Vail Daily column: Is the DMV unable to be reformed?
July 15, 2017
"Your call is very important to us. A representative will answer as soon as possible."
With a few words of petty fraud, organizations steal your time, obstruct your day and perhaps stretch your bladder.
My 16-year-old daughter attempted to make an appointment with the Department of Motor Vehicles for her driver's test. She tried a couple of times and failed, and then she asked me for help.
So I headed to the DMV's website and found a calendar to book an appointment. I selected a date. I selected a time. The site did not respond. No words of instruction. No confirmation. No error message. I tried again. No luck.
My natural first conclusion was that Microsoft was tripping over its shoelaces again. After a few other measures, the website appeared to be broken. I dialed up the DMV's main phone number. It rang five times, eight times, 15 times. No answer.
I put the phone down, still ringing, and started on my morning's work. After 18 minutes of ringing, someone finished their Facebooking or doughnut or whatever and answered.
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"I'd like to schedule an appointment in Glenwood for a driver's test." "OK," she replied. Without another word, she put me hold. Twenty-seven minutes later, someone else picked up the phone and politely asked what I wanted.
I told her. She replied, "Oh, you don't need an appointment for that."
We went to the Glenwood DMV office. The employees were first rate, yet they told us that they could do no business that day. Their computer systems were down across the state. They had no idea when the system would come up.
Even if they could do business, however, they said my daughter could not take the driver's test. She needed an appointment.
DMVs are to customer service as sandstorms are to picnics, as ice flows are to the elderly, as Trump is to public relations.
The DMV makes all government look like clown school. Unfair? That's your call. To improve performance, the state now puts some of its best people behind the counter. They are professional, courteous and even funny. But the back office is a mess.
I set upon the path to find out why the phone service stunk and the website was broken. The DMV has channels to communicate with citizens, resolve citizen complaints and pry open the bureaucratic clamshell. They just don't work.
I found that the DMV does not to know who is in charge of its phone lines and website. Or it will not say. According to a DMV representative, average wait time for all initial Level 1 phone calls is 70 seconds, whatever "initial Level 1" phone call means.
The DMV goes on to say that people needing more information wait an average of seven to 12 minutes. An average is a specific number, not a range. With no source offered, the number gains a second flaw. Remember the joke that 80 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot? The DMV gives itself an immediate credibility problem.
Of course, that report defied my experience.
An outside contractor runs the DMV's internet calendar page. The DMV had no record of reports to DMV people on web traffic to the calendar or failed attempts to book appointments. Pretty basic stuff — either no one at the DMV cares or the DMV just will not say.
Perhaps my episode should be dismissed as a one-time novelty, like a three-legged duck. Or it might indicate a systematic failure, like a three-legged duck near a cosmetics factory.
Two quick points:
First, if the DMV commonly wastes people's work time, then the DMV is making the state poorer. Does Usain Bolt wear ankle weights when he competes? Of course not. Should Colorado lose productivity because the DMV runs itself like a brood of chickens? Of course not.
Second, political science suggests that poor service may actually advance bureaucratic goals. Rotten service strengthens the case for bigger budgets. Every organization wants more money, even Mother Theresa's ("The Missionary Position, Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice," Christopher Hitchens, 1995, Hatchette Book Group, pp. 67, 68).
In 1969, the National Park Service won a fatter budget after closing the Washington Monument and Grand Canyon for two days a week. The goal is to cause the public enough pain that it caves. This tactic is the Washington Monument Syndrome.
Two more examples: In a dispute over the debt ceiling, the last president threatened to cut money for air traffic control, thereby disrupting air travel. Less disruptive cuts could have been made elsewhere.
Colorado's own Gale Norton shut down National Park websites to gain leverage last time the federal government beat up on Native Americans in a big way.
As mere citizens, we only shrug our shoulders and accept the wasted time. We figure bad service and poor public management are set in stone.
They are, yet sophisticated voters can be powerful jackhammers.
Vince Emmer is a financial analyst who runs Citizens Due Diligence in his off hours. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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