The burden of complexity

In my last blog I suggested that our new government could do a lot better than the previous one when it came to communicating with the public through forms and letters. Since then it has become clear that our new government is intent, like its predecessor, on cutting public service spending, and with the cuts go any hope that the government might improve its communication with the public.

One of the consistent and unchanging features of government administration is the complexity of the laws that govern that administration. Less money spent on government is not matched by fewer laws or laws that are simpler to administer. The burden of complexity remains unchanged.

Spending less money directly on government means that, once again, the administrative burden of government passes from the state to the citizen, resulting in a massive increase in the non-productive labour of compliance that we pay for out of our own pockets. I have commented on this before (too many times!), but for the benefit of newcomers, and those who want to be reminded, this is how it happens.

The public is obliged to comply with government laws and regulations, which are often extremely complex and difficult to follow. The government in turn is there to help the public by reducing these difficulties as far as possible. Research has shown that this can be done by using good information design to manage the complexity of legislation and regulations internally.

Conversely, poor information design, or no information design (the norm in the public service) externalises the complexity and the costs. When faced with cost cutting, bureaucrats produce information on the cheap which is difficult for everyone to use. Each person using government information has to deal with the complexity, and individually bear the costs of doing so.

In the end, this exercise in cost-cutting defeats its purpose. There is a multiplier effect. Spend $1 on good information design, save the public $100 in unproductive labour costs attempting to comply with the law. Conversely, spend less on good information design, and massively increase the amount of unproductive labour that each citizen has to pay to deal with complex legislation and regulation; and, moreover, increase the amount the government has to pay in repairing the mistakes due to public incomprehension.

Of course, if cost cutting was matched by a reduction in laws, or a simplification of laws, then the public burden would not increase. But such a proposal would only be taken on by the Pig Flying Department. No, the reality is grim: our public service will do less, and each one of us will do more.