My late August rant about my terrible experiences at the Virginia and California Department of Motor Vehicles generated comments from RBC readers, from Mark, as well as from Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias and their flocks. Some resonated with my trauma; others defended the high quality of DMVs. In light of all the comments here and elsewhere, as well as my subsequent experiences at the California DMV, I wish to expand and amend my initial remarks. I was too hard on the DMV in one respect, but too easy on it in all others.
After spending a year in Washington D.C., I have been trying to move my car registration back to California. As I recorded in my initial post, after being exposed to abuse and incompetence, I left the California DMV office in late August with a 30-day temporary license plate and the mandate to get a smog check. I was told to mail proof of said smog check and my other paperwork to the DMV. I accomplished this within a week and waited for my permanent license plates to arrive.
Thirty days passed and my permanent plates never arrived, making my car illegal to drive. I went online to the DMV website to get a new appointment so that I could find out what happened. The first available appointment was three weeks away, meaning I could not legally drive my car for 21 days. It’s our only car so this was more than a minor problem. We use our car for extravagances such as buying the food that we eat, taking our children to the doctor when they are ill, etc. I am just lucky that I can walk to work. Most people would struggle to get to work in the San Francisco Bay area with no car unless they had several extra hours a day available to navigate public transportation.
When the appointed day finally came, in mid-October, I broke the law and drove my car to the DMV office. Again, there was a long line of people extending out of the front door. Many had appointments but because the sign tells everyone to stand in the same line, those with appointments were needlessly wasting their time doing so. Having endured this farce on my first visit, I knew that there was an “appointment line” parallel to the end of the huge line (from the back, it looks like a rightward bulge near the front of the huge line). Confusion is furthered by the fact that both “separate lines” go to exactly the same place: A tired-looking clerk who tries to manage both lines simultaneously with a minimum of violence.
The only aspect of my initial splenetic post that I wish I could take back was my failure to acknowledge that the employees of the DMV are among its victims; I apologize to them unreservedly for that oversight. Yes, a few of them are surly by nature, but for the most part they are well-meaning, hapless innocents trapped in a world of hurt they never made. To wit, the customer in front of me in the rightward bulge of the huge line (henceforth “the appointments line”) stepped to the desk smartly and said “I have my confirmation number!”. The clerk sighed audibly and said “Those don’t work”. She asked his name, time of appointment and type of appointment. She then thumbed through about 5 separate stapled stacks of paper, one apparently for each appointment type. She put on her reading glasses and scanned the small type line by line until she found his name, which she crossed off with a pen.
Yes, that’s right: Even though appointments are made on-line and half the acne-ridden junior high school kids in Silicon Valley could download that information into a searchable, large print Excel chart for this poor clerk, she is instead stuck with a bic pen and a system that is slower than a Sperry Univac.
As I got to the front of the appointment line a woman customer in the main line exploded at me for “cutting in line”. The clerk said “No, he’s in the appointments line, he goes first”. The woman was overcome with remorse, apologized to me over and over. I couldn’t stop smiling because I imagined the simple, genuine, humanizing words “I am sorry to have been so rude to you” had not been spoken in that dank building in many a moon, and maybe they could dispel for a moment the unmerciful culture of the place. I re-assured her over and over that it wasn’t her fault, and that there was no way she could have known there are two lines; I only knew because I am a regular.
The customer calmed, I turned to the clerk and said that I had an appointment to register my car. She said I would need to fill out a bunch of forms and I said no, I did that two months ago as well as paying all my fees. As proof, I handed her copies of all the paperwork I had mailed to the DMV.
She looked at the stack and said “You were supposed to provide these to the DMV, not keep them.” I said “I did provide them, these are copies”. I did not add “I made copies because I expected DMV to screw up and lose my forms”, but had the impulse to do so.
She pointed to the blue signature on one page and the black writing on another and insisted “These are originals — look at the signatures”. I said “I made these using a color copier.” I did not add “A color copier is a magical machine that exists far beyond the land of State government”, but had the impulse to do so.
She then asked “Where did you mail these? I said I mailed them to the DMV, as I had been instructed to do on my last visit. She said “To what address did you send them?” I said I sent them to the address mentioned in the instruction on the form “Mail the attached documents and requested items to DMV, P.O. Box 942…”. She intoned wearily “That’s the Sacramento office. They are incredibly slow.”
She then grabbed the lever on a machine that looks like it entered service in Governor Browns first administration (Pat not Jerry) and, with a ka-chunk, cranked out a numbered paper ticket and sent me to the keno pool, where I stared at the screen along with all the other suckers who were gambling that day.
It is completely unclear whether people who go to the trouble to make appointments in advance are seen any more quickly than those who just show up. The meaning of the ticket numbers is opaque, B46 and C97 etc. A customer service-oriented organization would reinforce you for making an appointment, much as the Safeway cashier reinforces your use of the Safeway card by telling you how much money you saved that day by being a Safeway member. Perhaps a similar statement of time saved by making an appointment is too much for the DMV. But couldn’t they at least label the ticket “express service” or make it a different color or something that would communicate to customer that they are better off making an appointment than not? Apparent answer: No. As a result, customers in the keno pool either sit slumped in defeat or openly simmer with resentment at a system they can’t understand and therefore consider unfair.
As I sat in the keno pool, I again saw the staff victimized by the DMV’s lack of a customer service orientation. Time after time, people wandered into the building and up to the desks which require a keno ticket for access and asked “Is this where I can get a driving test?” or “Where do I pay for my registration?”. The staff wasted time again and again telling them to stand at the back of the very long line out front. If management could just place a large sign right at the door saying “Everyone with an appointment stand in the green line. Everyone without an appointment stand in the red line” and affix matching colored tape on the floor, hours of staff time would be saved each day in aggregate (making both lines shorter of course). I suspect they would even be ahead in aggregate staff time if they just put someone at the door who verbally directed people to the appropriate lines.
When my number finally hit on the keno screen I went to the indicated desk and gave the staff member my stack of forms. She said that I needed a vehicle inspection. I said that I already got one; please look at the forms. She was puzzled for a moment and then said OK, then I just need a smog check. Identical response by me. Unable to find a justifiable reason to blame me for the problem, she then demanded “You’ve done all your forms — why don’t you have your plates?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I am here.”, I said, resisting the urge to say “Isn’t asking that question my privilege rather than yours?”
She then looked at her computer (hooray, they have at least one!) and said that the Sacramento office had no record of my forms because it takes them at least 60 days to process a registration and I had only mailed my forms in about 45 days ago. I then asked her why DMV provides temporary licenses that expire in 30 days if it takes 60 days to process a registration. “I don’t make the rules” she said. She hasn’t been given the power to serve her customers, so I don’t blame her for not doing so.
She told me to go get another temporary license plate and that if I didn’t get my permanent plates by the time it expired to come back to the DMV and start the process over again. There was no suggestion that the state would take any responsibility for the problem, or that as a taxpayer I was deserving even of an apology. And of course I can’t go anywhere else to get a permanent license plate, so I just followed orders and shuffled to the temporary license plate line.
In one of those moments that is just too perfect, the guy at the front of that line had a shirt on that summed up the DMV’s attitude so well that I wondered if they hired him to stand there. I snapped this photo with my phone to record the moment.
Having been burned once, as soon as I got my new 30-day temporary license plate, I made an appointment on the assumption that the state would again fail to provide me my permanent plates (I didn’t want to wait until expiration day and not have a car for three weeks again). It’s an appointment I might not need and I hate to clog the system and push other people who need appointments back in the queue, but the system has taught me not to rely on it for even a minimum level of service, so I adapt. If other customers are doing the same, then the problem of long lags for available appointments has become self-reinforcing.
As I said in the initial post, experiences like I am having with the DMV are emblematic of what creates popular rage at public services and government generally. To deny or minimize this reality (as did some of the comments that appeared around the web after my first DMV post) is to fail to understand where justifiable anger at and cynicism about government often originates in the U.S. Implying that complaints about public sector services are just right-wing propaganda or responding to them with the feeble excuse that sometimes services are good and that’s good enough, only serves to makes the rage more intense. Those who see value in the public sector should be at the forefront of criticizing public services when they fail rather than reflexively minimizing the problems, leaving dedicated foes of the public sector the chance to score easy points with those citizens who have been poorly served.
If the travails of a middle class professor with the DMV seem of small moment to you, consider many of the other poor souls in the keno pit. Judged at a glance, a lot of them don’t have access to color copiers, jobs they can step out of at any time to make multiple DMV appointments, or even a strong grasp of the complex English on all the forms they sign. I wonder about the new immigrant who does exactly what I did when he moves to California, i.e., every freaking thing the State DMV tells him too, and thinks that his car must therefore be legal. And then a highway patrol officer sees the expired temporary plate and puts on his siren, and the immigrant, knowing he has complied with the government’s procedures perfectly, is filled with anger at what he sees as an injustice as he pulls his car over to the shoulder. Do you want the officer to presume that the DMV doesn’t make mistakes and this insolent driver needs to be taught a lesson by the state, or do you want him to listen sympathetically, apologize on behalf of his employer and send the driver on his way?
I wrote the above in October, and didn’t want to “post angry” as I did the first time, so I have saved it until now and I think in the cold light of reason, it’s fair. My permanent license plates never came so I needed that third appointment I had scheduled. The third time round the staffer said that the staffer from the second time around was wrong, it took Sacramento 90 days and not 60 days to process a registration, so I shouldn’t have listened to her and come back so soon (but, I had to because my second temporary license was expiring). The third time round staffer also asserted that the first time round staffer had had my wife sign a form that she shouldn’t have signed, and that when the Sacramento office got around to my paperwork they would just send it all back to me unprocessed. I got another temporary license and another appointment. A few weeks later, about 80 days after I had mailed my paperwork in, the Sacramento office did indeed send back all my paperwork with no license plates. The office noted that my registration form lacked my California driver’s license number. This is true, because it is impossible for someone just arriving in the state and complying with the law to have a California drivers license, out of state people apply for their driver’s license at the same time as they register their car, and it takes the state a few weeks to process the request and mail you your license. As insurance, I had already scheduled a fourth appointment, and again, it turned out that I needed it. On that visit, over 4 months after my first, fate finally smiled on me: I escaped the jaws of the beast with a license plate and my freedom, at least until 7 months from now when I will have to renew.