I often meet people who believe a magical thing called "government" can fix virtually anything. For example, many California officials want to replace the healthcare system with "single-payer," which is another way of saying a system run by government. This column is designed to remind readers of how things work when "public-spirited" bureaucrats are in charge rather than "greedy" private folks who want to boost the bottom line.
There are far worse agencies than the Department of Motor Vehicles, but DMV remains the poster child for government inefficiency because we occasionally have to deal with it personally. The lessons it provides are enduring because DMVs seem impervious to change. No matter the decade, their field offices remain a cross between a bus station and a Soviet bread line.
Recently, I had two reasons to deal with DMV. I acquired a used car. I also passed a motorcycle-safety course and wanted to get the M1 endorsement. I tried making an online appointment, but they were weeks out. That could take me past the deadline for registering the car and I didn't want to send a title in the mail. I also didn't want to miss weeks of the motorcycling season.
So I headed to a DMV field office one morning and there wasn't a parking spot available. The lines circled to the back of the building. I tried another branch, but it was the same deal. I came back the next day before the office opened. The lines already were amazingly long. I went back again well before closing time, but California Highway Patrol officers were telling us the office was at capacity and sending us away.
I remembered that the AAA auto club provides some DMV services. I visited a club near my office and joined for a reasonable fee. The office was comfortable. There was complimentary coffee in the waiting area, but no need for it because there was no waiting. Within 15 minutes, I updated the registration and filed forms for the title change. Unfortunately, the DMV only outsources registration services. I had to brave a field office to get the motorcycle license.
I picked a quieter time (mid-morning, mid-week). DMV employees were very nice, but it took more than five hours. I went from the reception line to Window 1, then to the computer room to check in, then hours of waiting, back to Window 1, on to the written test room, another line, and back to the original clerk because of a paperwork glitch. Within a couple months, I'll get the license in the mail. DMV had posted an expected wait time on its website of around 1 ½ hours. As they say on Facebook, lol.
DMV always has been a frustrating place to visit, but it was worse than usual because of federal requirements to upgrade our license to a REAL ID if we want to use it to board an airplane. DMV received $23 million extra from the Legislature around a year-and-a-half ago to deal with the new requirements, Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) told me.
But then Patterson started hearing from people about the crazy lines and he found "they were not doing anything that they promised they would do with the money to make these lines shorter." The agency now is adding a few Saturday hours twice a month at some offices for limited services. He says it's too little and calls this whole mess "a monumental DMV failure," given that DMV has known about the federal rules for a long time.
Patterson met with DMV officials last week, but said they offered little more than excuses. As vice chairman of the Assembly Accountability and Administrative Review Committee, he is considering an audit of the agency. That might help. After political pressure, DMV finally reduced its commercial-license backlog, which caused hardships for truck drivers.
But it's hard to really fix government because the incentives are wrong. If this were a business, DMV would already have been open round the clock until the backlog subsided. There would be innovations and comfortable offices with cafes. But DMV has little incentive to adopt customer-friendly changes and has to get approval from its unions. Its management apparently doesn't think there's a problem.
"In the past week, the average wait times for customers with appointments is 16 minutes and for non-appointments is an hour and thirty-five minutes," according to the DMV's response to my query. DMV "has hired hundreds of new employees, worked overtime and is opening offices on Saturday," she added. "We remain committed to serving the public and getting the job right."
Such great service done right! Welcome to the parallel universe known as government. We can chuckle given the infrequency with which we have visit DMV. But remember this lesson if, someday, you're stuck waiting all day to see your doctor or eons to get an MRI.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at email@example.com.
This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.