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Ben vs. the DMVs

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Benjamin Deitchman
February 24, 2017

We live at a time of profound dialogue around the constitutional role of public administration in modern society, but we also still need to be practicing the proverbial counting of manhole covers. The day-to-day operations of government in our dynamic world still require attention to detail and citizen needs. I recently found myself at the mercy of the departments of motor vehicles of three different jurisdictions due to a mistake in their systems I needed to resolve. Although this situation was insignificant considering the scale of global challenges, it is also incumbent on public administrators to resolve these systemic issues that caused angst among the general public.

In May I went to the Georgia Department of Driver Services for what ought to have been a routine out-of-state license transfer from New York. When I arrived at the counter, the employee informed me that records indicated my license had been suspended in the February PhotoCommonwealth of Virginia in 2012. I moved away from Virginia in 2009 and had never heard of this issue. I called the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and learned that in their database I had not paid a moving violation ticket in the District of Columbia I had allegedly committed in 2011 (I was not there on the date in question and there is no reason why someone attributed this to me). After a useless phone call with the District Department of Motor Vehicles I decided to pay the $150 fine to the District of Columbia and the $140 fine to Virginia to get my Georgia license and then work with them on the refunds.

The staff in Virginia very quickly recognized they had suspended a license that no longer existed in the Commonwealth of Virginia and issued a full refund with relative speed. With the District of Columbia, on the other hand, it took seven months, several contentious phone calls and reams of documentation before I had the money returned. A clear error within internal documentation required me to bear the burden of correcting the issue with multiple governments. The onus is on public administrators, not citizens, to fix their own mistakes.

What could’ve resolved this issue with less effort on my end and fewer government resources expended in resolving the problem? Some simple ideas:

  • Governments need to communicate with one another: the federalist system is a hallmark of American governance. Drivers’ licenses are rightly a state or District of Columbia responsibility. In a mobile society, however, the licensing offices need to communicate easily and accurately with one another. A phone call or direct message among the various agencies would have streamlined and simplified the correction of this error for all involved.
  • Citizens are innocent, at least until proven guilty: There must be reasonable safeguards to prevent waste, fraud, abuse and corruption. When a citizen calls to attempt to ameliorate an issue he or she generally is not perpetuating a nefarious activity. Rules and procedures are part and parcel of public administration, but the goal of the agency should be collaborative problem solving and not increasing bureaucratic burdens. This would have been a better experience for both myself and the departments of motor vehicle employees had we all approached it as fixing a mistake together within the regulatory framework, rather than a possible crime requiring proof of innocence.
  • Customer experience is a buzzword in the private sector and should become a consideration in the public sector: A visit to a government office is never going to be comparable to a visit to Disneyland, but it need not inspire such dread. Websites and phone calls ought to be as friendly and pleasant as possible. New tools and technologies should improve the quality of interactions between street level staff and the citizen customer.
  • Measure, evaluate and improve operations: As evidenced by this column I have many opinions and comments on this issue. Nobody for the offices in question, however, has asked me about the experience formally or informally. Thus, should someone come across the same problem in the future, he or she will not benefit from my negative experience. Measurement and evaluation — collecting data or even just useful anecdotes — is necessary in every governmental division and program.

The work of a department of motor vehicles is definitely not the most important function of government. It is, however, a function of government. It is sometimes useful for individuals and organizations to not sweat the small stuff, but the small stuff can also matter. In my interaction with three governments I was eventually refunded my full $290 and it refocused my consideration of ideas about public administration (I am fortunate to have this column as an outlet for my frustrations and musings), but this was unnecessary. We can do better.


Author: Benjamin H. Deitchman is a policy practitioner in Atlanta, Georgia. His recently published book, Climate and Clean Energy Policy: State Institutions and Economic Implications, includes in-depth analysis of federalism issues. Dr. Deitchman’s email is [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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