How do expats evaluate their contact with municipal government administrations throughout our country? Most foreign employees are fairly satisfied, according to a survey carried out by Agoria, the federation for the technology industry in Belgium. But there was one municipality that jumped out as scoring particularly poorly: the City of Brussels.

Long delays, unfriendly service and language problems foster frustration.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Expats living in our capital city rate their municipal government administration on average a 4.5. By contrast, other municipal government administrations in Flanders and the broader Brussels-Capital Region are rated a 7.2 (out of 10). Of the expats that decided to relocate in the City of Brussels, 8 out of 10 experienced difficulties in obtaining their residence permit. Long delays, language problems and unfriendly service are the most frequently cited shortcomings. "Our capital city is failing the grade, but it's the expats who have to suffer the consequences," says René Konings, head of Agoria Brussels.

To what extent do expats feel welcome in their municipality? It's a question that is garnering little attention in the run-up to municipal elections. But it's a question affecting a growing part of our population. Furthermore, it's a problem affecting people who are vital to our economy, as companies increasingly hire foreign specialists due to shortages on the Belgian labour market. Agoria polled expats for an appraisal of their experience with municipal government administrations. The municipality (or city) is the first point of contact between the expat and a public authority. It is the municipality that actually issues the residence permit.

In total, 125 expats responded to the survey. 58 percent of respondents live in the Brussels-Capital Region, half of which live in the City of Brussels (postcode 1000). Other popular municipalities for expats in the Brussels-Capital Region include Schaerbeek, Etterbeek, Ixelles, Saint-Gilles and Woluwe-Saint-Lambert. 52% of expats reported difficulties obtaining their residence permit, but the experience in the City of Brussels was particularly notable, as 80% of respondents reported having problems obtaining their permit. In other municipalities within the Brussels-Capital Region, 64% of respondents reported such difficulties, outside Brussels only 36% had problems.

What are the most significant problems?

People are required to personally appear at their respective municipal government administration office in order to register for residency. The requirement is the same for both Belgians who move to another municipality as for foreigners who come to live here. Excessive delays (30%), language problems (26%) and unfriendly service (10%) were the main complaints voiced. These problems appear to be the most acute in the City of Brussels. There, excessive delays were mentioned by two-thirds (65%) of the respondents, language problems by 52% and unfriendly service by nearly one-third (28%).

Would a digital service be better? Among all respondents, one in five (20%) felt that the registration procedure made inadequate use of digital solutions. In the City of Brussels, this number rises to 40%. In the City of Brussels, just as in other cities, new arrivals are able to make initial contact with the municipal government administration by email in order to request an appointment at the administration service centre to register as new residents. However, responding to emails after a three-month delay is not indicative of a particularly client-friendly attitude. This last item is exclusively a Brussels problem.

The wait for the required police agent visit is also long

Once a newcomer has registered in the population registry of his/her new municipality, the residence is verified by having a local police officer visit the new resident. There is a directive from the Federal Public Service Interior requiring this to take place within two weeks after registration. Of all respondents, 50% confirms that this actually occurred within one to two weeks of registering. By comparison, numbers from the Brussels-Capital Region tell a different story: 45% of respondents there received their verification of residence within two weeks of registering, while 38% had to wait for four weeks or longer. In the City of Brussels, this ratio is reversed: 37.5% received their verification of residence within two weeks, while 53% had to wait for four weeks or longer.

How long did it take to receive a residence permit?

Having a residence permit is crucial in order to obtain access to a number of essential services: purchasing a mobile phone plan, obtaining health insurance and other insurance policies, opening a bank account, etc. Of all respondents, 60% received their residence permit within two months; a decent achievement, but by no means excellent. For one in five respondents, it took longer than three months.

If we split these responses geographically, we notice that the bulk of these "long" delays took place in the City of Brussels. There, two in five expats wait longer than three months for their residence permit. By comparison, only one in five expats living in other municipalities within the Brussels-Capital Region waited longer than three months, and for expats living outside of the Brussels-Capital Region, such a long delay was highly exceptional.

Is the City of Brussels an expat trap?

Finally, we asked expats for a general assessment of the municipality in which they live. We asked them for two separate responses: first, a score of 1 to 10 for the general level of service in the municipality; secondly, we asked them if they would recommend their municipality to other expats. The ratings for the general level of service for the municipality reflected the ratings of expats' first contact with their municipality. The average rating given by all respondents was 7.67. In other municipalities inside the Brussels-Capital Region, the average rating was 7.86 and in municipalities outside Brussels 8.59. In the City of Brussels, the average rating was 5.9.

The results of the second question were even harsher for the City of Brussels: more than 95% of expats in all other municipalities both inside and outside the Brussels-Capital Region would recommend their place of residence to other expats. This ratio is totally different in the City of Brussels: only one-fourth of respondents said they would recommend the city to other expats, three-fourths would not.

"This last question shows that most expats feel welcome in their municipalities. It's only our capital city that has a poor reputation as a result of bad experiences with the municipal government administration, and that undermines its economic attractiveness," says Konings. "As a vibrant city, Brussels has some serious assets to allure expats. There is no reason why the City of Brussels should have a lower quality of service than other municipalities. An actual digital service point, combined with multilingual reception personnel and a good organisation are essential. The challenge now is to work towards creating a well-functioning administration and service centre in order to improve the image of our capital city among its residents, companies and employees."