Fix the DMV, Raise Trust in Government.

Every day, we interact with government in multiple ways, most of which are invisible. Because of that, we don't give it much credit. I'll bet you've never driven to the supermarket, gotten out of your car, and said, "Wow -- it would have taken me a heck of a lot longer to get here if there wasn't a paved road to drive on. Thanks, government!" Or settled into bed at the end of the day and said, "I sure am glad none of my kids was poisoned by tainted meat today. Thanks, government!"

Unfortunately, when we interact with government in a visible way, it's a lot more likely to be unpleasant. As an example, Keith Humphreys relates his DMV horror story, and it's painful. You may have experienced something similar. At the very least, chances are that your DMV experience has been less than a joy. It may be that California's system is, at the moment, particularly horrible. My last experience with a DMV was actually pretty good -- they had a person at the front whose job it was to ask you what you were there for, then tell you quickly where to head (thereby alleviating the everyone-standing-in-one-line problem); the computers were reasonably up-to-date; and everything moved along fairly quickly, allowing me to get in and out in about an hour.

But that's obviously not the case everywhere, and given that the DMV has long been a symbol of government incompetence and indifference, it's particularly in the government's interest to make it run as smoothly as possible. As Keith says:

As I said in the initial post, experiences like I am having with the DMV are emblematic of what creates popular rage at public services and government generally. To deny or minimize this reality (as did some of the comments that appeared around the web after my first DMV post) is to fail to understand where justifiable anger at and cynicism about government often originates in the U.S. Implying that complaints about public sector services are just right-wing propaganda or responding to them with the feeble excuse that sometimes services are good and that’s good enough, only serves to makes the rage more intense. Those who see value in the public sector should be at the forefront of criticizing public services when they fail rather than reflexively minimizing the problems, leaving dedicated foes of the public sector the chance to score easy points with those citizens who have been poorly served.

We know enough about systems and customer management that improving the DMV in the places where it still sucks shouldn't be that hard a task. Any smart governor who wants to make people think he/she is doing a good job and that government can get things done should have a powerful incentive to make reform of the DMV a top priority. You could even make it a campaign issue, promising that by the end of your term, wait times at the DMV will be reduced to less than an hour.

One might argue that there are more important things to worry about, and if the DMV stinks, well, that's only going to ruin your day once every few years. But when it happens, it's going to be seared into your memory, and become one of the main things you think about when you think about government.

-- Paul Waldman

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