We are extremely disheartened that the online work-permit system implemented last year has been discontinued.

As local businesses struggle to recover from the pandemic, they can ill afford this giant step backward as they face months-long delays from the Department of Labour and Workforce Development.

For more than a decade, leaders have been promising to cut down work permit processing times. The most recent target was two weeks for renewals and a month for new applications, which seems reasonable.

But such targets have not been met consistently — except possibly for high earners under the “executive work permit programme” launched in 2018.

Of course, Hurricane Irma and the pandemic caused major delays and threw the system into disarray. But instead of using these challenges as an opportunity to start fresh, leaders have responded with ham-fisted schemes that have exacerbated existing problems.

Amid the pandemic, for instance, government decided to start withholding permits from companies in tax arrears. This poorly timed plan — which eventually was reversed — predictably caused extra chaos amid the understandable delays associated with the pandemic.

Last year, the implementation of the online system provided hope that the Department of Labour and Workforce Development had finally turned over a new leaf.

An online system, after all, is exactly how the agency should have been processing work permits for the past two decades. In this day and age, there is no reason that new applications and renewals should be submitted through a clunky manual system that wastes paper and time.

Unfortunately, the online system didn’t work properly. Instead of helping free up public officers’ time — which it certainly should have done — labour officials and users complained that it was cumbersome and that it lost application materials.

In December, the online system stopped accepting renewals, and now it has stopped accepting new applications as well. Instead, the department has reverted to the old paper-based system.

Meanwhile, some businesses are complaining that they have been waiting for months for work permits to be processed.

It is very disappointing that a better online portal wasn’t built from the start, especially given that such a system seems fairly straight- forward.

As quickly as possible, the department should go back to the drawing board and build a better version that is fit for purpose.

In the meantime, the agency should consider temporary solutions, such as allowing applications to be submitted by secure email.

If leaders can’t solve this basic issue, their broader plans for e-government do not bode well. The work-permit situation should serve as a lesson for the way forward.