And now for something completely different - the saga of our experience at the Texas Drivers License Center in north Austin. The “our” refers to me and my wife, Gail.
We both got letters in the mail saying that we needed to renew our drivers license. It had been ten years. In addition, the old license wouldn’t serve to get past the TSA at an airport or to enter federal facilities. A license will have to have a star in the upper right hand corner in order to pass muster. We needed an update.
We had several months to do the deed, but we decided that we might as well get it over with as soon as possible. The letter said that we had to renew in person but that we could make a reservation on line. We tried. No luck. The site informed us that there were no reservations available.
In order to rate our venture into the world of Texas bureaucracy, I’m going to keep a score card. The fact that we couldn’t make a reservation gets a minus one. I’ll take off another point for the non-existent explanation of why the reservation system didn’t work. That’s minus two if you’re counting.
OK. We decided to make the short trip to the license bureau and take our chances there without the benefit of a reservation. We arrived at eleven in the morning. We encountered an overflowing room with people sitting on the floor. Inadequate space takes off another point. The gentleman serving as a receptionist was friendly and polite despite being subject to a bombardment of questions and complaints. He told us to register. He estimated the wait time as “at least an hour and a half”. Subtract another point for accuracy, but give him a point for civility,
The score so far: minus three.
After sitting a while, it was now almost noon. We decided to go to Nervous Charlies and have lunch. The bagels at NC are flown in frozen from New York. I had hot pastrami on mine. We returned an hour later, no longer hungry, ready to go. Add a point for access to restaurants nearby.
The total score: minus two.
A word about the system that is used to track the waiting hordes. When you arrive you register electronically and indicate what service you’re seeking. The computer assigns you a number and the next few people in line’s numbers are shown on an electronic display and the very next victim is announced via loud speaker. In the time we were at lunch the numbers hadn’t progressed much. We found two seats and waited. The lady across from us struck up a conversation. She had been in the same seat since 9:30 AM. It was now 2:00 PM. Her number looked like it was due to come up shortly.
The long wait and the inaccurate estimate of how long it would take for us to get served earns the Center two more negative points. However, we did learn from the receptionist that the reservation system actually works. The reason it didn’t for us was that you had to go on line at 7:30AM to have a chance at getting a place. Since it looked like it would be another two hours or more before they would call our number, we left armed with this new information (another two points subtracted for not letting us know about this beforehand).’
The score: minus six.
The next morning, bright and early, we went on line and tried to register. Gail went first. No problem, A 9:30 appointment was assigned and confirmed. I followed a few minutes later. I was given a 9:50 appointment. I pressed the button to confirm the time. No response. I had been given an appointment but no confirmation! Two more points taken away.
Score: minus eight.
Undaunted we returned to the Center. Gail had her reservation in hand, and I had a printed page showing that I had an appointment, but with no time indicated and no confirmation. We signed in again. The computer acknowledged that Gail had an appointment at 9:30. It never heard of me. We decided that the best strategy was not to yell at the receptionist. Rather, we assumed pitiful expressions and explained our situation. “I’m sorry” was the response. “If you’re not confirmed, you have to go to the back of the line. Apparently, in the interval between when you were assigned an appointment and the confirmation, somebody else came on line and got your time”. Minus five points for poorly written software.
Score: minus 13.
A supervisor standing nearby overheard our plight. She took Gail’s written confirmation letter and scribbled something on it indicating that it could be used for two people. Score five points for flexibility. Within a few minutes we were seated at adjacent desks, each of us facing a real person capable of renewing our license.
Score: minus eight.
The lady from whom I sat across never smiled during the ten minutes it took to complete the process. But she had a wicked sense of humor, and was pleasant and efficient. We exchanged little verbal jabs while she administered a vision test (I passed), and she gave as good as she got during the repartee that took place during the remainder of the interview. She was patient with me when I stood in the wrong place while my photo was taken. And, best of all, she told me that I looked more or less the same as in my picture from ten years ago. That’s three positive points for her pleasant conversation and five for a gentle lie that made my day.
Final score: 0. Not a positive experience, but not too bad either.
A few serious words about the role of government. Notwithstanding the comments of nearly everybody I talk with, I found most of the workers at local government agencies pleasant, efficient, and competent. This despite the often burdensome conditions under which they operate and their relatively low pay. It’s not their fault that processes like renewing one’s license aren’t more efficiently handled. Turning the procedure over to the private sector doesn’t seem to be a better solution. What’s needed is a really good industrial designer with the authority to make some major changes. It will probably cost more in the near term. But without some drastic improvements we’re doomed to long lines, inadequate software, and people sitting on the floor.