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The New York Sun

 

Post-9/11 Bureaucracy

September 12, 2007

By Howard Husock

Bad experiences at the Department of Motor Vehicles are so common they have become a cliché.

Indeed, they’re so much a part of American life as to have made their way into the “Simpsons.” In one episode, Homer Simpson’s sisters-in-law, the big-haired Patty and Selma, who work at the DMV, get right to the point when they let on that “some days we don’t let the line move at all. We call those days … weekdays.”

Still, I was simply unprepared for how truly terrible the task of getting the New York State DMV to exchange my Massachusetts driver’s license and registration for New York’s would turn out to be. Who would think that such ostensibly mundane tasks could not only demonstrate the worst sort of inefficiency, but go much further, showing how post-September 11 regulations may be penalizing ourselves more than they do anything to prevent terrorism and reminding how government operations themselves contribute to public contempt for government.

The gory details are these.

I had assumed, with the utmost naivete, that a valid driver’s license from another sovereign state would prompt New York to issue me its own license — and that would be that. E pluribas unum, after all. Just as my credit card’s good in the Empire State so, too, would my driver’s license be recognized. But the clerks — after the more than one-hour wait to reach them and after filling out the requisite forms without benefit of any writing surface being provided in the White Plains office — did not restrain their contempt for my request, unclearly explaining that the extensive ID requirements were part of the state’s reaction to September 11.

The upshot: three trips — the first two just to find out what exactly was needed. That would include an actual social security card — do you still have yours? — necessitating a side trip to the Social Security Administration. A passport? Not good enough for the DMV — even though that’s all it takes to get a new social security card. License and social security card in hand? Also not good enough.

Because my license recently had been renewed and thus had a recent “issue date,” I’d have to produce a letter from Massachusetts verifying that I’d been licensed for more than six months. (I’d had a license for more than 30 years). What if I couldn’t come up with such a letter? The DMV promises to reply promptly to email inquires in response to unusual situations. The absence of any reply at all, however, necessitated hours of phone calls to yet another agency — the DMV equivalent in Massachusetts. Total time invested: at least 12 hours. Pain and suffering? Priceless.

One wants, of course, to believe that one’s individual horror stories have significance which transcends oneself. But this one surely does.

First, it reminds how much post-September 11 security has managed mainly to penalize the law-abiding. Airport security lines are only the most visible evidence of this.

A banker friend tells me how his back office must file, at great expense to his customers and shareholders, thousands of reports of the cash transactions of small businesses as a consequence of anti-money laundering rules. Nations around the world are making travel visas for American citizens harder to get — because we’ve had to make entry into this country more difficult. Citizens of Buffalo and bordering Ontario face huge waits for what had once been the conduct of routine commerce. And, for unknown reasons, newcomers to New York must demonstrate that they’ve had a driver’s license for more than six months.

The link to potential mayhem is not at all clear. Worse, it is deeply dispiriting to learn that one state government cannot get the security information it needs directly — and immediately — from another. The protocols that create such delay may not, in other words, be addressing the core problems that hindered the government in preventing the 9/11 attacks: communicating with itself. Yet all this might not have been bothersome had the sheer process not been so opaque and protracted.

A new book written by Harvard’s Elaine Kamarck, who is the former head of Al Gore’s National Performance Review “reinventing government” program, gets at the meaning of the DMV. In “The End of Government … As We Know It: Making Public Policy Work” by, Ms. Kamarck writes, “Sometimes in the late twentieth century Americans had come to a rather widespread conclusion about the organizations, or means, of government. In short, they hated it. To too many organizations, ‘government meant organizations that were large, ponderous, inflexible and obsolete.”

The contrast between a deeply innovative private sector and its public sector counterpart, writes Ms. Kamarck, undermines trust in government to do even the things that it must — and keeps capable people from signing on for public sector careers. In short, the DMV is much more than just a place where we have to wait in line.

Ms. Kamarck’s book, it must be noted, is largely devoted to discussion of what are said to be successful new approaches to “customer service” by government. One, indeed, does occasionally find such: the fact, for instance, that an EZ Pass works anywhere from Maryland to Maine counts as a triumph.

But a few shining examples do not count for much compared to others that occur in so many places: being stuck in long lines to meet with surly clerks.

Those who would steamroller change into state government might, instead of grand plans for new programs, start with the modest goal of running basic public services well.

Original Source: http://www.nysun.com/opinion/post-9-11-bureaucracy/62478/

 

 
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