Friday, July 8, 2011

Bureaucracy Encounter

Every time I encounter the block wall that is bureaucracy, I am reminded of all the reasons I want government bureaucracy out of my personal decisions: I know my reasons for my decisions better than anyone else, particularly better than some distant government worker who is paid not for the service rendered but for the time put in. 

Yesterday I renewed my driver’s license, which I had to do in person. (When I got my original Texas license 13 years ago, I happened to have a good hair day and get a relatively good photo—I’m sad to give that up.) I steeled myself for the experience, took food (which is considered contraband in the building, but I didn’t know that at the time, and doing without lunch when under considerable stress wasn’t a good idea), a book plus my kindle, on which I have recently downloaded a number of games as well as some larger books I keep meaning to get through. So I was set for a good two-hour wait. Of course it was longer than that. 

A couple of lucky breaks kept me from going postal. I had gone to a specific office, not too far from home, because that is supposed to be the most efficient one in the region (and believe me, I’ve had experience at some really bad ones). The workers were all pleasant and helpful. What a plus! And even though there was standing room only out the door when I arrived, a seat opened up for me just as I got past the initial check-if-you-have-all-your-documents line.

They give you a number, by category of the kind of service you need. I was in the renew existing license queue, at number 132. Occasionally they would come and collect the people with numbers in the 400s, 500s, and 600s to get notarizing done. So there was a system, with different hundreds assigned to different services. I listened as they announced numbers, and the first one in my range was 101. It took some minutes before they called another in the 100s. After a while I pulled out my phone and used the stopwatch feature to find out how fast my queue was moving. It took 7-10 minutes between numbers in the 100s. All the while other numbers would be called. I never noticed anyone who got there later than I did going earlier, but for the simple task of renewing a license, an average of 8 minutes per person seemed kind of excessive. 

I had been there two hours, and we finally reached 117. That meant it would be another two hours before reaching 132. I thought through leaving and coming back another day, but that would require at least another two-hour wait, maybe longer. And I was running out of days before my birthday (going after expiration of my license would require a written test as well, which I didn’t want to spend the extra time on). 

Then, as we approached the 5:00 closing time, things in the 100s line sped up. In that last half hour, we went through 118-131. I got called at a couple of minutes after 5:00, 2 ½ hours after first taking my chair (after the 20-minute wait in the initial line). They had locked the doors but had promised the hundred or so of us still there that we would get processed—but any driving tests would have to be scheduled for another day. At the new faster pace, processing all those people started to look possible. My transaction at the window, which included signature, thumbprint, eye test, and ugly photo, took less than three minutes. The reason for taking eight minutes per person the first two hours remains a mystery. But the important thing is that I survived the bureaucratic ordeal without losing my temper or even letting the workers know how dissatisfied I was. 

The people in line seemed to form natural alliances. People near us who were finally getting their number called after a couple of hours in our company were cheered and congratulated, like they’d finally won the lottery. We were all in this ordeal together. Really, it could have been worse. 

But “it could be worse” is hardly a mission statement. I know things can be done more efficiently, because I have seen that happen. Where we used to live, it was a smaller community, with just one driver’s license issuing office in the county. When we first moved there, the wait for a license was a long, slow, hot office wait of one to two hours. But then they built a new facility, roomier and more pleasant. And you could be in and out in 20 minutes—with your photo ID in hand, instead of a promise of it being mailed to you in 4-6 weeks. The population served was larger than when it had been inefficient. So something changed in how it was run. I know this could be duplicated. I have been tempted at times to tell the bureaucrats here that they should take a trip to that other facility and see how they make things so much better. 

Vogon bureaucrat from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
I am reminded of the bureaucracy scene in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Haven’t seen it in a while, so I don’t remember all the details, just that I have been to offices that made the sci-fi version seem realistic. At least yesterday’s wasn’t quite that bad.  

But one thing I know for sure, I do not want government anywhere near my healthcare, the raising and educating of my children and grandchildren, my choice of lighting in my home, my choice of foods, or anything much that I care about. They can stay distantly involved in infrastructure, the judicial system (although they aren’t that good there either), and protection from external or internal attacks. But anything else, there is simply no reason to trust that a distant bureaucrat, directed by some distant politician, can make any decision about my life better than I can.

No comments:

Post a Comment