How to Beat the DMV Bureaucracy

Sometimes you need more than just the law and policy on your side.


ProPublica's tagline declares the site's mission

You're just a number to us.

as "Journalism in the Public Interest," and what could be more in the public interest than helping the citizenry beat the unnecessary roadblocks imposed by public employees?

In a recently published article, web producer Hannah Birch describes her quest to secure a New York state driver's license despite being medically unable to complete the Department of Motor Vehicle's (DMV) vision exam.

Birch suffers from oculocutaneous albinism, an eye condition which allows her to see well enough to drive safely but which prevents her from making out the small-printed text of an eye exam. She writes, "even though I can't read those tiny little letters on the sheet of paper they hold up, doctors in three states now have concluded my vision is good enough for me to safely drive."

The NY DMV provides a form which allows a person to submit a doctor's evaluation of their ability to drive. Even though Birch had that form, as well as a doctor's thumb's up, she knew she was in for a long hard slog at the most loathed of state bureaucracies because as she notes, "government workers can still make it difficult for you to get what you're qualified for under the law."

She provides helpful tips for success in a place where you are literally just a number to the people who work there:

  • Know As Much As You Can in Advance
  • Figure Out As Much As You Can Quickly
  • Use Keywords
  • Speak Directly and Stand Your Ground
  • Follow Up With the People Who Helped You Out

Her mantra for slaying the beast can be summarized as "Be nice, know your shit, but don't take any shit." But Birch puts it much more politely here:

Bottom line: Don't get pushed around. As much as you can, know what you are and aren't obligated to do in a given situation. Be open to talking something through, but don't get bullied into unnecessary hassles.

Read the whole thing here

NEXT: Ayn Rand Warned Us About the Dangers of a President Like Trump

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. What is she? Too good to grease palms?

    1. *nods vigorously*

      /IL Secretary of State employee

  2. If you ask 3 different employees at the same MVA here in Murland, 3 different questions, you will get 3 different answers and all of them will be wrong, guaranteed. Best you don’t have to ever deal with these idiots.

    1. Amazing. Those same 3 employees also work at the NYS DMV.

    2. Don’t ever try to move out of Maryland! The MVA couldn’t fathom the concept of my cars being moved to and registered in another state and started heaping on fees for lack of insurance. Took six months of constant back and forth to resolve, Auth I still get emails from them two years later warning me about my expired tags.

    3. I went to the MVA to get my PDL (provisional driver’s license, also known as a “Cinderella license”) after I finished driver’s ed and I was turned away because I did not have sufficient supporting documentation.

      The next time I went to the MVA, I got the PDL without having to show any of the additional documentation I brought.

  3. I don’t know how it is in New York but here the DMV office is a part of the Sheriff’s Office right next to the county jail and I would think twice about Stand Your Ground with those folks. Speaking directly at them is liable to get them a little twitchy and a little bit fearing for their lifey.

    1. part of the Sheriff’s Office right next to the county jail

      Generally not but like any government facility these days it’s going to be lousy with cops anyway.

  4. Don’t know what you guys are talking about. Paul Krugman told me the DMV is pretty decent.

  5. Minnesota law went into effect this year requiring proof of insurance when purchasing license tabs. I have two old Hondas (a ’72 and an ’81) that haven’t run for years. And they likely won’t for at least a few more. Why on earth should I have to purchase insurance in order to buy tabs for them? Well don’t buy them you might tell me. Yes, that’s an option, but in Minnesota, if you stop buying tabs, after five years they void your title, which requires a bit of hoop-jumping and a good deal of line-standing in order to get them re-titled. Assholes.

    1. In CA if you register non-operational, you don’t have to have insurance. You might look into whether MN has a similar status you can register as.

  6. You know, I’ve never had an issue with the DMV, probably because I look online ahead of time to see what I need, and I’ll even make an appointment if it’s an option.

    Social Security office, on the other hand…

    1. Colorado wouldn’t take my VT driver’s license as proof. The website said nothing of that one state being an exception. I then couldn’t use the birth certificate from my county, and had to file to get my original state one from CA.

      1. Ouch. Ok, that blows. I guess I’ve never really had to do anything terribly complicated at the DMV, either. In the brief, awful time when I moved away from Montana, I never bothered to update any of my stuff.

    2. CA makes it difficult to get information ahead of time. The website is fully of qualifiers like “may” and “might” and “in some cases”, so there is almost no telling what you will need to do something like transfer an out-of-state title.

      1. See, you just need to learn Magic (the Gathering). Then you’ll be a wizard with all of those “may”s and “might”s.

        1. I’m not sure that getting a permit from the DMV is worth tapping my black-bordered Black Lotus.

  7. “government workers can still make it difficult for you to get what you’re qualified for under the law.”

    Funny that. Did everyone notice that in the years that Congress refused to pass a budget, the Pimp Hand of Leviathan was never stayed, the regulatory machine didn’t miss a beat, laws were enforced, doors were kicked in, fines were fined, fees were paid? That’s because this shut runs on its own steam.

    1. the Pimp Hand of Leviathan


  8. How to Beat the DMV Bureaucracy

    With a stick, while they sleep.

    With apologies to “Knight’s Tale”

  9. I did a quick read of the linked piece, and it really isn’t so much “How To Beat the DMV Bureaucracy” so much as it is, “How to Avoid Failure and Suffering and the Urge to Kill Everyone

    Much of the “advice”… e.g. =

    “Know As Much As You Can in Advance”, “Figure Out As Much As You Can Quickly”, “Use Keywords” (aka ‘their technical terms’)

    …is really just saying, ‘Don’t fight them! DO THEIR JOBS FOR THEM WHENEVER POSSIBLE, it will go smoother and more painlessly”

    That’s not really ‘slaying the beast’. Its acknowledging the basic shortcomings and irrational temper of The Beast, and suggesting that the best practice is to ‘not fight it at all, but to help it do its own job’.

    And I couldn’t agree more.

    My experience dealing with bureaucracies is to *never ask them questions or their opinions or require them to think* but rather demonstrate your congenial familiarity with their system, and quickly tell them exactly what you need them to do. a little light-hearted small-talk mixed in also helps motivate them somewhat.

    Its also, incidentally, exactly how con-men and fraudsters manipulate systems effectively.

    The person you DO NOT want to be is the “aggrieved victim” who demands someone listen to their boring complaints and then “Do Something About It!” (not knowing what something is). Sort of like the Dr. Hero from yesterday who was upset about being cuffed after having tried to flee a parking ticket.

    1. The other thing to never, ever do is throw them any kind of curveball. Never introduce an “unusual” situation, never be anything but exactly the same as their usual encounter. Because as soon as you introduce uncertainty, they get skittish. They worry that somehow it could get them in trouble, or cause them extra work, or require them to think. Lie if you have to in order to not confuse them. Be the most average, usual, rote bit of business for them that you can, and they will just process you like the robots they are.

      This woman’s problem is that she introduced uncertainty by having an unusual medical condition. She’s a walking, talking shutdown of their desire to do anything further, they just want her to go away, so that they don’t have to apply judgement or possibly put themselves at disciplinary risk for approving her, etc.

      Bureaucracy hates complexity or confusion. It just wants everything to go according to the rules, so that the right lines can be checked and papers stamped. Your best way to deal with it (other than going completely around it) is to present it with the most normal-seeming situation in the world that they encounter every day.

      1. Right. The moment she brought out that doctor’s note she was in trouble. Things would have gone much more smoothly if she had just tried to either BS her way through the eye exam, or maybe use a magnifying glass to see the text. If she had just gone with the flow they probably wouldn’t have even noticed she had a problem or at least wouldn’t have cared enough to make a stink about it.

        1. Seriously, I memorized the eye chart without even trying to. Some states are better than others about this, though – in NY, they’re still using standard eye charts that are so old they’re about to crumble into dust, while in Arizona (last I was there) they made you look into these stereomicroscope-like devices that tested each eye separately.

      2. Agreed very much. The bureaucracy is a machine that exists to process you. The machine is happiest when it can process you quickly and smoothly, and gets annoyed when you get off the standard path. As soon as you go off-script, as it were, you are something the bureaucracy is not designed to handle. A long time ago, I applied this observation in traffic court: a lot of people tried to explain their situation or justify it or argue, but I just said “yes, Your Honor” and “no, Your Honor” as appropriate, and showed all my paperwork, and got out of there relatively painlessly.

    2. Look Gilmore, teaching us how to be subservient and avoid the lash is a legitimate stepping stone to the libertarian moment.

      Its also, incidentally, exactly how con-men and fraudsters manipulate systems effectively.

      Speaking of which, my new favorite show is Better Call Saul. I realized halfway through the first show I was totally rooting for a shady, ethically-challenged ambulance-chasing lawyer.

    3. I like “how to beat the DMV bureaucracy,” because it conveys upfront that the bureaucracy exists to stifle and annoy you. They are there to stop you from getting your license or ID. Simply getting what the DMV ostensibly owes you is considered a win for you and a loss for the bureaucracy.

  10. TL;DR: DMV employees are lazy, incompetent sacks of shit. Even IRS agents think they suck.

    1. Gilmore’s summary above is excellent. That’s the certified Cliff’s Notes if you’re curious.

  11. You’re officially late with the PM links again.

    1. The PM links arrive precisely when they mean to.

      1. Must be Soave again

  12. Astonishing story, I needed a new passport in a hurry. Using a twenty-minute long phone-tree on Tuesday made an appointment at the downtown Detroit passport office for Thursday.
    Incredible security (four interviews along with a real metal detector–guess they were worried about me hijacking a twenty-story building.)
    They didn’t like the photo, but there was a convenience store on the ground floor that took passport photos and DIDN’T charge more than FedEx had.
    They voluntarily gave me the larger (sixty page) version and talked me into a ‘passport card’.
    Left the office at 12:45 on Thursday.
    They also take credit cards.
    Not sure I understand why this happened–it goes against everything I know.

  13. Interesting web site you linked to as the most loathed of state bureaucracies. What people miss is that people go to stores because they want something for sale, or to the bank to deposit checks or get cash. No one wants the DMV service. Everything they “sell” is mandated by government for very little reason. Driver’s licenses? The tests are a joke. Registration? Onky so the government can tax you.

    It’s absolutely typical of government. They mandate things that no one wants, and because of that, the government bureaucrats who deal with it have no incentive to give better service. One of the comments on that web site says not following procedure can get you fired, but neglects to add that nothing else will. Cops are the prime example — kill people, raid the wrong house, flash bang an infant in a crib — no problem. Forget to kiss the chief’s ass or obey your oath and turn in a fellow cop, and you lose big time.

    It’s government. No other explanation is necessary.

    1. I moved to Missouri a couple years ago… You go to the “Department of Revenue” to get Plates/Tags/License… It’s still an abysmal situation (you have to show proof that you don’t owe property taxes and that your vehicle was inspected in spite of the fact that they’re sitting there looking at the fact on their computer screen) but at least they’re honest.

  14. I’ve never had to do much at the DMV besides get a new license, but I’ve only once had what seems like the stereotypical experience at the DMV. Every other time I have been surprised at their friendliness and helpfulness. I think it helps to go when they aren’t busy.

  15. I gotta give props to Seminole County, FL.
    Yes, you are still a number, but a better experience in the private sector I have never had.
    Though they be bureaucrats, they are pleasant, polite, helpful and efficient.
    The facilities are clean, comfortable and they even have some ubiquitous cable news channel on multiple monitors for distraction.
    I no longer dread having to converse with the minions of the Sunshine State.

    Orange County, right next door … not so much.

  16. IDK about this lady. In NYC, the ‘eye test’ is not a proper eye chart, it is a rather large poster of 3 letter words and there is one at every counter space. They are, quite literally, no more than 4 feet away from the test taker. One would have to be completely sightless to be unable to pass that ‘exam’. Also, here in Queens, the customer service is fantastic at the DMV. Make an appointment online, go to the DMV, scan the bar code that was emailed when you made appointment and wait the 20 or 30 seconds for them to call your name. I recently had to clear up a suspension and get a renewal. It was under 8 minutes from the time I parked to the time I made it back to the car.

  17. New York has, perhaps, the most backwards state bureaucracy in the nation. They have not caught up with information technology to the nineties and their desire for minutiae on their paperwork is ridiculous.

  18. The CA DMV is not much better. Everytime you go they have a different answer. I help people navigate the DMV in San Diego and our customers are appreciative.

  19. If anyone wants help beating the CA DMV

    San Diego DMV

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.