Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Red tape and travel

To Kraków, to speak at yet another conference about PPP. I'm being paid by the organiser, by way of EU funds, so to reclaim my travel costs there and back, I need to present not just a ticket, but a VAT receipt (faktura VAT). Now, when queuing for a railway ticket, there's nothing more annoying when you're in a hurry to catch your train, to find the guy in front of you asking for a faktura VAT to go with his ticket. You know it will take an age.

So thinking of my fellow travellers behind me in the queue, I chose to buy my tickets from the main booking hall at Dworzeć Centralny (a.k.a. W-wa Centralna, or, as the English voice-over man on Warsaw buses and trams helpfully says, 'Shentroo wailway shtayshen'). Here, rather than a single queue as there are to the ticket windows in the underground passages beneath Centralna, there are two queues each serving six windows. The system is efficient and quick. The 16-person ahead of me evaporates in just eight minutes, with five of the six windows open.

It's my turn, I step forward. A sign at the window asks me to a) inform the ticket clerk if I wish to pay by credit card and b) inform the ticket clerk that I require a faktura VAT before ordering my ticket. Nice and clear. So now I make my request. "Ticket to Kraków Główny, InterCity, second class, departing Warsaw today at 16:30; return from Kraków to Warsaw, TLK, tomorrow at 20:04." And, of course, my faktura VAT. I cast an anxious eye around me, but the other four windows are functioning fine, no one can accuse me of being a zawalidroga (lit. road-blocker).

The lady behind the window is quick and efficient. Using an eraser-tipped pencil, she taps in the details of the conference organiser (company name, address, tax number) onto her computer screen.

And now, the fun starts. I have ordered four pieces of paper – my ticket there, a seat reservation, my return ticket and another seat reservation. Each one of these four pieces of paper requires THREE copies of the faktura VAT. One for my purposes (which I'll pass on to the conference organiser), one for the railway, and one for the tax-man. So that's 16 pieces of paper to print – from an ink-jet printer.

In my mind's ear, I can still here its eternal 'drrrrrrrrrrrr-drrrrrrr-drrrrrrr-drrrrrrrr-drrrr-drrrrr' as twelve individual faktury VAT are being printed. The ticket lady piles up the papers – these for me, these for her, these for the tax-man. Finally, she hands my tickets and faktury VAT, files away the others – I look at the clock – a nine whole minutes have elapsed since I stepped up to the window. Nine minutes of her time, nine minutes of my time. Is there no better way?

I look over the paperwork in my hand. Of the eight bits of paper I get (two tickets, two reservations, four faktury VAT), one is for the reservation of my seat for the TLK train back to Warsaw. It is to document 37 groszes' worth of taxation (seven pence), for a service for which I'm charged five zlotys (just under one pound). Seven pence, documented physically, on paper, three times. How many more hands and eyes and brains will check those three faktury VAT? At the offices of my conference organisers, within PKP, and by platoons of bookkeepers and tax-men, in Kraków, in Warsaw and in Brussels.

Surely, in today's world of iPhones and tablets, WiFi, NFC and RFID, PayPass, PayPal and online banking – surely, there is a more efficient way of collecting and accounting for taxes paid? In my previous job, in a multinational company that published hundreds of classified advertising papers and websites around the world, the corporate HQ people could not believe that here in Poland out of 87 employed by the firm, 31 of them worked in accounts. In countries like Sweden or Holland, where turnover was several times higher, the accounts staff numbered three or four people. In Poland, where VAT is still calculated and paid in full each month by all but the smallest businesses, it is still about the manual checking of hundreds of millions of faktury VAT, many of which are for tiddly amounts of money that wouldn't merit any paperwork whatsoever in other OECD countries.

Poland has one of the most expensive and inefficient tax systems in the EU in terms of revenues collected. Is it just about the protection of armies of bookkeepers' jobs, whose soul-destroying task is to account for evidence that tiny sums have all been duly collected? Or is it an inability of middle-ranking bureaucrats to move with the times and actively seek out and implement more efficient ways of doing things? Or is it to do with low levels of social trust? That without the policing mechanism of faktury VAT, Mr Dembinski would be hanging around railway stations, dipping into dustbins to retrieve discarded train tickets, then presenting them as his own, while meanwhile making his way to Kraków on foot, so as to diddle the conference organisers (who would then be unknowingly be diddling the tax-man)?

It is time for Jacek Rostowski, Poland's UK-born and -educated finance minister to apply some big scissors to this grotesque paper-printing and accounting machine that adds no value to the Polish economy. Time to apply the Toyota method – identify the muda (activity that adds no value) to the process and cut the costs of tax collection, with a target to get them at least to the EU average.

A campaign to streamline Poland's antiquated tax-collection system should be supported by every citizen and each political party - the only people who would lose would be the armies of faktura counters - but for the rest of the economy, it would be a dead weight removed from the nation's neck.

This time last year:
An end to an Entitlement way of thinking

This time two years ago:
West Ealing - drab and sad suburb

This time three years ago:
To Poznań by train

This time five years ago:
Late autumn drive-time

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

PKP IC's faktura system annoys me to no end. Buying hundreds of tickets each year, I have to deal with hundreds of fakturas (1 ticket = 1 faktura). Would it be *that* hard to design a system which groups all the tickets for one purpose onto one faktura? At least in Warszawa they have ink-jet printers. Out here in the provinces, the fakturas are printed from an old-style matrix printer, complete with a ribbon! And if the paper roll runs out in the middle of a transaction, there's another 5-minute delay to change out the roll!