Songjiang is one of the 16 districts in Shanghai, having 1.5 m inhabitants. Its administrative services bureau is known within China for its innovative services. A good reason for a visit!

We started with a lecture in the bus on the administrative organization of Shanghai. This unusual location for a lecture happened to be very effective. After that we got a tour through the district office and a Q&A with the management.

What can we learn from this? First of all that there are many similarities between this Chinese district office and our European clients in the public sector:

  • Songjiang centralized all services for citizens and employees in one building to make life easier.
  • Appointments are made online; documents can be prepared online in advance to reduce the number of visits in one procedure. We have no insight in the results of this campaign.
  • The commercial services bureau is a one-stop-shop where all administrative services to local companies are provided.
  • The district opened a special project counter for all questions and procedures for a new highway.
  • And finally, the look and feel of the district office is similar to any European public service building: waiting people that go to a window if their number is shown on the digital display, impatient children and the obligatory presentation wall about the history of the district.

Of course, the differences between this district office and our clients are maybe the most interesting. The first difference is the basic assumption behind the strategy to reduce administrative burden. The basic assumption for Chinese administrations is that the government can intervene in all matters, for example resulting in mandatory application procedures with 100% approval. The new Chinese policy is to reduce the number of those unnecessary application procedures. The goal of European administrations may be the same, but the basic assumption behind it is that each individual is independent and the government only intervenes if there is a public interest.

Another interesting difference are the radical choices in environmental policy. Compared to our last visit to Shanghai things changed. A few years ago, the two types of weather were light-grey smog and dark-grey smog, nowadays the blue sky is visible. The permanent noise of scooters and motors disappeared because only electrical scooters are allowed. The answer to the question of how they did it: the district officials told all polluting industry was closed (not moved, closed) and the city planted millions of trees – which indeed transformed some public areas.

To end with, the cultural differences were a joy. The office area to apply for marriage was painted in accompanying colors. Above the bureaus the next lucky marriage dates were shown. Next to the marriage area was a designated area to apply for divorce. However, before divorce can be approved couples are strongly advised to apply for mediation by a civil servant in the room next door. A special law prohibits citizens to divorce and marry another person on the same day. Finally, after marriage, application couples have to conduct a medical inspection on sexual transmitted diseases.