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DG Researchers Aid Small Businesses
Rutgers team sets up one-stop Web interface to help entrepreneurs navigate government processes
For the DGRC

Streamlining New Business

  Nabil Adam
  Vijay Atluri

Project profile:
  Digital Government: E-Government: Human-Centered Systems for Business Services
  Project home page

It may well be that "red tape" is as old as the republic. Perhaps colonial silversmiths and wheelwrights had to have triplicate wax seals before their businesses could open.

It sometimes seems that way to frustrated business applicants as they wait on endless lines for piles of forms. But government officials are far more sympathetic to their plight than it might seem - for they are very much aware that too much red tape can discourage economic growth.

In order to streamline the application/regulation process, the state of New Jersey has been working with Digital Government researchers at Rutgers University's CIMIC (Center for Information Management, Integration and Connectivity) to create a one-stop-shop Web interface for small businesses seeking to open in New Jersey.

The project, called "MyNJBusiness" is still in the prototype phase, but an online demo offers a look at a digital future that should make government processes much easier on small business owners.

"Big businesses can hire consultants," says Project PI Nabil Adam of Rutgers University. "But small business owners would like to sit at their computers and figure out where to establish a business, what steps are involved, what permits are required, and from which government agencies."

"Where to establish" is vitally important, since - to quote the old real estate cliché - it's about location, location, location, when you're thinking of starting a business. To help small business owners with that crucial decision, Adam and his fellow researchers have created an interactive map of the state. Divided into regions, the maps incorporate GIS data, regulatory information and various other datasets. "It includes transportation infrastructure, competitors, workforce - all kinds of information about that specific site that could help me make my decision," says Adam.

When finished, the project will allow a would-be business operator to call up a map of the area he or she is interested in locating. The data is layered - clicking on a menu changes what kinds of information shows up on the map - whether it's business zoning, for example, or population demographics.

Most importantly, for business owners, once they have determined that there are no nearby competitors or that there is a well-trained workforce within commuting distance, there is the question of regulation: can their type of business even locate where they wish? Could there be fewer restrictions or taxes in one area than another? And, finally, once a decision has been made based on all of those factors, where does a business go to get all the necessary permits?

Adam's team, along with researchers from Columbia University, are working on automating that most difficult of challenges by making all of the necessary government regulations extract automatically from the documents with the click of a button. Some of the work is so complicated, admits Adam's colleague and co-PI Vijay Atluri, it may take a decade or more before it is all automated. "For now, we are manually entering many of the business rules," she says.

But the goal is to have a system that refines what can be seen in the demo: A business owner uses the interactive map to decide where to locate, then on a side menu, finds his or her category (say "auto body shop"), clicks - and is sent the PDF profiles of all the involved agencies from Internal Revenue to the EPA, which would have filled them out and posted them. Thus, if the hopes of the project are realized, customized workflow software will handle everything that once took days of waiting in line.

The team has just applied for an extension grant, so it may be several years before the project is fully in place. But in the meantime, the researchers are also working with colleagues in Italy to see what aspects of the project could be extended to the European Union, since New Jersey, with its small geographic size and high population density, makes a compatible test-bed for European systems.

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"We're very excited by it," says Adam. Quoting from his proposal he adds, "there may be a tremendous learning opportunity in exchanging experience and knowledge from different contexts, in which similar problems are addressed with different strategies, achieve different results, and are translated into different policy languages."

In addition, in this second phase, they hope to include a "One-stop Vendor Registration Service," so that small businesses can register online to offer their services to state agencies on a bidder's list - as well as apply for contractor classification - and comply with other regulations, all at one Web site.

Most significantly, their work will play a major role in the state's move toward completely electronic income and business tax filing.

Richard T. Stewart, Treasury Technology Officer at the New Jersey Department of the Treasury, explains his department's interest in the project: "An important initiative is to go paperless in many of the processes that are used in the collection of taxes and in business filings. One of our first joint efforts will be to address evaluating and reengineering of the Revenue Management process. Following this, it is our objective to explore the consolidating and streamlining of interrelated business and revenue recording processes."

For the small business entrepreneur, this will eventually come to mean less time wasted in line, and more time, efficiently, online.