Red Tape

The idiom originated in Spain, during the reign of Emperor Charles V—ruler of an empire on which the sun never set.

Red tape was used to bind important official documents—it emphasized priority; the concept and color were taken up by governments across the world, and the expression is still used to describe any bureaucratic excess.

In Europe, the southern countries, including Italy, Greece, Spain, and Portugal are regarded as an administrative nightmare when compared to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, or Britain.

This reputation is well deserved. Decades ago, whenever I had to deal with any matter related to documents for jobs, houses, cars, or anything else, I used to pack a royal flush of materials before setting out.

It was a joy to pull out the most unexpected items from my briefcase—as in any proper game of poker, there would be some bluffing involved, and cards would be requested by the civil servant sitting opposite you—if you had enough aces, you might carry the day.

This is a high stakes game, where you can jeopardize a three-hour wait in a queue in a space of three minutes because you don’t hold a strong hand.

In China, India, the Mid-East, and South America, the situation is far worse. And then there’s Africa. Because policy guidelines are in many cases unclear, the process of acquiring something is often discretionary—money is an integral part of getting anything done.

Many years ago, I was told about a man who presented himself at the border station of Ressano Garcia, the gateway from Mozambique into Gauteng—formerly Transvaal—and was confronted by a border official, who fixed him with a steady gaze and demanded, “Documentos!

The man replied, “Está tudo aqui menos a certidão de óbito“—it’s all here except my death certificate— and handed over a sheaf of papers. After a protracted examination and much rubber-stamping, the official pushed the papers back over, glared at the man, and said, “Para a próxima não se esqueça“—next time don’t forget.

The Komatipoort border post, made famous through the escape of Winston Churchill from the Boers in the late XIXth century.

Although Komatipoort is a pain—I braved the crossing in 2003 and the memory lingers—there is far worse.

One major difference between the Anglo-Saxon nations, such as the US, Canada, and Britain, and their Latin counterparts, is the concept of an ID card. Those nations have always seen the card, and its associated fingerprinting, as symptomatic of a police state—why should a citizen need to be identified by the authorities unless he or she is convicted of a crime?

Of course, since nine-eleven, with the enormous progress in computational image processing, this has become a moot point—in fact, some fascinating work is underway on an e-nose, which combines AI, chemistry, and biology—soon a robot will sniff you out as readily as your dog does.

In the US, the lack of ID to track the general population has led to the use of driving licenses as a proxy police database—what the  cops really want are  photos of drivers, because automated image recognition of suspects at a crime scene will readily provide them with names and addresses.

Presently, according to a piece in the Washington Post, there are one hundred twenty million pictures in searchable photo databases—these are widely used by the police and can be accessed from a laptop inside a prowler.

This is tantamount to a national ID system, practically indistinguishable from the Spanish DNI or the Italian Carta di Identitá. The UK and Ireland don’t issue ID, but undoubtedly the authorities in those countries will follow the lead of their American cousins—by and large, faces are almost as good as fingerprints as an identification technique, and they’re a lot easier to capture on CCTV.

All this sounds very ‘Big Brother’, but in Southern European countries, the ID cards are now serving another purpose—in this case, a force for good.

It’s practically impossible to change civil service mentalities, which perpetuates the petty and punitive dictatorship that encumbers citizens at every turn, but the internet has arrived to save the day.

An ordinary credit card (or ID) reader costs about fifteen bucks and throws open the door to endless possibilities. With a simple PIN verification system, any citizen can deal with an increasing number of bureaucratic nightmares, turning them into a swift and gratifying experience—matters that took days to solve are done in minutes.

Presential verification of identity can now be replaced by a card reading, a PIN code, a digital signature… the drive to simplify administrative procedures means that documents that previously needed to be generated in parallel agencies, then handed in and filed, can now be directly retrieved through connected databases that work within government.

I first discovered this when I renewed my driving license a few months back. I was sitting in a public waiting room, watching numbers on a screen move at glacial speed, when I decided to fire up my laptop and look for alternatives. In minutes I’d dealt with the whole process online—I happily trashed my ticket and went on my way.

Since then, I’ve found more and more options—updating your address and other personal details, obtaining birth, death, or land registry certificates, getting court filings, buying and selling cars, booking an appointment at a health center, and of course all things related to tax. In Portugal, and no doubt elsewhere, the financial authorities were the first to launch an internet platform where such matters can be dealt with.

A few years ago, the platform was clunky and mercurial. Now, it’s slick and consistent. Whenever the language is convoluted and arcane, you know some red tape trapeze artist was behind the formulations—but at least there’s only one version, and once you learn the recipe, success is assured.

Gone are the Russian roulette days when each bureaucrat behind the counter  turned their own opinion into the law of the land—citizens often took multiple ticket numbers, and when they were unsuccessful with one civil servant, would try again when called to the adjoining booth, hoping for better luck.

In Portugal, the full list of services is available at the ePortugal website, and in Britain, the GOV.UK site appears to be the equivalent. However, whereas the Portuguese site is completely focused on doing, the UK one is much more oriented towards information. Nevertheless, I played around with their online passport app.

After a brave attempt to upload my passport photo, the image analysis software provided some disturbing feedback.

I got as far as the photo upload part, with a little help from my friendly (and unsuspecting) canine co-conspirator. I find the last comment perplexing—if I have a medical reason for not opening my eyes, then surely I can’t read the feedback.

And for the record, it was a perfectly good photo, although the hound looks mega-guilty after trashing her bed.

I tried to apply online for a Spanish DNI. The only page I found promises four steps, but unfortunately the first one is… go to an Oficina de Expedición. In all fairness, there’s a further site for obtaining a cita, or appointment, but it doesn’t look like an online renewal form to me.

I don’t honestly think it matters.

What does matter, as I write my last article before the new decade, is that technology is vanquishing bureaucracy. Governments are born copycats, and as soon as one gets it right, others will follow, sooner or later.

This will be driven by three factors.

The first is centralization of digital data—online administration will provide a wealth of consolidated information, and the hook for many people will be avoiding long queues and soul-destroying pettiness—all the forms will get filled.

The second is finance—many jobs will go, but in this case, I for one will rejoice. Of course, as soon as the right software model is in place, the IT companies can sell it far and wide—that’s where lobbying and ex-politicians come in.

The last one is votes. In any country where bureaucracy rules, a paradigm shift toward a simplified set of consistent procedures, in an environment that is calm and friendly—I hope that’s the definition of your home—will be popular with citizens and employers.

When a problem is solved, no one talks about it. Why talk about something that isn’t there? One hundred years ago, people talked about refrigerators. Where you put what, who manufactured it… Today, no one cares. Veggies in the bottom, ice on top, a bunch of other stuff in between.

I cherish the day when no one in Southern Europe talks about bureaucratic nightmares, because they don’t exist. And that day is coming.

Now there’s a resolution for the New Decade.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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