“The best trip you’ll have to DCRA is the one you don’t have to make,” Mayor Muriel Bowser told onlookers. The mayor’s staff had recruited an assortment of local business owners to play around with the new website while photographers snapped candid shots.
The website lets local residents submit business license applications online, after which government employees sort through the information behind the scenes. It also includes a section where anyone can peruse local businesses by name and license number, like an online directory for the business community.
Certain types of licenses, like those for accountants and lawyers that require other professional certifications, are left out of the online process. It also excludes some of the more obscure business categories, horse-drawn carriages for example.
“If we have an outcry from the horse-drawn carriage community we would look into offering that with a future release,” said Matt Orlins, director of legislative and public affairs at DCRA.
Even with the new website, getting a license to operate is not as simple as filling out a few fields online. Some businesses have to interact with separate agencies, like the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), which processes liquor licenses. Food trucks have to enter a lottery to land an approved parking spot.
Renewing the license itself is supposed to take only 24 hours. But building permits and certificates of occupancy, for example, can take 30 days or longer and are usually part of the process for a new business. There’s an entire industry of “permit expediters,” whose sole job is to handle the government paperwork associated with starting and maintaining a business here.
“If you go to any small business owner and ask them about DCRA’s licensing and certification, they will probably sit down and hold their head in their hands,” said Mark Lee, a longtime club promoter in the District who runs the D.C. Nightlife Hospitality Association, a trade association. “D.C. has a history of that process not being efficient at all.”
Lee says being able to submit forms through a web site is a nice touch, but the real challenge is getting the agency to process permits more quickly. Orlins, the DCRA legislative director, says the goal is to eventually bring the whole process online.
“The city is working to improve the process from beginning to end,” Lee said, “but they still have a very long way to go.”