20 November 2007

A frightening look inside the mind of government

The web already groans under the weight of political blogs representing every viewpoint (and paranoid fantasy) imaginable. One day I may be unable to resist the temptation to bring politics to this particular corner of the 'net but this post is simply intended to identify and analyze.

The DMV ranks right up there with the dentist's office on the list of unpopular destinations. The waits are (over)long, the staff range from surly to unhelpful to preachy to threatening.

Most people don't realize it but the DMV provides an excellent case study of how government views citizens and/or taxpayers (and make no mistake - a license is a form of taxation) and how government views itself. Licenses and registration may have the dreaded good intentions behind them (sorting out accidents, solving crimes and ensuring unsafe vehicles stay off the roads) but the implementation and administration of these rules has devolved into the usual bureaucratic boondoggle.

A breakdown:

A) Staff - plentiful government holidays and benefits aside, what type of person is drawn to a job that involves the daily incessant quoting of arcane rules and regulations and a guarantee that 99% of the public doesn't want to be there in the first place? The DMV teems with overgrown hall monitors and petty control freaks. No doubt they are worn down by having to repeat information and instructions day after day but I always pose the same question to other surly "service" types such as receptionists, bank tellers and cashiers - you knew what the job would entail from day one. If you don't want to deal with the public then why are you here?

B) Administration - is there any? Those are nice pictures of the governor and commissioner(s) on the wall but who is minding the store here in the real world? I suppose the most revealing anecdote is that one individual was assigned to ask questions and enter data on a terminal - DESPITE THE FACT THAT HE COULDN'T TYPE AND USED A PENCIL ERASER TO HUNT AND PECK ON HIS KEYBOARD. It doesn't require a Lee Iacocca or Steve Jobs to pair skills with duties does it? Even in civil service?

C) Organization - a Catholic High Mass doesn't involve this much standing and sitting (no kneeling but don't worry they will force that on you one day). Many state DMVs have eliminated lines (but not waits) by using the take-a-number system. Psychologically one is supposed to feel that his visit is a priority but of course that illusion is broken quickly when one observes the dance steps forced upon others that precede him. Let's use a simple driver's license renewal to count the steps:

1 - enter and approach information counter. Take number.
2 - sit and wait
3 - approach window to pay fees - sorry, taxes
4 - sit and wait
5 - pose for license photograph
6 - sit and wait
7 - obtain license

Keen-eyed readers will note that sitting and waiting is the primary activity. Also note that many DMV 'customers' are often forced to return to their vehicles or even their homes to obtain documentation. The DMV is especially fond of a certain kind of bureaucratese that says nothing but takes 500 words to do so. Instead of providing a simple checklist they often bury essential information or steps in fine print - providing plenty of unwanted surprises and delays for taxpayers.

Finally, the prerequisites for many licenses, permits, endorsements and titles are revealing indeed. For a driver's license renewal one must prove state residence - despite the fact that he is holding a currently valid license, which means he's already proven it at least once! Over HALF of this so-called proof involves some form of being on the government dole. In other words, government is so convinced of its own benevolence and pervasiveness in everyday life that it assumes the rest of the world shares its perception of itself.

Except for paying taxes, for many people the DMV is the only direct involvement they have with government. For their time, money and trouble most people receive that especially annoying American brand of false politeness that barely masks contempt and open hostility. It is a lopsided cat-and-mouse game combined with convoluted procedures that would make Rube Goldberg hang his head in shame.

The next time you watch the pantomime of the inefficient appearing daily at your state's DMV ask yourself: isn't it probable that other government departments that you CAN'T see operate this way?

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