Concerning DMVs and public management

If rude clerks at the DMV “undermine democracy,” then aren’t the cable companies an argument for socialism?

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

12 thoughts on “Concerning DMVs and public management”

  1. I was one of those commenters. And I agree with you that DMV performance is not uniformly bad (in Illinois, it went from terrible to pretty decent). But the analogy with corporate underperformance leaves out that a) we pay the bill for public underperformance as taxpayers, that's why we get more upset about it; plus, b) we have no choice, we can't switch to a competing DMV down the block; plus c) DMV's are far from the only public or publicly-funded services that are inadequate; and d) public employees are not underpaid, and their work is not especially difficult (except for teachers). Now, I'm very happy that there is no competing DMV. Competition in the marketplace is not going to solve many of the shortcomings of public services. But defending poor performance just because it's non-profit doesn't get us to where we need to be. I'm actually far more worried about underperforming juvenile detention/correctional/rehab/educational facilities than I am about underperforming DMV's, because more is at stake and children are involved. But some of the same things that cause DMV's to (sometimes) be terrible, are also in play in the juvenile justice system.

  2. In the 1980s, a person ran for the legislature on a 1 item agenda. Straightening out the DMV. He was elected and pushed through a measure prohibiting any hiring, any rise in the license fees and penalties for not meet specific challenges.

    I walked into an office about 1989, I was out with picture driver's license, a replacement title for the car and license and tags. In about 15 minutes.

  3. Most of the people who deride DMV and other public employees as inadequate and overpaid actually have little or no evidence upon which to make this claim. Maybe they had one less-than-satisfactory experience with one public employee, or they've read a report about some questionable behaviors of some public employees, or maybe they've just taken in the endless derision that is heaped upon public employees and concluded (without evidence) that the derision is merited; I don't know.

    But how dare anyone say "their work is not especially difficult" when they know essentially nothing at all about that work. If you are only speaking of those public employees who sit at counters processing paperwork of whatever sort, you should know they make up only a very small portion of "public employees" and that it is no picnic to deal with surly members of the public, all day every day, a public who too often believes is is acceptable to heap abuse upon a sitting target who is there to accept their papers.

    But, "their work is not difficult"? In this you include bridge-building, seismic inspecting, policing, road work, engineering, public works, law, medicine and public health, endless varieties of employment in which people go to work daily to do their best for the public good, only to be denigrated and derided as overpaid hacks doing "simple" tasks. What unmitigated gall you have, EB. Try reviewing the job listings that are posted, and see how FEW of them that you qualify for, and how "overpaid" they really are.

  4. I'm wondering if there might be a framing problem – the issue isn't public/private bureaucracies per se. It's bureaucracies where there is either a sole provider or barriers to entry for competitors (Cable/phone/power companies). Bureaucracies that don't need to value customer service because their customers have no alternatives need to have internal incentives for good customer service.

  5. "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."

    Thanks so much for saying this, Mark.

    A few days ago I had to spend the day sorting out a traffic ticket for a friend (who is currently in Asia).

    This involved

    – wait in line to enter court house (through metal detector, etc)

    – wait in line to speak to a person

    – walk a mile or so to the CHP office to get something signed, then back to the courthouse

    – wait in line again to enter court house

    – wait in line again to pay the fine

    Obviously this was irritating and a waste of time, but not one of the various people I interacted with was in anyway unreasonable; more than that they went out of their way to listen to the situation and suggest how best it could be resolved. (And, overhearing the sorts of stories they were being told by other people in the line, about how the dog had eaten their court date form and so that's why they had not appeared in court or the red light photo was not actually a picture of them or whatever, god knows I would not have had the patience with most of the people in line that they exhibited.)

    To blame the people working at these jobs for the fact that one has to wait in a long line (because the idiot voters of the state have made the choice that they would rather not hire any more such workers) strikes me as not just rude, but as displaying a delusion about how the world works that is borderline insane.

  6. Anonymous, I didn't say they were overpaid. I said they aren't underpaid, and there is survey research to back this up; AFSCME will even tell you this. And I think wage parity is a good thing. And I didn't say the jobs were easy, just that they're not harder than other jobs. Get a grip.

    wmd — very good point.

  7. Eli,

    Here in New Mexico you do have a choice of DMV offices. We have State offices, and we have privately-operated MVDExpress (MVDE) offices in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Las Cruces. I'm not sure about MVDE offices in smaller cities, but the three metro areas cover about 2/3 of the State's population.

    You pay a handling fee to the MVDE offices for the 'convenience' of accessing their services. The situation here in Las Cruces is that MVDE gets enough business to stay open, but it wasn't as popular as the franchisees expected it to be. The fact is, service at our MVD office is pretty good, better in some ways than the MVDE (private) offices. The one occasion I had to go to the private office (I needed something done that day, and I was too late to the public office) I was not treated with a lot of respect. Maybe the fact that I waltzed in a minute ahead of closing had something to do with it, but I have never been made to feel like I was imposing on the clerks at the public office.

    So, I go to the public office and in the future I'll check the hours — this economy has screwed up the hours of all sorts of public offices. I don't believe that Gary Johnson signing the contract when he was Governor had anything to do with improving the service at the public offices: I'd lived here for six years prior to Governor Toker's inauguration. Service at the MVD offices was okay. Yes, it took a while — New Mexico refuses to pay for offices large enough to keep the lines down. But the clerks were invariably polite and helpful. When I have to go, I bring a book or some grading to do while I wait for my number. Alternatively, I head in to be there when the office opens.

  8. "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?"

    It certainly should. However, I do think that people are more likely to generalize DMV == all government than they are to generalize Cablevision == all capitalism. For one thing, people interact with a lot more different kinds of capitalist ventures throughout their daily and yearly lives than (most of them) do with governmental agencies; Keith was fairly clear that the DMV is one of the main faces of government because most Americans deal with them regularly, which isn't true of, say, zoning agencies or Medicaid administrators.

    The fact that DMV-optimization is a "solved problem" yet hasn't been solved in a lot of places actually makes existing problems worse, not better. (I will say that the New York state DMV has improved tremendously in the 18 years I've lived here, to the point where I'd rather go to the DMV for a moderately complex matter than to a Sprint phone store for a trivial one. But when I moved here in the early 1990s, they took six *weeks* to create and mail a driver's license, as opposed to the six minutes that North Carolina DMV took.)

  9. Back in Denver in the 90s when I had to deal with DMV it had been beautifully reorganized. You got in and out within a half an hour if not less. Now in that state and the other two states I've lived in (New Jersey and Florida) no one who who has a bank account has to deal with the office. It's all done by mail.

    I went once in Florida because of selling a vehicle and was waited on immediately. It took a while because of the legal challenges. Other people met with the other clerks there while I dealt with mine. There was never a waiting line.

    I imagine there are fewer people there these days and that they do as good a job now.

    DMV offices were a disgrace at one time but the change happened more than a decade ago and this is just a (funny?) slur, PJ O'Rourke style.

  10. Thanks, Mark. You have a nice way of pointing to what really bothered me about Keith's rant, even accepting his payoff point. And what bothered me was the comparison between his airline experience and his DMV experience. In the one case, where an airline made a demand for extra payment that he regarded as harming its own interests, he deliberately set aside his irritation and instead tried to find information or a point of view that would make the airline's behavior rational. With the DMV, his reaction was to write up a rant that generalized his experience before finally pleading (briefly) that paying attention to decent treatment might fend off public scorn for government. Not a bad point in the abstract, but did it really need such an impassioned buildup?

    In the broader sense, it looked to me like the underlying point of view is that rationality was the expected norm when thinking of private enterprise so the best response to apparent anomaly was to try to understand it; but when it came to a public agency, the best response was to feel the burn.

    I hope it was just that he had a bad day. But like others above, I'd much rather go to the DMV office here twenty times than try to get a response out of any of half a dozen private enterprises I can think of (and not all utilities, either). Public/private is not the distinction that matters.

  11. "It certainly should. However, I do think that people are more likely to generalize DMV == all government than they are to generalize Cablevision == all capitalism."

    This wouldn't have anything to do with decades of well-funded anti-government-services propaganda, would it? It's pretty much the same for every "marked" entity: if a woman or a black person or an atheist does something we don't like, that reflects on their entire group; if a member of the "normal" group does something we don't like, that reflects only on them.

    (And interestingly enough, for most people the DMV is among the government agencies they interact with the least — everybody sees police officers around every day, toll takers, bus drivers, schoolteachers, road workers, snowplow operators and so forth, but none of that seems to register as government activity except when something goes wrong.)

  12. I just returned from a Virginia "DMV Select Office." It was a little hard to find – back in an out-of-the-way industrial park – but that meant it wasn't especially busy. In fact, I was the only customer there. I had come, per directions on the DMV website, to return my license plates and ask a question about my registration. The lone employee in that office was, in fact, rude, abrupt, and officious. If they had hired her specifically to fulfill the negative stereotype of a DMV worker, they couldn't have picked a better person. Rather than being helpful, she treated me like an idiot because I couldn't answer a question about my insurance off the top of my head. Whatever advantages there might have been to DMV Select, the customer experience definitely cancelled them out. I will not go there again. I don't care whether I'm being "fair" to government workers. The job is the job: if you don't like it, find another one.

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