What Do You Need To Do To Start a Business in The District of Columbia?

Talking to Lydia DePillis, Nicholas Majett, new head of DC’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (and since 2006 its deputy director for inspections and compliance) says it’s not necessarily clear:

Well, I see myself as a communicator. I’m still an attorney. And as a litigator, I’ve had to argue before judges and juries. And as deputy director for community service, I would attend hundreds of community meetings, a lot of which were on behalf of Director Argo. I think it’s just in how you approach people. What I found is that people just don’t know. And because the agency’s so complicated, you can’t just go to one person and get an answer. In most cases, I know the answer. But you can’t walk into DCRA and say ‘I want to start a business, what do I do?’ In fact, a lot of the time, you have to go to an attorney. So a lot of people get frustrated, thinking they’re going to come down here and one person’s going to be able to answer all of their questions.

Sometimes I get yelled at, but that didn’t bother me, it’s part of my job. I’m a civil servant. Some people don’t use that term anymore, but it used to be that what be called them. I work for the people. I have to treat them with respect, no matter what, and I have to try to calm them down.

As a recovering rage addict, I don’t approve of yelling at people, and certainly you shouldn’t yell at DCRA employees over things that are out of their control. But as a policy matter, it strikes me that you should, in fact, be able to walk into DCRA and say “I want to start a business, what do I do?” If the agency is “so complicated” that answering the question is beyond human comprehension, then perhaps it should be simplified. But if the issue is really that “you have to go to an attorney” then it sounds like it is, in fact, possible to get the rules explained by adequately trained personnel.

Whichever the case may be (or, as I suspect, a combination of the two), it seems to me that it would be in the city’s interest to make it possible for a would-be entrepreneur to walk into DCRA’s office and get an answer to the question. A city’s going to need some business regulation, but a city’s also going to need some people to start businesses. If there’s no way to do this without consulting a lawyer first, that’s convenient for local lawyers. It’s also convenient for big companies who can easily afford lawyers, and it’s also convenient for smaller-time but already-established players who can benefit from insider knowledge and who appreciate the protection from competition. But it’s not good for workers who might appreciate more employment opportunities, it’s not good for consumers who might like more options and it’s not good for the city’s tax base.