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Article Article September 24th, 2015

UNCTAD: how to keep things simple

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Government should make it easy for citizens and businesses to comply with laws and regulations

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Unfortunately, laws are sometimes written in a way that’s incomprehensible to most people

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UNCTAD provides practical tools for governments to simplify their administrative rules

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Sustainable development. Two words that unite policymakers around the planet. Two words that we'll be hearing a lot more in the weeks to come. Governments, civil society organisations and NGOs will shortly be gathering at the UN headquarters in New York to discuss and finalise the proposed ‘sustainable development goals'. It's a meeting that I and my colleagues at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) have long been anticipating.

Ours is the UN body responsible for dealing with development issues, particularly international trade - the main driver of development. It's a driver that has been rapidly evolving in recent years - globalisation, falling costs of transport and communications, and rising foreign direct investment have all contributed towards the emergence of new trade patterns.

For UNCTAD, which marked its 50th anniversary last year, these changes mean that we have to respond flexibly while staying true to our original purpose of helping achieve a better balance in the global economy. My role is focused on the technical assistance we now offer to developing countries and countries in transition, helping them to grow their economies and strengthen their position in our interconnected world economy.

First things first

Our credo is simple. We think that a government should make it easy for citizens and businesses to comply with laws and regulations. To be complied with, rules must be known and as clear and simple as possible. Unfortunately, that's not always the case.

It's important to remember that governments are highly complex organisations. They are composed of a large number of different ministries, departments and agencies, themselves divided into numerous branches, sections and offices. These multiple units rarely work in a coordinated way and, in practice, function in isolation or even compete against each other. As with any living organism, they are concerned to expand and perpetuate their own existence. They share a similar hunger for information but are reluctant to share it - they each prefer building and maintaining their own registers, forms and procedures.

Attempts to improve coordination and to revise structures into ‘single windows' or ‘one-stop shops' often fail to integrate the dispersed services. At best, those services keep functioning as before but under the same roof. At worst, the one-stop shop becomes ‘one more stop' and adds new forms, steps and requirements to the existing procedures.

Information technology, by allowing the instant sharing of information, could easily and quickly solve the problem. Information which is entered once by an applicant, through a unique online form, can be registered simultaneously in the databases of various administrative units. Registration numbers and certificates issued by each administration can, similarly, be sent electronically. No queues, minimum requirements, reduced delays, low processing costs. The required technologies and equipment exist and are affordable. There are no legal impediments to such systems being implemented. So, why is this not happening everywhere? It is happening, but slowly. The barriers are mainly mental and it will take time to remove them.

Regulating the rules

In a democracy, rules are supposed to stem from the political will expressed by the people through their representatives. Unfortunately, in practice laws and regulations tend to reflect the scattered organisation of public administration. They are drafted from the administration's point of view and are structured along its own internal distribution of roles.

In addition, laws are sometimes written in a way that's incomprehensible to most people and, in the worst cases, not understood at all. Their language can be obscure or inconsistent, with faulty grammar or punctuation. A misplaced comma can completely change the meaning of a sentence.

These laws are then interpreted by many people in many departments and translated into procedures. These interpretations can differ considerably from the text of the law, because not everyone will understand it in the same way. Traditionally, bureaucrats interpret laws in the most complicated way possible because they have been trained to associate complexity, such as multiple and repeated document checks, with security and thoroughness. They believe that simpler alternatives do not provide adequate control and are unreliable. As a result, the procedures often reflect neither the demands nor the spirit of the law and merely add unnecessary steps and complications. In reality, the question is not about more or fewer controls but rather it's about smarter controls - the best control is the control you don't feel.

Finally, different civil servants in different offices apply these procedures differently, so there are literally hundreds of disparate processes for the same procedure. This seriously hampers private economic activity, undermines public revenue and diverts resources that could be better used for sustainable development.

Time to detangle

To counter these trends, UNCTAD's Business Facilitation Program provides governments in developing countries with the practical tools they need in order to clarify and simplify their administrative rules and procedures, removing them as barriers to potential growth.

Firstly, our eRegulations system - an information portal that sets out clear administrative procedures - seeks to boost transparency and encourage an environment that allows the private sector to thrive. Since its launch in 2005, the eRegulations system has been used by countries and cities worldwide to deliver greater efficiency in the public service and improved governance.

Secondly, our eSimplifications tool sets out 10 key principles which governments can use to simplify existing procedures. These principles are easy to apply and can streamline each procedure by reducing the number of steps and requirements by up to 50%, without having to go to the trouble of changing the laws.

Our third tool, eRegistrations, enables governments to develop online ‘single windows' for areas such as company registrations, construction permits and export licences.

These three tools have all been adapted over the years and are now in use in nearly 30 countries around the world. They demonstrate that there is no need to change the laws to make a big difference. Just improving what already exists will lead to a better service - which is probably the most powerful tool for increasing domestic revenues.

In order to help governments realise that simple, clear procedures are within their reach, we've taken one procedure - business registration - and analysed it on a global scale. Over the past year we have helped to put links to all the business registration websites in the world in one location,, and ranked each business registration website for its user-friendliness. We hope governments will learn from their peers' websites on and be inspired to make not only their business registration websites but all their administrative processes more user-friendly. In doing so, they will broaden their tax bases and spur economic growth, generating more money to support sustainable development.

The business facilitation team at UNCTAD stands ready to help make administrative processes easy, everywhere.



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