COLUMN – Facilitating economic growth
This week, I want to touch on the issue of business facilitation and how it applies to ordinary folks like ourselves. Normally, this is seen more as an issue that relates primarily to entrepreneurs, firms and companies or investors in capital projects. Nothing could be further from the truth as all economic agents, especially individual consumers like us, should be able to conduct business as easily as possible.
One of the common misconceptions is that business facilitation is mainly the responsibility of governments to provide to the private sector. There is a huge element on the part of the private sector that can move the business facilitation agenda forward that does not require much input from government. Much of it involves banking services and how transactions are made in the economy. It also includes ordinary business owners fully utilizing the technology in order to conduct transactions. It really is not rocket science but some of it just requires the will to change.
Earlier this year, I was pulled over by the police, my vehicle was inspected and I was reported for not being in the possession of a valid tax disc. In short, I didn’t pay my road tax. There was nothing I could tell the officer that would have made much difference because I had in fact not paid it. It was nothing more than an oversight on my part so I was in contravention of some road traffic regulation. Needless to say, I proceeded about my business after which I went to the Barbados Revenue Authority (BRA) office in Oistins and promptly paid it.
I went to the District B Magistrates’ Court in Oistins this past Tuesday morning, pleaded guilty as charged and paid the fine. However, there are a few things I want to point out about the experience which was also stated by the Chief Magistrate Miss Pamela Beckles at the beginning of the proceedings. I’m taking some liberty in paraphrasing her here but she basically said that it’s about time politicians make offenses like those being heard on Tuesday, ticketed offences so that people don’t have to waste time coming to court.
It was somewhat refreshing to hear those words come from an officer of the Court because it is not often that you hear public servants utter words that, if implemented, would actually make life easier for the ordinary citizen. She was absolutely right in her assessment of the situation because it was a complete waste of time for her and the 28 persons who turned up that morning to answer the various traffic infractions.
The court session was called for 9:00am and I left Oistins at 10:55 a.m. exactly. For a self-employed consultant like me, two hours of non-billable time is an eternity and, to make matters worse, I had to turn around and shell out $150 out of the tax refund I received two weeks ago. For the other 27 persons who showed up, it meant either they were not paid for that time away from work or the cost was absorbed by the employer because no production took place by that employee. Either way, the loss of productivity, no matter how insignificant it might appear, magnifies itself by the number of persons it affects both directly and indirectly as well as the number of times events like these occur.
There was a clear absence of technology in the court. If indeed it was the case that we had to go to court, the Magistrate along with other court room officials should all have had digital access to all the information relating to the accused so that her assessment of the level of the fine would be commensurate with past infractions of the law. Then, to pay the fine, it took what appeared to be an inordinate amount of time for the guilty amongst us to actually pay the monies. Again, the lack of technology was evident.
So what are we going to do about things like these? I would like to propose that something along these lines be put in place in order to avoid a waste of scarce resources. For road tax related issues, the Government should institute a system where two weeks before one’s tax disc expires, you are emailed a reminder. This shouldn’t prove particularly difficult since most, if not all of us, file income taxes online with BRA and they have an email address already for us. On receipt of the email with accompanying tax reference, we should be able to proceed to any online banking system or to the BRA’s website and pay said road tax according to the tax reference.
If we’re confident enough, we could set up a direct debit from our bank or credit union account to allow the automatic transfer of funds to the BRA. We could do away with the issuance of new tax discs every year since it’s a waste of ink and paper anyhow. New one-time barcoded tax discs could be issued so that if we are stopped on the road, all the police or traffic inspector would have to do is scan the barcode to determine if we’re up to date.
This is made possible because of the application of technology to databases across departments to communicate. Further, there would be no need to disrupt traffic checking for tax discs and the resulting loss of productivity. The authorities would know which vehicles are not paid up and would do a more incisive search rather than inconveniencing road users.
Alternatively, to allow for a little ease in our pockets, the BRA could facilitate monthly payments of these fees using the banking system. This would involve a vigorous marketing and promotional campaign on the part of the BRA in order to sensitize citizens as to the benefits of such an approach. Paying monthly, in my mind, appeals directly to the budget conscious citizen who still desires to be tax compliant.
This approach could also be applied to the payment of land taxes, driver’s licences and the range of fees that Government collects. It makes sense to make it easier for citizens to pay rather than having to take time away from work to go to BRA offices to stand in line and hope that the lone cashier does not take a break when you get to the top of the queue.
If the Government really has a cash flow problem, then making it easier for the man in the street to pay should appeal to the powers that be. Make life easier by facilitating the average citizen and growth will soon return to the economy.
Ryan Straughn is a UWI Cave Hill and Central Bank of Barbados trained economist. Email: email@example.com