Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Adventures in Beaurocracy

There isn't much need to carry cash anymore.  Or checks for that matter.  Everything is payable by plastic, or else it's gone completely electronic.  All of the vendors that are providing some utility or service for our home encourage automatic payments, taken right from a bank account without me even lifting a finger.  Of course, I still have to remember that money is being virtually vacuumed out of my account, but I certainly don't have to write a check or hand over any paper bills to anyone.  In fact, the only legitimate business I have seen in recent history that required payment by cash was a parking garage during a special event when the fees were different than usual.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that renewing a driver's license in the state of Texas required payment by cash or check.  The last time I renewed my license, I did so online.  It was quick and convenient, and I used a debit card.  Imaginary money was magically transferred from my electronic account to the Department of Public Safety's account without anyone needing to write a check or count any dead presidents.  This time around, however, they required that I appear in person to fill out a little form, have my vision tested, and get an updated photo.  I walked in to the driver's license facility to see the expected throng of waiting people, sitting in chairs or slowly queuing through lines.  I assumed they were queuing, at least.  They weren't actually moving, but the impression was that infinitesimal forward motion was indeed taking place.

I went first to the information desk, since a large sign on the door instructed me to do so.  It was right next to a large sign that admonished against bringing food or drink into the building.  Nearby were several signs advertising the convenience of renewing one's license online and some other signs that got lost in the overwhelming visual chaos of messages.  The kind lady at the information desk told me I needed to fill out a short form and wait in one of the lines.  Easy enough. 

"Do I need anything else?" I inquired.

"Just your old license," she replied.


So, I filled out the form and stood in the line.  It moved.  Slowly.  I watched people, generally calm, perhaps a bit bored, waiting in their respective places in their respective lines, and before long I was next.  I had my form, I had my license, I was ready.  A surly older woman who was pushing retirement called me up to her window and asked for the form and my license and $25. 

"Is a debit card OK?" I queried innocently, expecting that any form of payment that would work for the Department of Public Safety website would surely work in person.  Not so. 

"Cash or check," she snarled, adding a snippy, "The sign on the front desk says so."

I took my form and license and left, rather disappointed, frustrated, a bit angry, and perhaps a smidge indignant.  I did glance at the front desk on the way out to observe a small square sign that read: Cash or Check Only.  It was posted at waist-height, amid all of the other informative signs about how easy it is to navigate the DPS website.  Part of me wanted to make a scene, to play the victim, to demand to know why a form of payment accepted across many parts of the civilized world for almost any service or product imaginable was not good enough for the Department of Public Safety.  Instead, I decided that there are simply some times when you have to play by someone else's rules.

Determined to renew my license on the day I intended, after lunch I stopped by the bank and made my way back to the DPS office, expecting that the lunch break crowd would have cleared out and that I would quickly slip back it and take care of everything.  Incredibly, the information desk line was nearly out the door and the throng seemed even denser than before.  I slipped past the information desk and to the end of the renewal line, feeling a little conspicuous.  I already had my form and knew where I was supposed to be, but I felt sure I would be "caught" disobeying instructions. 

It wasn't quite this bad.
No one said a word, and I settled into the line behind a trio of older women complaining about how long they had been waiting.  Their complaints became a bit louder until a deputy eventually came over to check on them.  Had these women been thuggish young men, the scene would have seemed even more tense.  The ringleader, a woman in her 70s, explained that she had been waiting for two hours and was too old to be standing around.  She had other things to do, after all.  The young, authoritative deputy sternly explained that this office had to handle licenses and identifications for all of the millions of people in the city, and she would have to be patient.  Wrong answer.  Her quick retort was that they should have a proportionate number of workers for all those millions of people they had to serve, which elicited some agreement from the officer as he departed around a corner.

A second gentleman came by a few minutes later, and he kept the ladies entertained for a while longer.  He explained about the new system that was being installed, and that change takes time.  It would have been nice to get the new system up and running without interrupting the normal business of the office, but sometimes the most ideal solution isn't possible.  They were calling more workers in to assist with things in the meantime, and the line should get moving along more quickly very soon.  Improvements for the long term are worth a little inconvenience in the short term, but he understood her frustration.

He was smooth.  And he was right.  Not long after he promised it, more workers appeared and the line began moving more swiftly.  Before I knew it, I was handing my form and my old license to a calm, polite gentleman, although a part of me had secretly wished for the surly woman who had sent me away earlier in the day.  My vision was tested, picture was taken, I provided my signature and my thumbprints, and while his computer was busy doing something, I said, "I hope the improvements will make your job a little easier."

"Nope," he replied.  "We've gone from three screens to 50" (referring, I assume, to the number of click-through screens on the computer to complete the process).

It seems that change can be a challenge for everyone, and it's not always easy (or preferable) to contain one's frustration.  Improvements can be double-edged.  Improving one part of a process may make other aspects more cumbersome.  And all of the challenges may not even be foreseeable.  I started the afternoon angry at the surly woman, the Department of Public Safety, myself, and the whole situation in general.  By the end of it, I was seeing the tenderness of humanity.  In the surly woman and the polite gentleman who were both facing an exponential complication to their jobs.  In the complaining women who basically wanted to be shown a little respect.  In the deputy who tried to use his authority to maintain peace.  In the gentle bureaucrat who successfully conveyed information with compassion.  In myself for missing a vital piece of information and doing what was necessary to accomplish what I set out to do.

I almost felt ashamed paying for my new license in one-dollar bills, but I was thankful that I had talked myself down from the stiff-jawed desire to pay in pennies.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Randy. This was a wonderful reminder about recognizing the humanity of all, being compassionate, and consciously eschewing a victim mentality. Government offices are the perfect place to practice that, lol. I can't imagine working there!