Adventures in Bureacracy

My effort to trade in my New York driver’s license for a DC one at the old downtown DMV location two years ago was such a horrific experience that I became demoralized and gave up. But this morning at the District’s new Southwest Service Center was a surprisingly painless experience — polite, efficient service in clean, welcoming conditions.

It’s a reminder of a point I saw in a David Sirota column that I can’t locate anymore, namely that the quality of these kind of services is kind of a big deal politically. When people who spend a lot of time thinking about politics and policy think of “government” we think of Social Security, the Department of Defense, Medicare, the giant agencies that account for the bulk of the federal budget. But when most people think of “government” they think of the agencies they’re most likely to interact with personally — the Post Office, the DMV, the IRS form — and these things leave an impression. The argument “would you want your health care brought to you by the people who run the DMV” is a powerful argument to a citizen whose local DMV sucks (compare to: health care by the people who put a man on the Moon, invented the atom bomb and GPS, pilot nuclear submarines beneath arctic ice, etc). And yet the quality of these things varies enormously. The Southwest Service Center is fine, but a little inconvenient for most people. The Post Office closest to my house when I was growing up was terrible (maybe it’s fine now) but the Post Office in Harvard Square was fantastic and the Post Office in Castine, Maine is actually kind of stunning, while the T Street Station in DC looks horrible but is actually well-run.

Given that it’s fairly easy to look at examples of highly-functioning government “retail” offices and then look at what it would take (in terms of management strategies and resources) to bring other offices up to that standard, it makes a lot of sense for politicians interested in building support for further public investments in health care, education, child care, etc. to pay attention to this stuff. And it also makes sense to make the point that conservative politicians dedicated to the proposition that government can’t work have a strong incentive to make sure that government doesn’t work.

Photo by Flickr user Joelogon used under a Creative Commons license