Monday, July 26, 2010

Just Like New York, Only Better

Being removed, as I am, from the familiarity of friends and family, I tend to appreciate it when someone goes out of their way make me feel at home.  I would therefore like to thank the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) for an unexpectedly inspirational morning that left me nostalgic for the glory days of the Department of Motor Vehicles Office in Albany, NY.

Our DMV was so legendary for its awfulness and buffoonish officialdom and I never expected to see its like again, but the Brighton DVLA managed to leave them pale in comparison.

In general, people would rather have root canal than visit any government office, so making supplicants feel impotent, off-guard and a little bit frightened is the bread and butter of any civil servant, but to totally cow and humiliate people, well, that was a thing of beauty.

It didn’t start well; they opened on time and had a deli-style “take a number and wait” system that threatened to be efficient, but they cunningly overcame this challenge by having one of the three clerks inexplicably disappear while the “average wait” time displayed on the overhead viewing screen changed from 4 minutes to 13 minutes to 22 minutes in short succession.

If this had happened in New York, they might have felt their point was made and leave it at that, but this office went the extra mile by having the absent clerk return to her window but not serve any of the waiting people.  Instead, she fixed up her hair, spent a protracted amount of time laboriously opening a can of Coke with a letter opener and chatting with the clerk at the next window.  Then, and this was simply breathtaking, she took up a small pile of mail and began dealing with that while ignoring the people who had taken time off from work, and otherwise had to rearrange their lives, who were standing in front of her.  I was so overcome with admiration that I nearly wept; with those few simple gestures she conveyed to a room full of people, louder than if she had used a bull horn and more obviously than if she had spelled it out in red tape on the walls, that all the time, effort and money we had expended to be there was totally irrelevant.  She showed us all how a true civil servant remains insouciant before the inconvenience of the masses.

And insouciant she was, for she could afford to be.  In large, not-to-be-missed writing on the display board was a warning that they tolerated no abuse of any kind toward their staff.  This might include, one should suppose, suggestions about how people might like to be treated in order to keep them from being cranky enough to become shirty in the first place.  This promoted the fear that, unless you behaved meekly and obediently no matter how poorly they treated you, you would be deprived of, not merely your car, but your liberty as well.

While I applaud this masterstroke of crowd belittlement, it does take some of the fun out of it. I always enjoyed the occasional sparks at the Albany DMV.

Despite this disadvantage, she worked the room with such consummate perfection I could not help but be won over by her; I want to have her children.

But I mustn’t forget the Brighton Office as a whole.  Although this one clerk took the opportunity to shine, her performance would not have been as memorable had it not been for the supporting cast:

First, her two colleagues, who sent a disproportionate number of people away empty handed:

“But the man at the post office told me this is what I needed to do,” cried one distraught applicant.

“Well he doesn’t work here,” the clerk replied, and sent the dejected man on his way.

Another brilliant ploy was to have no toilets available.  If you felt the need, you had to leave the building, and the office complex, and walk to the top of the hill at the end of the street, elbow you way through the train station and make use of their lavatory.  And, of course, you had to take a new number when you returned.

Lastly, they kept the waiting room so hot sweat trickled down my back even though I was doing nothing more energetic than sitting and admiring their ability to reduce grown people to gibbering children.  There was a fan in the room, but it was not turned on, unlike the multiple fans on their side of the barrier, where they sat drinking cold soda and cups of tea while we looked in vain for a water fountain.

It was really quite exciting, and I could not imagine how the experience might be topped until I paid the parking fee: eight pounds for less than an hour and a half, or about ten pence a minute.  Way to go!

New York, you’re good, but you have a lot to learn.

18 comments:

  1. I always reckoned that the British learned a lot about how to be really obstructive when they joined the European Union.

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  2. ahh, you should see immigration at Stansted at 1 in the morning. Makes this look like a piece of cake... complete with three extra officers competing to address one strange Aussie without the right paperwork and only one agent addressing the literally hundreds of folks in the queue...

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  3. Fly: Yes, joining the EU is like taking master classes in needless bureaucratic BS.

    NFAH: Immigration are like the West End performers of bureaucracy, the DVLA is just a provincial group; that's why it was so good to see them striving for stardom. But they are still strictly "off Broadway" and nowhere near as polished as immigration, on either side of the pond ;)

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  4. Anonymous6:23 AM

    Mike,
    Interesting report. The Brits are certainly trying hard to win the world cup of inefficiency by the sound of it. If they really want to reach stardom they should plan a trip to South Africa where not only govt. departments are top of the pops but also commercial companies. Here at the bottom of Africa tax or account-paying customers are reduced to impotent resignation by people who have turned rudeness and inefficiency into an art-form. Forget about the world cup, that was SA photoshopped. The real one is somewhat different. We are the champions!
    Syd Harling

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  5. Syd: Hmmm, an international competition? I fear that might be one-sided as there are, as you point out, certain countries that would win the trophy every time. That would be too boring ;)

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  6. I have no experience with bureaucracy in NY, but after reading this, I see they get it - like oh so many things - from the Dutch! Nice to hear that this type of inefficiency is all over the EU and not just in the Netherlands. Sounds like you were put through the ringer!

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  7. Mike, you must save this post for your next book. Side-splitting funny and I was more than happy to have a laugh at your expense. What an awful experience.

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  8. Smitten: Thanks! And the experience was made better by my knowing I was going to post about it even as it was happening. I love having a blog ;)

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  9. Cloggie: The Dutch?!? But they're so polite and efficient.

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  10. In fairness to the DVLA the average person's need to visit is fairly infrequent, whereas it seems every thing one does with one's life in the US will eventually result in having to make a trip to the DMV. I'm convinced that if the DMV were more efficient (heck or even pleasant) then more Americans would be more open in their attitude to socialised health care.

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  11. Working, for nearly thirty years, on 'the other side' and, honestly, making every effort to resolve issue / enquiry of individuals, I have been threatened, had hot drinks thrown at me, been met outside the office when I have finished work, had my car tyres let down, been visited at home, had to change my 'phone number and, despite patiently trying to explain entitlement to free service / local legislation, I have been spat at and, it defies belief, the number of times I have been told: 'but I am a single parent' the individual concerned wearing designer clothes, using the latest mobile 'phone & skilfully 'drawing' more in state benefit per week than I earn per week. So it goes on, though not in my case - my health suffered and I was forced to retire.

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  12. Tyke: Glad you got out! I'm guessing you didn't work for the DVLA. Just so you (and everyone) knows, I earned my 25-year civil servant badge just before leaving the US, and my wife is currently enjoying a 20+ year career in public service (though maybe "enjoying" doesn't quite catch the flavor).

    It goes without saying that no one should be threatened or abused in their workplace by co-workers or the public. I hope retirement is treating you better than you job.

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  13. I laughed out loud at your description of the customer service girl. It's hilarious that she was opening a can of coke with a letter opener while you all melted! I have ony ever encountered that kind of obnoxious lack of accountability and bullying before - and that was with immigration.

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  14. Thanks, Pam. Glad I made you laugh. And these folks were not in the same league as immigration officials--I think they are sent to Intimidation School or something.

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  15. I dunno, I think Japanese bureaucrats might be able to teach your DVLA staff a thing or two! They have a knack for taking "petty" to new extremes. Maybe because they learned so well from the Chinese mandarins? In any event, when I had to go to the DMV in NYC a couple of months ago, I was astounded at how friendly and helpful (and reasonably efficient) everyone was! It's all relative...

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  16. You know... I can't wait to struggle to learn to drive on British roads... and cannot wait to take my driving theory test, and my practical test, and purchase my first car, and get it tagged. I'll be sure to go through the queue as many times as possible for maximum entertainment! (likely theirs, not mine) ;)

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  17. ML: I'm sure, compared with a lot of countries, the UK and US look terribly efficient. But I do love a creative whinge ;)

    Welcome, Sunflowery, to my blog, and to Britain. Oh, you have many adventures ahead of you ;)

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  18. I must say you are just like me. a talkative person. If you visit my blog I used to write such long posts. And you are doing the same. And same as mine your posts are quite interesting as mine. :)

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