If We Outsourced the DMV

Writing on public sector unions Walter Russell Meade says in passing:

Public sector unions did not have to face that kind of pressure until recent years. You can’t outsource the Department of Motor Vehicles or the local public school to China.

He’s right but wouldn’t it be awesome if we could?

Just imagine the scene…

(Scene: The local DMV. As you approach the doors, they are thrown open by two Chinese dressed in silk robes. As you pass, they throw themselves to the floor in a kowtow. Inside, the office is decorated in red silk and gold. A fountain burbles somewhere. A peacock saunters by. An elderly gentlemen with a fumanchu mustache and flanked by four others hurries up and prostrates himself before you.)

Li Chou: Oh, most esteemed and honored citizen! Pray tell us what glorious task we most humble and unworthy public servants may have the honor of performing for your most graciousness today?

You: Uhm, well, I need to get my license renewed.

Li Chou: (Rising up to kneel) Aiee! Having grown in years more beautiful and wise you now justly demand the articles of success that the mandate of heaven grants you?

You: Er, yes?

Li Chou: (Looking to the ceiling and claps his hands rapidly) The citizen has spoken! Bring forth the citizen’s throne and ring the gong of renewal!

(A gong rings out and you quickly find yourself sitting on a large, wooden, ornately carved and well cushioned throne. Li Chou and the other kneel about you. Nothing happens and an expectant silence settles.)

You: Er, what?

Li Chou: This most humble one is shamed to confess that we unworthies must ask, if it is the most honorable citizen’s will, that the most high one will provide to his wretched servants the current sacred documents provided by the mandate of heaven? (He throws himself into a kowtow.) This we most wretchedly beg not out of desire but dire need!

You: Ah, you want my current driver’s license?

Li Chou: Ah, the glorious citizen, graced by the wisdom of infallible heaven, has divined the need of his lowly and most inarticulate servants!

(You produce the license. Li Chou slides to your side and produces a set of 9-inch gold plated chopsticks. He uses these to gingerly take the license from your fingers and place it on a silver tray held by a beautiful young woman in silk who has mysteriously appeared at Li Chou’s elbow. The woman bows over the tray and then rapidly shuffles backwards beyond a door veil.)

Li Chou: (Kowtowing again.) Most honorable and noble citizen! It shames this one to confess that the mandate of heaven requires that your most glorious visage appear upon the sacred articles of your success!

You: You need to take my picture?

Li Chou: Aieee, the honorable citizens divines all and replies in melodious verse that would cause the great poet Hin Shu Mi to drown himself in despair! May your most humble and unworthy servants proceed?

You: Er, yes?

(Li Chou claps his hands. A dozen or so people all bowing and shuffling rapidly forward materialize and quickly set up a backdrop and camera. The backdrop looks suspiciously like once of Rembrandt’s rare country scenes. The camera looks like a steampunk contraption rendered in gold, platinum and rare woods. They snap your picture and disappear just as quickly as they appeared.)

Li Chou: This one, your most wretched servant, is forced to confess that, owing to his most inept management of those facilities graciously bestowed unto him by the glorious and wise citizens under the just mandate of heaven, it will take nearly five entire minutes for our foolish and clumsy selves to produce that article which the most honorable citizen so justly requires!

You: Five minutes? You’re kidding?

Li Chou: (Throwing himself in a kowtow.) Yes! To the shame of our ancestors! We deserve scorn and beatings! Please most wise and benevolent citizen! Thrash us as we deserve but then please while away the tedium and lassitude of this most unforgivable interlude by observing the ugly and untalented Su Li perform the dance of the water lilly as composed by the court musician of the emperor Mu Shou Ming!

(A beautiful woman and musicians materialize. The woman performs an elegant and wondrous dance in the one minute and 15 seconds remaining. Then she and the musicians disappear just as the woman with the tray carrying the card comes out from the door veil bowing and shuffling forward. Just before she stops, she stumbles so slightly as to be almost imperceptible. )

Li Chou: Most wretched and unworthy clumsy girl! (He throws himself into another kowtow.) She shames all our ancestors! Most worthy citizen! For her transgressions she shall be thrashed most thoroughly and driven into the wilds where her animal-like inattentiveness proves she should abide!

You: What? No, that is so not necessary.

Li Chou: (He sets up and addresses the woman while pointing to you with his fan.) Vile wretch! The most benevolent citizen will allow you some least little draught of undeserved mercy! Plead before the citizen most high for that which you do not deserve!

You: No, really, I am satisfied. Most satisfied.

Li Chou: Aieee! The benevolence and wisdom of the citizen illuminates the lives of the unworthy servants of the mandate of heaven!

(Li Chou produces the chopsticks again, uses them to pluck the new license from the tray and presents it to you while bowing. You take it and look it over.)

You: Wait is that my picture? It looks fantastic. I haven’t looked that good since I was 18!

Li Chou: It shames this one to confess that our inept arts can capture but a vulgar shadow of the most honorable citizen’s visage which shines forth to put to shame the dusk sunlight that dapples the ripples in the river in spring time.

You: What? (Looks back at the picture) No, really, I look like a movie star here!

Li Chou: Alas! Your most dishonorable and unworthy servants have slandered the most honorable citizen by confusing your visage with that of a most lowly actor! We will toil without rest for a thousand years to correct our shameful error!

You: What, no! Are you kidding? I am taking this home and framing it!

Li Chou: The most honorable and benevolent citizen grants his wretched servant more honor than they deserve in a hundred lifetimes!

(Many people pour out of the woodwork, some of them obviously sweating workmen. All throw themselves into a kowtow and remain still and silent.)

You: Er, good job?

(An audible sigh ripples through the gathered people and they disappear once again.)

Li Chou: (Rises from the kowtow and claps his hands.) Send forth the honor guard such that the most honorable citizen may leave in a manner befitting his most august dignity!

(A dozen soldiers appear and walking six to either side of you, escort you the 20 feet to the door. Outside you encounter a picket line of fat, surly, former DMV workers who are not so much walking the picket line as waddling it.)

A Picketer: Them chinks is taking our jerbs! (He hoarks up a load of phlegm and spits it on your shoe.)

You: Good.

End Scene.

Of course, this is just silly, not least because the Chinese mandarins pretty much invented bureaucratic inertia. And it goes without saying that in the back, 17 guys labor 16 hours a day tending to the 60-ton, 1920s-era coal-fired laminating press that made your license.

On the other hand, the Chinese are notoriously obsequious to those who employe them and if we did outsource the DMV, we the citizens would unequivocally be the boss unlike our current relationship with our public “servants.” Plus, toiling away at the DMV, even on the archaic laminating press, would be a dream job for the vast majority of Chinese today. It would be a win-win for everyone but public-sector workers who for the first time would have to compete for their jobs.

Ah, well, we can dream can’t we?

10 thoughts on “If We Outsourced the DMV”

  1. I’ve always thought McDonald’s should run the DMV. They would do a MUCH better job. When is the last time you had to wait 30 minutes at McDonald’s? Yea NEVER.

  2. In fact, one can outsource many of the DMV’s functions. In Louisiana in the 80s, when I lived there, most registration and other documentation processes could be handled by special private offices or even insurance agencies.

    Getting a drivers license still required a trip to DMV although the testing seemed to only involve implying literacy and sobriety (at the time of the test).

  3. Whitehall,

    In fact, one can outsource many of the DMV’s functions.

    In all seriousness, you could privatize the function by having insurance companies issue drivers licenses. It’s no skin off the DMV if they issue a license to someone who can’t actually drive. In fact, pay for licenses scams are relatively common.

    Of course, part of the function of a license is ID and I’m not sure how that would be handled. It’s interesting to think about.

  4. Jason,

    Yeah, that’s exactly how my last outsourced tech support call went.

    Well, I’ve hit language barriers and people who were undereducated for their task but I’ve never encountered out sourced customer service that was actively rude or contemptuous. Of course, I’ve seldom hit that problem in the free-market at all. However, it is fairly common in government. Even when they are actively dismissive, they do giver the very strong since they want you off the phone as soon as possible.

  5. DMV stuff varies a lot from state to state and over time.

    I had my first experience with them in Indiana many years ago, small town experience, faces you recognize, people who have to face you again, at church, across the counter at the bakery, loading stuff in their truck at the feedstore, no problems. (Although I was told at the time that a large portion of the “fee” was a donation to whichever political party ran the county at that time, and that this was open and legal. I don’t know if that was true.)

    Then, Boston in the late 80s. It was amazing, exactly like stories you hear of third world countries, long lines, byzantine (and probably fictitious) rules, open graft. I never did get my lic. one way of looking at it is that I couldn’t afford it even though I had a decent middle class salary.

    What a surprise to get back to Indiana. (I give Daniels a lot of grief, but if he had something to with this I’ll put it down in his favor.) They actually time you through the process and print the elapsed time on your paperwork. They are well staffed, the process is pretty clear, and the longest I’ve ever been in there for anything was 14 minutes. Much of it (plate renewals for example) can be done online.

    I don’t think it is outsourced, but maybe it is. Something is working, at least at that office.

  6. John,

    The very fact that the DMV has become a cultural emblem for bad government service has caused some states to really pay attention to the quality of DMV service. Actually doing so is not institutionally difficult because the job of the DMV is not that complex. It has always just been that in many cases, the incentive system did not include the wishes of the citizen “customers”. (I put customer in quotes because as my old employer put it, a customer is someone who has a choice in whether to deal with you.)

    I think all the anger directed at public workers today might actually light a fire under them. They’ve been indifferent and entitled because they assumed that the people had no choice but to employee them. Now they know different.

    I don’t think it is outsourced, but maybe it is.

    Funny thing, after reading this post my son commented that he was at our DMV recently and the staff was about 50% Indians with Bengali accents. I assume they were actually Texans because we have a large East Indian population but still it is rather funny to think about.

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