Open Data Will Solve the Regulatory Riddle

Governments are the original big data entities. Our governments have long gathered data and compiled statistics on individuals and populations. The value proposition of a government’s use of data is the ability to transform information into an outcome that benefits the public good. Making good public policy stems from the ability to collect and analyze data and information, then execute changes based on those observations. Much of the promise for future generations will emerge from the trend of open data, which has taken place across the globe. 

The most exciting transformations on this front in the U.S. are happening on the state and local level. The Sunlight Foundation’s Open Data Policy initiative has logged the efforts of 36 government bodies on the state, county, and city level that have passed open data legislation. A few states and cities have been the leaders in data-driven initiatives and program administration. Maryland set the bar for states with its StateStat program launched in 2007 by Governor Martin O’Malley and its open data program. New York City has refined and enhanced a comprehensive city-management program built on data and analytics for key performance indicators across the city. Above all, open data is leading the way for more effective and efficient government. 

Cities can use open data to improve performance on local regulation. Our recent report—Enterprising Cities: Regulatory Climate Index 2014—measures the regulatory environments for small businesses across 10 U.S. cities in 5 areas of doing business. Our project documents the advances and improvements on the local level that these cities have taken. City governments in Chicago, New York City, and Boston have made proactive changes to make data more available. These changes have led to improvements in the issuance of permits and licenses for entrepreneurs and small businesses. 

Our research just scratches the surface to the true potential of open data in transforming public administration. State and municipal governments now have the technology and data to improve the ability of businesses to receive licenses, accelerate the zoning and permitting process for construction firms, and expedite city inspections for restaurants and buildings. These transformations can reduce or eliminate unnecessary waiting time and cut administrative fees. The tools are available. It's just a matter of putting them to work to improve the regulatory environment on the state and local level.

New Report: Enterprising Cities -- Regulatory Climate Index 2014

Cities are the engines of economic growth and prosperity in the United States. Our urban economies thrive on innovation, expansion of small businesses, and entrepreneurship. Our economic achievement is inherently tied to a legal infrastructure and regulatory environment that is sensible for entrepreneurs and small businesses. ndp | analytics and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation are proud to release the Enterprising Cities: Regulatory Climate Index 2014 (the Index), which compares and ranks the efficiency of local regulations applying to small businesses in ten cities across the United States. 

The Index measures three components (number of procedures, time, and costs) that are required to comply with five areas of business regulation in each city. The Index assesses the areas of starting a business, dealing with construction permits, registering property, paying taxes, and enforcing contracts. The results act as a barometer for the overall business environment and point to areas where reform is necessary for competitiveness. 

The main results of the study are:

Among the 10 cities in the 2014 Index, the most efficient cities across all 5 areas of business regulation are Dallas and St. Louis. The cities of Raleigh, Boston, Atlanta, and Detroit have moderate levels of regulatory efficiency. Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City have the least efficient regulatory environments.

There are sizable variations in the design, practice, and costs to fulfill basic regulatory requirements for small businesses. Geographical and historical influences seem to account for much of this variance. The basic regulatory steps for opening and operating a business remain relatively similar across the cities measured. In recent years, these places have begun to adopt smarter business regulations and to streamline bureaucracies; however, the scope for improving their business environments remains significant.

Each city evaluated has its own clear strengths and weaknesses. For example, Los Angeles and San Francisco have the best practices for opening a business, yet both cities have the highest requirements and costs to obtain construction permits. St. Louis has the best practice for the registration of properties but scores below average in enforcing contracts. Chicago ranks highly for enforcing contracts while ranking lower for starting a business. 

All cities provide small businesses with information and materials to comply with their regulations. Yet the websites and publications are often disorganized, missing information, or unclear to third parties. Few cities provide detailed information on the procedures, expected waiting time, and administrative costs for construction permits. Overall, no city provides comprehensive information. 

At a time when America’s entrepreneurial dynamism is in decline, the costs of housing in our cities is soaring, and governments are challenging the existence of transformative companies, this project is more important than ever. The ease of doing business in America’s cities will help determine the future of America’s economic growth. The success of these places depends on improving existing regulatory processes, simplifying application and compliance with local laws, and trimming the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs.

Tesla, Local Regulations, and the New Normal for Innovators

Tesla’s latest spat on its direct-sales model with the state of New Jersey is dumb, but it’s nothing new for the company or other rising start-ups. The case is another piece in a growing trend of local regulations stifling innovative companies. As the sharing economy has grown and technological innovation has made electric cars affordable and reliable, local governments and regulators have found ways to impede their ability to reach consumers. Some research has discounted the impact of local regulations on start-up companies and entrepreneurs, while others have highlighted significant regulatory burdens facing small businesses.

You cannot discount the real world examples of cases where state and local governments issued regulations that impair business operations of growing companies. There are Uber’s feuds with city governments and taxicab monopolists in Chicago, DC, Denver, Miami, Nashville, and San Francisco. Airbnb is facing its share of problems in New York City. California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education is leading a crack down on ‘learn to code’ bootcamps. Let’s not forget the culinary innovators in local food truck scenes that are constantly hopping over regulatory hurdles.

In the case of Tesla, auto dealers are worried that this case will set a strong precedent for automakers circumventing dealers to directly sell to consumers. This despite the fact that buying a car is one of the least enjoyable consumer experiences. Tesla has faced similar issues in Arizona, North Carolina, Texas, and other states. In fact, Cornell University’s Journal of Law and Public Policy notes, “the franchise laws of at least 48 states ban or limit Tesla sales—get this—to prevent unfair competition. Franchise laws require automakers to sell their cars exclusively through dealership networks.” There will be plenty of more battles down the line. Overall, these restrictions will hurt Tesla’s long-term viability to offer an automobile that will be more affordable in the coming years due to economies of scale and product innovation.

The surprising nature of these regulatory battles is that the come at a time when state and local governments are devoting significant energy and resources to streamline regulations and promote technological advancements to aid the local permitting process. What’s even more startling is that nearly every major city is supporting entrepreneurial incubators and vying to attract important venture capital funding to foster vibrant start-up environments. Yet local governments are doing all they can to limit the ability of start-up companies to grow and provide citizens with access to new services. Isn’t that a pity?

More Research About Cities and Economic Growth

The influential economist Alfred Marshall described urban economies and entrepreneurship as working in unison through parallel movements between localization and growth of the capitalist “undertakers”, or entrepreneurs.  Community is a form of currency in the global marketplace and cities matter more than ever. The most recent report from the Kauffman Foundation—authored by Yasuyuki Motoyama, Ph.D. and Jordan Bell-Masterson—measures the rate of business creation in 356 metropolitan areas across the United States. Using three sets of data for metro areas including the startup rate for all industries, high-tech sectors, and high-growth firms, the report assesses the regional factors are associated or unassociated with entrepreneurship. Specifically, the authors seek to understand what drives entrepreneurship at the regional level in high-growth sectors. 

The authors find that population size and the rate of population growth within a metro area are the two most important factors in determining start-up rates. Simply put, cities have a more diverse set of sectors and bringing in a greater number of businesses and startup opportunities. Of course, this is firmly supported in the literature on urban economies through studies on agglomeration in cities (i.e., firms benefit when locating near one another). For example, an important study comparing New York City and Pittsburgh, Benjamin Chinitz (1961) found the measure of inputs, such as independent suppliers and capital, have linked to a stronger “suppler schedule of entrepreneurship.” In short, New York City was a better place for starting and operating a business due to its size, diversity, and network of suppliers.

The most interesting finding from the report, and contrary to multiple previous studies, the authors find few significant factors for the public sector to influence entrepreneurship. The presence of government- and university-funded research and patents has no correlation to startup rates, even within high-tech sectors. The one public sector factor that is associated with higher startup rates is education, namely high school and college completion. However, the authors note that their previous findings have shown 52.6 percent of entrepreneurs having less higher education than a college degree, and thus an exclusive focus on college education and completion suggests a linear relationship between education and entrepreneurship is not likely to be true.

The authors conclude by noting the presence of high-tech sectors leads to higher rates of high-tech startups, but not for all kinds of new firm. While the authors’ research shows that higher start-up rates for high-tech sectors does not necessarily induce greater overall rates of entrepreneurship, their conclusion comes with the recommendation that policymakers shouldn’t promote high-tech companies. This is an odd recommendation, especially when comparing the results of this research to the Milken Institute's annual Best Performing Cities report. The most recent iteration finds that cities known for their technology hubs take more than half of the top-25 best performing cities. In addition, technology growth propelled a number of other metros to improve their rankings compared to the previous year. Talk to the mayor of a major U.S. city and ask what they want: it’s high-growth companies and job creation.

Larger cities are able to support a more diverse set of start-ups across all sectors. However, drawing upon the authors’ conclusions about high-tech start-ups, further study should examine what factors lead to greater start-ups in different sectors and industries. These findings go against research that shows government- and university-funded research and patents are correlated with greater innovation more generally in industries such as pharmaceuticals.

Start-up companies and small businesses look to cities to start their businesses because access to the market is more immediate and demand is greater. Cities are best suited in attracting the diverse skills, abilities, materials, and processes that are required for the birth and growth of entrepreneurial small firms. Growth, new business formation, and free enterprise will do more for a city’s economy than any economic development policy can induce on its own.