Attempts by city council administration to streamline its complex permits system has led to no small amount of soul searching and some oblique new buzzwords.
Adelaide city council recently topped the list for its contribution to enlightened perspectives in local government. There’s been a backroom root-and-branch review of its permits system. Curiously, however, its media strategists chose not to make a feature of it. Perhaps that was because it came in the form of a confession, and the strategists don’t like being Frank, if alternatively there’s an opportunity to be Earnest and at the same time ice the cake with some sweet spin to make the confectionery even more tempting to ‘the city customer’.
The council confession emerged in one simple sentence. “In order to get a permit, our customers have to navigate eight council policies, 15 operating guidelines, ten permit categories and 128 permit fees and charges.” Unfortunately for the city business community whose members might have benefited from such revelation, it was buried deep within a city council committee agenda paper on 21 May 2019, under the vague title of “Permit Review Workshop”. What might have been the source of one of those zany, front-page stories contrasting the usual crime and slime agenda, instead got lost in the dull, fluorescent hum of the council’s archives.
It appears that city bureaucrats have had an epiphany. After what has been the longest sleep, they’ve packaged a dream that emerged from that snooze under the descriptor “Customer Experience Journey”. Most city customers have no idea that they’re on a journey, apart from trying to get to and from work by car, train, bus or bike, daily. They just want to buy their morning coffee, fire up their computers, and run their businesses with a minimum of fuss and cost to survive another Business Activity Statement quarter. Basic survival is one of the great challenges of South Australian small business life, trading under the clammy administrative hands of three levels of government, each of which demands compliance with unfathomable laws, regulations and procedures, a gluey ooze bogging down profitable activity. But at the city council, the administrators recently determined to take four steps: “Simplify the policy framework”, “Reduce permit types and complexity”, “Simplify the fee model”, and deliver “Proactive customer relationship management”. That latter idea doesn’t have to kick in until Christmas 2019, so there’s plenty of time to have that one translated into plain English and work out what it means.
War on red tape
Perhaps unfortunately, the city’s permits system pulls in significant fee money. In 2017–18, for example, 7095 city permit applications (approved) brought in $2.6 million. Budget bean counters are comforted by the cash flow, but it’s not revealed how much the council spends paying the costs of maintaining the system (admin salaries/IT, constant upgrades to data systems, etc). Buried in the paperwork there’s a hint that the permit charge palaver has morphed into a monster. More confession emerges.
“Over time, new policies and guidelines have been developed to respond to new requests and trends (such as mobile food vending). With each new activity, the fees and guidelines have been developed without a consistent set of core principles.
“This reactive approach of regulating temporary activities has led to an unnecessary level of red tape for our customers and an administrative burden.”
As a result of administrative scrutiny of that thing called the “Customer Experience Journey”, another council confession emerged. It has dawned on administrators that the 128 individual fee types that have evolved have created a fee structure that is “confusing for customers and difficult to govern administratively and financially”. In other words, it’s turned into a system virus whose DNA is increasingly mutating and prompts staff to tear out their hair when trying to work out how much to invoice for some activities.
Four complicated criteria
Permit charges are based on at least four criteria. They include the physical space occupied (city works, street activities, outdoor dining, objects on footpath); the activity itself; the duration (per day/week/ month/year); and the applicant type (charity/small business/large business). Those criteria have become increasingly difficult to manage. “Inconsistencies are also present where similar activities are charged the same way, but with a different value,” confesses the council. This can give rise to curious outcomes. For example, busking, which is one of the few activities that attracts no charge, could encourage vocalists to sing loud and hectoring religious messages, but preaching (another category) similar biblical messages attracts a charge of $2.20 per day, or $22 per month. Erecting a ladder on a city footpath (a minor and temporary impediment to pedestrians) has a base rate charge of $164 per annum, but erecting daily trestle tables or clothing racks (which can significantly block footpath flow) attracts a charge of only $140 per annum. A badge day money collection for a registered charity costs $23 per day, but if it’s not registered, or a not-for-profit group, costs $6 more. Go figure.
The workshop concluded with what can be best described as one of those existential moments, where city councillors were asked four questions. “Why do we charge fees? Who should be charged fees? When should we charge fees?” And finally: “On what basis should we charge fees?” Food for thought. Some might say it’s a bit late for a 179-year-old corporation with a $200 million budget to start challenging its administrative soul. But then again, the moment could have the potential to trigger an Adelaide commercial revolution, with a proposal that most of the charges be axed. Simple as that. Keep the permits and guidelines to monitor abuses, but dump most of those 128 pesky fees. It would be a shot in the arm for city businesses. But has the management of the City of Caution got the bottle?
Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies