Policy Today, Common Ground edition: Rep. Norma Smith on reforming state regulations

Today we're joined by 10th District state Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, who along with the State Auditor's Office has spearheaded a number of successful bills to make state agencies more efficient and customer-friendly in the way they regulate and issue permits to business owners and startups.

Rep. Norma Smith, R-10Rep. Smith hopes to reach a point where Washington can have a one-stop portal for people to get information on all the permits they need to open, expand, or continue their business. First, however, there have been and continue to be preliminary steps needed to make state government more customer-friendly. One of her bills, for example, dealt with online availability of license and permit applications. Notes Rep. Smith:

"Even though we had an entire agency dedicated to helping [business owners] know what licenses were out there, we found out only 16 percent of Washington state's licenses were on the BLS [Business Licensing Service] website, and only two of the most 10 requested. So we had to run a bill that told the agencies to do that."

Another of Rep. Smith's bills established some basic rules for efficiency and customer service:

"All of the agencies must load their permits on their websites, as well as [an example of] what a good completed permit looks like, and where to go to get help, and beginning in 2015, date-stamp every permit coming in so that we can begin creating some metrics around their performance: When did it come in, when did the customer get a yay or nay that it was ready for processing, and when did they get an answer? In 2016, those metrics are going to have to go online for public scrutiny."

In talking with manufacturers in particular around the state, Rep. Smith has heard stories of confusing, contradictory information coming from state agencies:

"They will have a green light from one agency, and then run into a red light on the same issue from another."

Rep. Smith said other states have accomplished a one-stop approach:

"You're a business, you come to the state [government], they give you a checklist. You finish this checklist and do it properly, and you can be assured that that permit's going to be waiting for you at the other end."

She says one of the biggest impediments to change is

"bureaucratic cultures - things have been done [a certain way] for so long, so how do you break through those molds?...That mindset - making that change within the culture - is enormously important."

However, as she continues to work with state agencies she's finding more willingness to change:

"In the beginning I faced a lot of resistance from a number of people in the agencies, who couldn't see how we could do it better. Because I think the mindset...was, 'well, does this mean a degrading of our standards?' The answer is 'no.' It means being able to achieve them more quickly, more efficiently, in a more cost-effective way, with a benefit to our customers of more certainty and reduced cost."

On the whole, Rep. Smith believes "we've got a long way to go" but is encouraged by the beginnings of a "sea change" she's seeing in state agencies. For more information on regulatory reform in our recent Special Report, click here.

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