Today I came to the DMV prepared, because I know how these things can go. Once I waited 3 hours at the Boston DMV, only to be told that I’d brought the wrong kind of document—they could only accept a bank statement as proof of address, whereas I had brought a letter from my bank. I had to come back again the next day and wait all over again. This time, going to the Louisiana DMV to transfer my license from Massachusetts, I was determined to get through on the first try. I brought every document I could think of: my passport, my bank statement, my tax return, my old license, my Social Security card. 

I arrived 20 minutes before the place opened, and there were already 30 people in line ahead of me. When they started letting us in, there was immediately a snag. The elderly man who is supposed to print out the little tickets you take (A-316 and such) had forgotten to load the paper into the ticket printer, so he shuffled off to find some. His pace made the DMV sloths in Zootopia seem downright zippy. When he returned some minutes later, he couldn’t figure out how to get the paper loaded. By the time the machine started spitting out tickets, 20 more people were in line. 

When I got up to take my ticket, I told him I was there to transfer my out-of-state license.

“And you have your birth certificate, yes?”

My birth certificate??? From Britain circa 1989? I did not have it. I also knew you weren’t supposed to need a birth certificate. “Yes, I have it,” I said, so that he would give me the ticket. “I’ll sort this out at the next phase,” I thought. (In case you have not spent time in an American DMV, there are generally three phases: the line to give you the ticket to wait in the line, the line to ask for the thing you need, and the line to get the thing and pay for the thing.) 

Ticket in hand (I was G-214), I sat in the main waiting area. A loudspeaker is constantly blaring out ticket numbers, making it impossible to read a book. There were 25 stations, each with a little display to say which number was being served. Only six stations were actually operating, so it took about 40 minutes for me to be called. I handed over my documents. I was not asked for my birth certificate. I did not mention it. 

The woman serving me was very kind, but after a few minutes of keyboard-tapping she said:

“I’m sorry, it won’t let me do it. I have to email the help desk.”

So I sat back down and waited for the help desk to email her back. They took their sweet time. I went back up again. More tapping, another problem, another help desk email. However: I did, in fact, get my license. Total time: 90 minutes. 

I was one of the lucky ones. The woman waiting next to me was told she had not brought form I-94, and so could not be processed. Looking at the Yelp reviews afterwards, I found that people routinely spend five-seven hours sitting in this DMV waiting to be called. If you don’t get there before it opens, there are literally hundreds of people in it, all miserable, most having to stand up the whole time. Some selections from reviews: 

  • I left work early and arrived here at 2:05. I waited in line to get to the ticket counter. I told the woman what I was there for and she gave me my ticket. The time stamp on my ticket was 2:17pm. At 3:50, a security guard announced that the office closes at 4:00 and that they will lock the doors at that time, but anyone that is already inside will be seen unless you go out those doors after 4:00. After already being there for 2hrs, I stayed planted in my seat. At 5:10 my number is called. I go to the counter and the woman tells me “that office closed an hour and ten minutes ago.”
  • I PERSONALLY witnessed a young man and his grandfather wait for the young man to get his license. After sitting for 5 or more hours, because they were in place prior to my arrival; they exited with disappointment on both faces after only being at the desk to be served for 7 minutes
  • I showed up before it opened and got C222.  They let us into the building at 8:00 and started calling numbers at 8:30.  There are 25 customer service windows and 100+ people there, but only 5 windows were open. 6 hours later, they had just called C217, and when they were finished with him, the one person helping the Cs went somewhere in the back (I’m assuming on lunch break).  I went out to lunch and came back, and they were still on C217. Finally, I had had enough and left. It would have been 2+ hours more, if I were lucky.
  • It is unfathomable that in the year 2019 our state cannot come up with a better way to provide this service. The sad thing is that a large percentage of the people sitting in this miserable room listening to the non stop, brain melting, electronic clicking of the speakers for unending hours will likely be told they do not have the proper paperwork to complete their transactions. 

The problems with this DMV are not unsolvable. They are actually very, very simple. (1) It’s understaffed, so there are too many customers for too few service windows. (2) It’s unclear what documents people need, and the person at the ticket-handing-out phase does not know what people need to have. (3) The staff haven’t been trained to deal with very common problems, meaning that supervisors are frequently needed. Change those things, you change the whole experience. 

Visiting the DMV is an aggravating experience for me, not because I mind the wait that much myself, but because I hate seeing so many people waste so much time and be so unhappy unnecessarily. Hundreds of people per day are having hours upon hours squandered. The staff, too, suffer: They were very nice to me, but completely under-resourced, and they have to face angry customers all day without being able to do anything. (I’ve written before, using Spirit Airlines as an example, about the way private companies that mistreat their customers are also mistreating their customer-facing employees.) 

Worse, bad experiences at the DMV forever affect people’s perceptions of “government.” If this is what interacting with the government is like, then the arguments for privatizing public services begin to seem far more compelling. Look how inefficient the state is. Politicians can say “Do you want your health care to run like the DMV?” and people will nod and remember the five hours they spent standing in a sweltering room waiting to get their license renewal application denied. 

In reality, “inefficiency” is only one part of the problem here. The main problem is there are only six stations open. This isn’t a problem of government waste, it’s a problem of austerity. Government can do things, but we have to be willing to spend enough money to hire enough people to get the things done. Hire more people, wait times drop, people are happy. (This means that a good way to push a pro-privatization agenda is to starve existing agencies so that they are unable to function, then point to their dysfunction as evidence the public sector can’t do anything. Underfund the NHS and then point to longer wait times and rationing as evidence socialized medicine doesn’t work.) 

A lot of simplistic arguments are made that government can’t work, with the supposed evidence being that particular government agencies in the U.S. don’t work well. So, for example, American public schools show that government shouldn’t run education. Of course, that doesn’t tell us anything about “government” because many of the countries with the finest education systems in the world—the ones that consistently beat ours—also have public schools. And if the DMV and the post office are evidence against government, then fire departments and libraries and park rangers should be counted as evidence for it. In fact, you can have government agencies that produce good experiences, and private sector companies that produce horrible ones. (I would almost rather have a full day at the Louisiana DMV than ever have another interaction with Cox Cable.) The difference is less a matter of public and private than “well-run, well-structured institutions versus poorly-run, poorly-structured institutions.”

I think a mistake that some on the left make is not thinking deeply enough about how agencies run, and how to make them run better. There needs to be a left critique of bureaucracy, that is sensitive to the way that regulations and paperwork can grow like a fungus and we need to make sure things operate in ways that don’t make everyday interactions with the state something people dread. It’s not just a matter of funding, though adequate funding is obviously a prerequisite. Public schools can still operate badly even when they have more resources. There actually have to be people in charge who know what they’re doing and are serious and committed about making the institution function. We on the left need to examine case studies of failures like and understand the management missteps that were made and think about how to avoid them. 

Of course, free market types will argue that the problem here is that the government does not have market incentives toward efficiency. But the private sector also has bad incentives: A for-profit charter school, for instance, has an incentive to trick parents into thinking their children are being educated while actually just funneling as much money to its shareholders as possible. I went to a fantastic public school (sadly now turned into a prison). I know there’s nothing inherent about a school being “public” that means it has to fail, because I’ve seen it succeed. This is why I find the charter school movement so dumb: Instead of pushing to outsource the running of public schools to private entities, we should be examining public schools that do work and adopting best practices. If offering parents “choice” is crucial, that can be done within a public system.

We certainly don’t want to start “running government like a business,” because businesses are authoritarian and sociopathic. But we do need to think about the micro-level factors that make an institution function or fail. These can be as simple as: Do you tell people the documents they need at the beginning, or after they’ve waited 3 hours? We must make sure government does not run like the Louisiana DMV if we are ever to build support for expanding the role of the public sector in people’s lives.

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