Concerning DMVs and public management

I’ve been reflecting on Keith’s post about DMVs, which annoyed me more than it probably should have.

The underlying point is no doubt valid, and important: that poor performance by the street-level bureaucrats who directly interact with citizens – which, of course, always implicates the senior bureaucrats above them and the elected officials and political appointees above them – has very bad impacts on public attitudes towards government generally, with important political implications.

So whence the annoyance? There were at least three different strains, all of them picked up to a greater or lesser extent by the commenters:

First, the sheer unfairness of attributing bad attitudes and bad performance to all civil servants, or even to all employees of motor vehicle registries, as in the snark Keith quotes from the sometimes-funny-but-invariably-obnoxious P. J. O’Rourke. It’s not only unfair to the armies of civil servants who cheerfully carry their excessive workloads without complaining much about their inadequate pay because they believe in serving the public, it’s counterproductive. One of the many reasons the quality of schoolteachers has declined over time is that schoolteachers now get a lot less respect than they’re used to. It’s a vicious cycle – low employee quality leading to low performance leading to low reputation leading to low pay leading back to low employee quality – and I can’t thank Keith (or O’Rourke) for doing their small part to make things worse.

Second, the inaccuracy of the charge in terms of DMV performance nationwide. I’ve dealt with DMVs in Maryland, Massachusetts, DC, and California, and only the DC experience matched the stereotype. The revolution in the Mass. DMV under the first Dukakis administration, with its emphasis on customer satisfaction, was the subject of one of the first public-management cases I studied at the Kennedy School. Improving DMV performance is pretty much a solved science. Now it’s fair to ask why that revolution has yet to spread to Virginia, but the answer certainly doesn’t lie in the personalities of the people operating the office Keith went to.

Third, the generalization to public service generally. If poor DMV performance threatens democracy, does the equally unhelpful attitude and operational design I’ve encountered in dealing with cable companies, power companies, health insurance companies, credit card companies, and USAir and United Airlines threaten capitalism? If we’re not getting the performance we need out of our public agencies, the obvious question is how to manage them better, which often enough turns out to mean a willingness to put more money into better service. I doubt the protestor Keith mentions had that sort of reform in mind. He’s probably more inclined to abolish the EPA and the Department of Education.

So if the message is that public management ought to be a highly valued calling and discipline, and that top elected officials ought to worry more about the details of service delivery, I say, “Amen,” though I don’t share Keith’s faith that public-management competence represents a winning political strategy. But if the message is that today’s civil servants ought to hang their heads in shame, that message seems to me both mostly false and entirely un-helpful to the cause of reform.