As the face of government, DMV is not smiling
July 29, 2014
The Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles has made news twice lately in the Post Independent — and not in a great way.
First, Sara Garton of Aspen wrote about her soul-crushing experience trying to get her driver's license renewed at the Glenwood Springs DMV office.
This drew a remarkable letter of apology from DMV senior director Mike Dixon.
Then last week, the PI reported on frustrations over implementation of a law that allows people in the country illegally to get Colorado driver's licenses starting Aug. 1.
From here, this column could take a few different tacks.
• The knee-jerk reaction: The DMV shows what's wrong with government and bureaucrats are overpaid louts.
• The snarky approach: Garton's experience was par for the course. Of course it's miserable to get your driver's license, and it's only reasonable that people here illegally should suffer that little pain of American civic life. No coddling!
• The apologist route: The division is underfunded and understaffed, leaving workers to do a thankless job.
• The customer is wrong: It's your fault, so stop whining.
Each argument bears some elements of truth.
A driver's license office is one of the most visible faces of government. Inefficiency there and other day-to-day frustrations such as bad roads or the inability to get a real person on the phone can contribute to the opinion that tax money is wasted and the whole damned thing, from kindergarten to the Pentagon, doesn't work.
At Colorado's DMV, plenty isn't working quite right.
Dixon's apology noted that the division lacked money to fill vacancies last year. In addition, the driver's license computer system is nearly 20 years old and, according to a 2012 analysis, is down about 8 percent of the time.
Even when the system is working, it's slow, user-unfriendly and limits electronic payment options.
That's unfair to taxpayers. You can argue about how much we are taxed and how the money is allocated, but if you don't spend on personnel and computing power in the public or private sector, you end up with crappy service.
Add a new requirement that the DMV process thousands of licenses for people in the country illegally, and the situation only gets worse.
The immigrant license law, which takes effect Aug. 1 and already has an appointment backlog into late October, generated sharp debate on the PI's Facebook page. Some argued against the licenses, and some argued for the DMV to make them available at many more than the five offices now set to issue them.
Neither is realistic. With 11 million people in the United States illegally and as a whole contributing to our economy, we aren't going to send them all "home." This is reality, and I would rather, should I be in a real auto accident with an undocumented Swede, that the Swede have a driver's license and insurance.
At the same time, immigrant advocates can't reasonably expect, given the huge challenges the DMV faces, for licenses to be available at any office right now.
A driver's license, my dad told me when I was 15, is not a right but a privilege. I hope that at some point in the not too distant future, people in western Colorado won't have to drive to Grand Junction to get their special license, but for now, that's what's required to enjoy this newly available privilege.
The state is moving to address what one immigration attorney described to me as "the nightmare that has become Colorado's DMV system."
The Legislature approved filling vacant positions this year and authorized higher fees beginning in 2016. That will allow the DMV to replace the archaic computer system.
Ultimately, the division has a goal of an average wait time of 15 minutes in all offices. That sounds too good to be true, but setting a tough goal is how to make progress.
I promise that we will be watching here in Glenwood to see how it goes.
We all have a part in making it work, too.
I've been a licensed driver in seven states now, and I can't say my experience getting a Colorado license was a lot worse than anywhere else. Part of what makes it bad is the other customers — people who show up without the right stuff and expect the worker behind the counter to somehow make an exception.
Visit Colorado.gov/revenue/dmv to see if you really need to go to the office and to find out what papers you need. Do it for the person behind you in line.
In dealing with the DMV these last two weeks, I found an organization that's trying hard even as it's under the gun. Dixon's apology to Garton and the rest of us was candid, rare and laudable.
Government has to get the basic stuff right. As taxpayers, we are wrong to expect anything less.
But imagine, for a moment, working in a downsized office with a hiring freeze, an unreliable computer system, cranky customers and new, complex responsibilities.
I bet you can empathize.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.