“She was a fat, resentful woman. The kind who is always behind the counter at the DMV when you need to renew your registration”
–P.J. O’Rourke, A Parliament of Whores
“There are days when we don’t let the line move at all.”
–Patty and Selma, The Simpsons
I generally ignore the protesters with the “Obama-is-a-Radical-Muslim-with-a-crazy-Baptist-preacher-in-Chicago” and “Get government out of Medicare” signs when I walked from the Metro station to my office in Washington D.C. But the day I had to register my car at the Virginia DMV, I saw a method to at least one protester’s madness. He set up a table about 300 yards away and around two building corners from the front door of the DMV.
Like most DMVs around the country, this one set its weekly hours to correspond with the times when most Americans are at work and cannot go to the DMV. As a small concession to serving those whose taxes pay for the DMV to exist in the first place, this office was open on Saturday mornings from 8am to noon. I arrived at 7:30am to avoid a line. Too late: it already snaked back a hundred feet and around one corner of the building. By the time 8am rolled around, it wrapped back several hundred yards until people were standing next to, you guessed it, the protester, who got a receptive audience as he railed at the government.
The DMV is the perfect place to demonstrate the incompetence of many public services, and to instill completely justifiable rage on the part of taxpayers. Almost every single person interacts with it each year, and therefore almost every single person is treated like garbage rather than what they are: The owner and employer of the DMV.
That Saturday morning, the staff was late so it didn’t open at 8am, making the line longer and angrier. Finally the doors opened, and a single staff member began slowly processing people one at a time. There were two other staff by the door though: Uniformed security guards. This is a higher ratio of security to service staff than one sees in banks, jewelers and other places that actually have something you might want to steal. They are needed at the DMV because people lose it and get angry. If those guards were replaced with service staff, the patrons would be no more angry than people buying coffee or a newspaper, but that would be what a customer service agency would do, not the DMV.
I was reminded of this experience yesterday at the California DMV. We had an appointment, but there was only one line for “all customers”. My wife walked to the front and asked the employee if we had to wait in line and he said no and pointed her to an unmarked line. People who had been waiting in line for a long time with appointments were pissed because there was no way to know that they didn’t have to wait because the DMW does not deign to share information with customers.
When we got our paperwork we were instructed to sit down and wait. But there were not enough chairs for everyone to do so. Over a hundred people, including elderly people and people on crutches were crammed into and overflowed the available seats in the squalid office. They all stared at the monitors like desperate Keno players, hoping their number would finally come up. “I’ve been here two hours!”, a man grumbled. “Just two?”, a woman responded.
We finally got to the desk and were charged over $200 to register our car. No one explained what this money buys, as one would do if one wanted a good relationship with the customer rather than having the government “You have no choice so pay it and shut up” attitude. I pulled out our credit card and was told they did not accept credit cards. How many people have to go back home for cash or a debit card each day I am sure they neither know nor care.
I filled out my name and address at least five times. In the heart of Silicon Valley they have no computer stations with fillable forms that could copy this information instantaneously to everywhere it was needed. But again why bother? All that would result is efficiency and better service.
A child next to me sobbed into his mother’s lap. A woman of about 30 said under her breath to her partner “I can’t take this anymore, I can’t. Let’s just go!”.
We then drove around to get our car “verified”. We sat and waited. And waited. There were no staff and no explanation of what to do. Neither was there a sign to say how long the wait would be. After 20 minutes a man came out and waved us and a few other cars forward so that we were packed tightly together. He then walked away without explanation. At this point no one said anything. The people in the cars and their passengers and the people who were sitting on the sidewalk waiting just stayed silent, like whipped dogs in a learned helplessness experiment.
Finally a woman came out and did the 2 minute inspection of our license tag and VIN and said we were allowed to leave. But we couldn’t because the previous staff member had told us to wedge together so no one could leave the line until every single person had gone through the same process. In a fit of human kindness, the woman in front of us got in her car and drove to the side. God bless you, ma’am.
If there are any ambitious Secretaries of State out there who want to be governor, start at the DMV. Start by doing a walkthrough and seeing how the citizenry is treated. Adapt the system to the customer and not the other way around. I really think you could win an election by just saying over and over “I am the one who made your DMV treat you like a human being”.
It is smug and facile to dismiss Americans’ rage at inept and unresponsive government, when one of the most common ways that we interact with our government validates that feeling in every respect. DMVs undermine our faith that the public sector can do anything right or that it even cares if it does, and that undermines a basis for a democratic society.