The View

Bureaucratic meddling the bane of business world over

While adequate industry regulation is desirable, unnecessary meddling by bureaucrats will undermine business without real benefits to the public

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2014, 9:44am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 August, 2014, 4:55am

Show me a businessperson who likes bureaucrats, and I will conclusively prove that Elvis is alive and living on the moon.

In practically every business everywhere, there is a battle between the people who make things happen and those who throw up obstacles. Sometimes the battle is full on while at other times it looks more like a weary siege.

Over in France, the bureaucrats, who are notoriously hardened regulation warriors, have recently lifted the battle stakes by imposing new rules on restaurants with a fait maison, or homemade, food law, supposedly designed to promote fresh food.

Restaurants will have to tell customers whether they make dishes from scratch, if a dish contains any element of pre-prepared content or if it has been modified, say, by marination; if so, the dish cannot be designated as homemade. However, it is not simple because, for example, vegetables, except potatoes, will qualify if they are cooked from frozen, or pre-cut. Go figure.

My oh my, the bureaucrats that dreamed up this law must be salivating as they contemplate happy days of increased paper pushing and look forward to the employment of even more officials busying themselves to ensure compliance.

Here is a perfect example of how bureaucracy conspires to undermine business. As ever, the plot to complicate began with good intentions. In this case, the aim was to preserve and enhance the reputation of French cuisine and promote food makers who shun mass production.

The fact that the law is balmy and contains so many loopholes and differing methods of interpretation will probably end up giving lawyers more business but almost certainly will be of minimal help to the people who both make and eat the food.

It confirms my general impression that bureaucrats should never be allowed anywhere near a business without the accompaniment of a responsible adult. By this I mean someone who really knows about the business, preferably on the basis of hands-on experience.

Hong Kong's bloated bureaucracy often busies itself with new regulations for business and is aided and abetted by an impressive phalanx of advisory committees that supposedly draw on the experience and expertise of people working in the industries to be regulated.

On closer examination, many of these experts turn out to be academics, trade organisation bureaucrats and the usual ragbag of political appointees who love sitting on committees and are rewarded for their loyalty by the status of becoming "advisers".

Real businesspeople tend to keep away from these gatherings, not least because they have not got the time to sit through prolonged meetings.

None of this is to say that business should not be regulated. Indeed, just one glance at the appalling workplace standards on the mainland suggests that safety regulations need to be strengthened or, at the very least, implementation needs to be made more effective.

As ever, the question revolves around the fraught issue of where to draw the line. I have never met a responsible businessperson who objects to sensible safeguards that protect employees, customers and the public.

However, drawing on my experience in the food industry in Hong Kong, I wonder, for example, what exactly is the point of having to obtain a whole raft of separate licences for serving products such as ice cream, which decades ago were made safe by the miracle of refrigeration. And then there is the question of why a mighty bureaucracy responsible for granting restaurant licences is accompanied by an entirely separate bureaucracy for granting liquor licences.

Everyone who runs a business can furnish examples of meaningless bureaucracy and provide amusing (or damaging) examples of the unintended consequences of bureaucratic meddling. Let me cite one of the most farcical examples that regularly blight people in my industry.

The bureaucrats who run the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department are obsessive about demarcation lines between service and preparation areas in restaurants. The reality is there are points of overlap, but reality is not something that bothers the men with the clipboards, so licence compliance inspections compel restaurants to waste hours on end moving about pieces of equipment to remain in compliance. The inspectors know full well that this is done, but as long as they do not actually see anything being moved, there tends to be no problem.

This regulatory regime could easily be changed, but the people who run it are mainly concerned about covering their backsides. Formulating a realistic regime comes way down on their list of priorities. No one can explain how this farce adds to food safety.

So, how is it possible to achieve a satisfactory compromise between adequate business regulation and unnecessary bureaucratic meddling? I wish I could furnish some neat little answer, but there is none unless an unexpected outbreak of commonsense erupts.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster