I’ve never told you about the day I worked for the Dark Side. It was back when I was editor of PROFIT (the current staff call that the Dark Ages), and I had to be in Ottawa for a meeting. Knowing I had free time in the afternoon, I’d made an appointment to meet the then-director of the federal Entrepreneurship and Small Business Office.
The place was in turmoil. Turns out it was the last possible day for the department to propose new programs for the next fiscal year. ESBO’s bureaucrats were working feverishly to finish their application for a bold new business-aid program.
The director and I made some small talk, comparing notes on Canadian entrepreneurship. Abruptly, he apologized and said he had to get back to work; the application had to be in by 5 p.m. Then he hesitated, and asked if I had a few minutes. Could I look over their proposal?
Sadly, I said yes. Journalists don’t usually get involved with people they’re covering, but since PROFIT had often criticized government policies, I figured I should learn how they come to be.
How fast I learned the truth of Bismarck’s remark: “To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.” The bureaucrats sat me at a table and showed me what they had so far: an all-encompassing plan to provide entrepreneurs with training, startup funding, a coast-to-coast network of consultants—everything but breakfast in bed. There was no clear statement of objectives, no research documenting why these programs would work, no calculation of benefits. You’d find more meat in a sausage patty than in that entire document.
Still, they asked for my ideas for any programs they might have missed. I offered a few suggestions, and was sickened to see they were taken seriously and written down. Ninety minutes before the deadline, they were still accepting any ideas they could find to strengthen their claim for more funding. One person even admitted they had no idea what would be approved, so they were putting in everything but the kitchen sink. When I noted the vagueness of some proposals, they asked how “we” could sharpen them up.
When I called the director a few weeks later, I wasn’t surprised to learn that his bosses had squelched the whole plan. We never heard much from ESBO again. (The office was later renamed and redirected to helping business owners connect to strategic sources of information; no more inventing programs just to keep busy.)
All this came to mind this past January, when Stephen Harper appointed Saskatchewan farmer Gerry Ritz as Secretary of State for small business and tourism. A self-described “pit bull,” Ritz has promised to make “lots of noise.” As he told one reporter, “There hasn’t been anybody with this distinct responsibility for over 20 years in a government roleÃ¢Ã¢¬Ã¦ We’re reinventing that file.”
Before he gets too excited, let me suggest a few things that Ottawa could do to help business owners that don’t require a lot of noise. Or money.
¢ Slash the paper burden. In December, Statistics Canada reported that SMEs in five industrial sectors spent $1.53 billion last year filling out forms, from income taxes filings to StatsCan surveys. Extrapolating, Canadian SMEs pay $4 billion just to meet government demands for data.
¢ Restore full deductibility of meal expenses. Business owners conduct a lot of work over lunch. Impose a cap to discourage abuse.
¢ Encourage strategic growth by creating incentives for staff training, investing in new technology or exhibiting at trade shows.
¢ Make it easier for illegal immigrants working in Canada to stay here. Frankly, we need the labour.
¢ Growth has many drawbacks that dissuade “solopreneurs” from taking the steps to becoming “real” companies. Offer incentives to hire their first employee, train an apprentice or groom an intern.
¢ Provide more tax credits for angel investors who take fliers on local businesses.
¢ Fund more research into small-business issues and best practices. And find more effective ways to get the news to business owners. Better access to information can be a huge advantage in the global economy.
¢ Overhaul Strategis. The feds’ business-information megasite is a treasure trove of data, intelligence and insight, but it’s hard to navigate and uglier than a pile of last year’s leaves. Make it colourful and fun. There’s no reason it should look like a government website.
¢ Promote the winning programs you have. Let more people know about Student Connections, the Canada Small Business Financing Program and other initiatives that work.
Before you write in, yes, I’m aware of the contradiction in railing against paperwork while calling for more tax incentives. Complexity is a part of life. Canadian business needs smarter, focussed help—not more sausages.
Rick Spence is a Toronto communications consultant, writer and producer of the Canadian Entrepreneur blog (http://canentrepreneur.blogspot.com). You can reach him at Rick.Spence@PROFIT.rogers.com.