver’s in only 33 days. The worst – Joe Gqabi and Milnerton – have wait times of more than six months. The best single office is Eastridge, with Elsies River and Durbanville placing second and third, while the worst place to get both licences would be Joe Gqabi or Kuils River, where they’ll keep you waiting 159 and 143 days, respectively.

Each location will have its pros and cons, of course. The more elegantly dressed are unlikely to seek out a rough neighbourhood, even if the service is faster. But what if smaller, outlying towns entered into the fray?

Let them compete with each other for the best service at Home Affairs offices, licensing departments and similar bureaucratic facilities. As last week’s column shows, red tape is only going to get worse, so any valve to relieve some of the pressure must surely be welcome.

I have first-hand experience of excellent service at Home Affairs in George, and by all accounts, the Plettenberg Bay branch also doesn’t keep you waiting long. I’ve heard similar tales about many other small towns, as well as the more outlying offices in major cities.

By contrast, you frequently hear nightmare tales from the busier offices in urban centres, where someone who has lost an ID and driver’s licence has to stand in several multiple-hour queues just to get their documents replaced.

Why not take a break? Do it in a nice touristy town, where the service is good, the views are scenic and the weather is mild?

Towns that are good at providing services to citizens, as measured by the sort of system Cape Town has for licences, can use it to attract… well, shall we call them red-tape tourists?

Once the idea of seeking the best towns in which to obtain decent bureaucratic service has been established, we might even find that some places begin to specialise. Much like agriculture and mining resources are centred in particular towns, some places can become known as motor licence central, while another becomes the company registration capital of its province, or the entire country.

All of them will place competitive pressure not only on each other to improve, but will receive impetus and assistance from local businesses and municipalities, who have every incentive to place well in the red-tape tourism rankings.

Of course, there will be some objections. The most obvious is that in competing for tourism business, towns might let standards at their civil service offices slip, so as not to disappoint visitors. Arguably, there’s an equally strong motive to make it harder for them, so they’ll come back, so whether this hypothetical has any merit is debatable. A more plausible argument is that it may encourage corruption in order to boost performance metrics like waiting times, failure rates and queue lengths.

This objection is quite simply handled: the integrity of these services ought to already be monitored, ideally by outside parties without vested interests. Don’t think citizens – and especially service providers such as driving schools and professional queuing services – do not already know exactly how corruptible officials are, and do not already use this knowledge in their choice of service centre.

Another problem is that visitors will use resources that ought to be spent on local residents. This is half-true, although one might argue that local residents have no right to better service than one can get in the worst parts of Johannesburg, Durban or Cape Town. Still, local government for local citizens has some merit, even if it is mostly motivated by prejudice. A simple solution would be to levy an out-of-towner surcharge of, say, 50% on the usual administrative fee.

On the upside, it neatly counters an objection against professional queuing services, namely that the rich get to benefit from bypassing the queues, while the poor get to queue. This complaint, of course, has little economic merit beyond emotive appeal. True, the cost of a poor person’s time is lost to the economy, much like the overhead of a rich person hiring someone else to queue. However, the relative cost of people’s time makes it perfectly legitimate to pay someone whose most expensive skill is queuing. However, if you don’t like this argument, you should welcome attempts to shift some of the pressure from the busier centres to places only the lucky few can afford to travel to, since it makes the remaining queues shorter and thus directly benefits even the poor who have no alternative.

Someone once said that if you seek a smaller government as a matter of principle, it makes no sense to complain that government is inefficient. You should desire an inefficient government, since it can do less harm than an efficient oppressor.

That view is smugly clever, but there are places I don’t really want to go for academic principles, and a three-hour Home Affairs queue is one of them. I quite like the idea of bringing some competition into the market for government services. And that’s why I like the notion of letting not only civil service centres, but entire suburbs and towns, compete for the business of “red-tape tourists”.

Now all we need is for someone to run with the idea. It wouldn’t do to point fingers, but I’m sure there are a few towns that pride themselves on being well-governed – better run than everyone else, in fact. They should love the opportunity to prove it. DM


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