I’ve always been amused by a favorite expression of good-government types: “Making the trains run on time.” But since relatively few people ride trains anymore — and even fewer remember Mussolini — perhaps the metaphor-mongers should adopt, “Keeping the lines moving at the DMV.”
After all, for most of us, the Department of Motor Vehicles is the only state agency we have direct contact with on a regular basis. The big, unwieldy beast is a favorite whipping boy of small-government conservatives: “If you like the DMV, you’ll love government-run healthcare,” more than one Republican has been heard to say.
That’s why it’s so important for state officials to make sure the DMV runs efficiently. A poorly run DMV or a disruption in service can color the public’s perception of government in general and feed the cynicism of those who think the public sector can’t do anything right.
Officials in the Malloy administration should have been alert to that mindset when they decided to shut the DMV down for an entire week this month in order to upgrade the department’s technology.
First of all, as more than one commenter has pointed out, in the private sector these types of upgrades are typically accomplished over the weekend — or in the case of larger projects, a series of weekends. That’s because it’s crucial that the company’s operations not be shut down for an extended period of time. Revenues would be lost and, perhaps more importantly, customer loyalties would be seriously tested.
But in the case of the DMV, it’s not as if its customers can go elsewhere to register a new car or schedule a road test for a teenager. So by virtue of its monopoly, the state didn’t experience much of a revenue drop as a result of the one-week shutdown. Its customers simply had to adjust to the DMV schedule or face fines from the state. The shutdown couldn’t possibly reduce demand for the service.
To be fair, there was plenty of warning that the department would be shutting down the week of Aug. 11-15 and that longer wait times should be expected. In addition, many expiration deadlines were extended. But of course, the customers who were displaced had to conduct their business sometime.
That resulted in longer-than-expected lines before and after the shutdown. On the first Saturday after the upgrade at the DMV branch in Wethersfield, motorists began lining up at 5 a.m., a full three hours before the office doors opened.
Longer lines and waits of five to seven hours were the order of the day again this week. Things got so bad that the DMV suspended operations in four of its license-only centers Tuesday and transferred employees to other offices that were overwhelmed by the surge in demand.
DMV management had to be annoyed that about 32 percent of the in-person transactions in the days after the shutdown reportedly could have been performed online from motorists’ homes or offices. Ironically, the new online system was the very reason the shutdown occurred in the first place.
Stumping for Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire last week, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy attributed the technological reluctance of motorists to “a generational thing.” But the new online system also malfunctioned after the shutdown, so perhaps that’s why so many motorists felt compelled to show up in person and wait in those hideous lines.
Connecticut should not be singled out. Motor vehicle departments across the country have been plagued with problems — probably since the Model T. Perhaps the granddaddy of all failures occurred a couple of years ago in California, where the DMV spent $135 million on a technology overhaul before scrapping it for lack of progress.
If there’s one thing officials in state government should learn, it’s not to mess with the DMV. People remember long waits. Of the myriad problems confronting America in the late 70s, what do people remember the most about the summer of ‘79? The Iranian Revolution? The SALT II Treaty? Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech? No, it was the interminable gasoline lines.
I have a suggestion and I’m only half joking: add DMV commissioner to the list of the state’s constitutional officers. If the DMV boss had to run for re-election every four years, there’s no way anyone would ever have to wait seven hours to register a car.
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