Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Doing biz with Washington State too tricky, audit says

by John Stang September 18th, 2012

Getting permits and licenses from Washington’s government is nowhere as simple as it could be, according to a recent Washington State performance audit. A longtime state government goal has been to allow people and businesses who must comply with regulations to go to central Web sites to get all the information they need to meet their legal obligations under the law. That goal is still a long way away. “Doing business in Washington today means sifting through a complex maze of state and local laws and regulations. At the state level alone, someone wanting to open a small convenience store, with a gas pump for example, would have to get regulatory approval from up to a dozen different agencies, in addition to approvals from local jurisdictions. … The challenge is especially difficult for small businesses, usually lacking the resources that enable larger companies to hire attorneys and other specialists to help them comply. When businesses fail to fully comply with regulations, they face fines and penalties,” the audit report said.

The report continued: “The states making the most progress in serving the the needs of businesses have developed one-stop portals to provide businesses the information and resources they need to comply with state regulations. … Legislators and governors have launched a series of efforts to meet business concerns including directives to streamline rules and create one-stop resources for licensing, regulatory assistance and business information. Despite all that has been done, Washington is still a long way from the one-step vision state leaders endorsed.”

That report recommended the state continue to pursue a “one-stop portal.” In the last session,the state Senate voted 48-0 to create such a one-stop portal by 2013, but the bill died in the Washington House.

Also, the report complained that different agencies’ Web sites are set up differently, so citizens have trouble navigating when they switch from one agency’s site to another. The report recommended installing a common Web site design across all agencies.

“The states making the most progress in serving the the needs of businesses have developed one-stop portals to provide businesses the information and resources they need to comply with state regulations. … Legislators and governors have launched a series of efforts to meet business concerns including directives to streamline rules and create one-stop resources for licensing, regulatory assistance and business information. Despite all that has been done, Washington is still a long way from the one-step vision state leaders endorsed.” That report recommended the state continue to pursue a “one-stop portal.” In the last session,the state Senate voted 48-0 to create such a one-stop portal by 2013, but the bill died in the Washington House

Nineteen agencies responded to the audit report in August – 16 in one joint letter. All made the same points. These included setting up a master portal system, along with a joint data processing system, would be expensive and the agencies do not have the money to do so at this time. “Such a project would take years to complete,” said the 16-agency letter that accompanied the audit report.

The letter also noted that two states – Colorado and South Carolina– have created supposed one-stop portals and 12 are trying. But even South Carolina and Colorado are not complete one-stop portal systems. “This illustrates the difficulty and complexity of creating such a portal,” the 16-agency letter said.

This reluctance is not new. The report cited a 2010 state audit of what is today the Washington Business Licensing Service. That 2010 report received feedback from several regulatory agencies about why they were reluctant to participate in one master system. These reasons included:


  • Agency leaders believing their licenses are too complex to be handled effectively in a master system.
  • Some agencies don’t accept credit and debit cards, which a master system would.
  • Concerns that a master system would not save time and money.
  • The current Business Licensing Service computer systems are out of date, and a new system is expected to be installed by 2014 or 2015. Also, money is limited for Web site development

  • Meanwhile, the auditor’s report concluded that regulatory information on all the state agencies’ Web sites, and that those agencies can better streamline their dealings with the public. This came after the auditor’s office looked at 26 state regulatory agencies and identified 1,377 permits, licenses and inspections handled by those agencies.

    The audit found that only 16 percent of the state’s business licenses – including only two of the 10 most requested types of licenses — are available on the state’s Business Licensing Services Web site. “We recommend all regulatory agencies provide complete and accurate information for all business licenses and permits on their Web sites,” the report said. That would include the purposes of the licenses and permits, what businesses need them, how to apply, all application fees and estimates of processing times.

    The 26 agencies are in various stages of streamlining their regulations with no agencies able to measure the effectiveness of their streamlining, the report said. The report recommended such measurements be installed – possibly patterned after similar programs in Great Britain and Canada.

    However, the 16-agency letter cautioned that streamlining should be done by individual agencies and not be a universal approach because each agency has different complex issues to deal with. “We do not believe that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to rule streamlining is in anyone’s best interest,” the response said.

    The state auditor’s office will report on the performance audit results for a yet-to-be-identified legislative committee sometime in the near future.

    RELATED:

  • Performance audit archive, Washington State Auditor’s Office.
  • Public Data Ferret’s Washington State+Management archive

  • Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News. Donate; subscribe (free)/volunteer.

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