Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The DMV: How to Improve It?

I recently had a terrible experience with the DMV. I brought my cousin for his driving test, and the driving testers were rude and unsympathetic to my cousin's ESL situation. One tester had an accent so thick, I had no idea what he was saying. This unattractive, short, and fat male tester clearly reveled in the little power his job provided him. Meanwhile, the top manager told me she had only 2 driving testers for 40+ people that day. When I asked, "Why do you only have two people? Did a bunch of people call in sick?" the manager remarked, "That's not your business. I don't need to explain our procedures to you."

To be fair, the highest-ranking DMV local executive, the Administrative Director, treated us well, but even he managed to foul up--he cited a non-existent Vehicle Code section (VC 4008) when explaining why I had to follow a certain procedure.

Anyway, I was so frustrated with my experience at the DMV, I spent all day and night thinking about how we could improve the DMV's service. Regarding the driving testers, you can't measure performance based on pass rates or complaints for obvious reasons (e.g., all of the rejected applicants will complain, etc.), so you have to have some competition to establish objective benchmarks.

Here's what I came up with: if an applicant fails, he should be given an opportunity to go to a private, non-DMV tester. If he passes the non-DMV, private driving test and has no traffic infractions for one year, the DMV should assign its tester a point. After 25 points, the DMV should re-assign its employee with 10% lower pay. (I chose 25 points, but the appropriate number should reflect our intent to achieve a balance between fairness and competence--you don't want DMV testers being afraid to fail bad drivers.)

At the same time, if the private (non-DMV) tester passes someone, and the driver gets a moving violation (not a parking ticket or other minor infraction), then the private DMV provider should pay a fine into California's general fund. The amount of the fine should be adjusted for inflation and should be significant enough for the private testing agency to evaluate its own testers and testing process after 25 fines. (There must be a built-in incentive to discourage the private competitor from passing everyone or having lax standards.)

[Update: a friend says it's unfair to penalize the private corporation for at-fault accidents or moving violations because too many unpredictable, untestable factors are involved. I explained the private corporation must have some check against passing everyone. Moreover, if the private corporation gets fined enough times, it will fine-tune its testing process (I assume the corporation will have access to the general nature of the violations). Also, the goal is to provide incentives for improving the testing process and checks against exclusive government power--not to create a perfect system, which is impossible.]

Now that we've imposed checks on the DMV and its competitor, we also need a check on the driving applicants themselves. This issue is simple to resolve: if a driving applicant wants a non-DMV test after failing the DMV test, then s/he should pay a small, nonrefundable fee to the DMV. A small fee would discourage bad drivers from wasting people's time and would not prevent good drivers from opting for a second opinion.

The issue of improving government services is complex. It took me the entire day to come up with the idea of an objective secondary evaluation. (Once I thought about FMLA and the employer's option of sending the employee to another doctor for a second opinion, the solution became clear.) I've concluded you must have competition and/or the threat of wage/job loss to promote customer service and performance. Once you realize competition and incentives are linked to superior customer service and performance, ideas flow more easily (and one begins to see why government unions are terrible for everyone but themselves).

In any case, creating a fair system that encourages responsive government employees is certainly possible. It irks me when people say, "The government is different from private industry; therefore, you cannot apply similar standards to both." Really? What's the alternative? Terrible customer service and higher taxes for life?

Note: the major problem with the above scenario is the cost of setting up a competitor. Who is going to pay for the private competitor? If the drivers themselves pay, we have a conflict of interest. Perhaps the public would be willing to divert some of its existing taxes in the form of a grant to private competitors, which would be set up as non-profits.

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