Michael O’Brien, 17, went in for a driver’s test. The testing official failed him when the fuel light came on 23 minutes after the test started. O’Brien wasn’t happy and filed a complaint. He said it didn’t sound right as the fuel light had nothing to do with his driving ability.
When he received no response, his father posted a negative message about it on Facebook. In most countries, South Africa included, this would be a quixotic exercise.
Good thing for Michael, he lived in New Zealand. Vehicle Testing New Zealand (VTNZ) investigated and found he had been wronged. As the fuel reserve would have allowed the test to finish, the testing agent was wrong. They called Michael and apologised. In addition, they offered a full refund for the cost of his test and said they would rebook a test for him at no cost.
Why does this not sound like a typical government department of motor vehicles?
The reason is New Zealand doesn’t have a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). It has private companies running services on behalf of the government, which are very cognizant of the need for satisfied customers. VTNZ is one such company giving driving tests on behalf of the authorities.
Having spent some time in New Zealand, I was surprised at the ease in dealing with all things regarding licensing. Since the DMV doesn’t exist, different locations take care of different issues. A licence plate can be obtained at any post office—usually with a very short wait. At my local post office, a privately-owned franchise is open seven days a week, there was no waiting whatsoever and the licence plates were handed over on the spot.
As far as a driving licence was concerned, I was surprised to be told I could see the licensing agency on Sunday, the one day most convenient for me. They were open every day of the week. Next, I was shocked to find no appointment was necessary—all I had to do was show up. I was used to waiting 30 minutes to an hour minimum anytime I went to the DMV in the United States. In South Africa it was more like 2 to 3 hours waiting time with multiple visits required. For me, just driving up to the office one Sunday morning was entirely a new experience.
The written test at my location was handled by the Automobile Association, a private membership organisation. Not a bureaucrat in sight, just AA employees. There was no queue, even though it was a busy location filled with customers. I went up and was handed the written test I needed to take. When I was finished, I took it back to the counter where, once again, I was seen immediately.
The clerk checked the answers on the spot and told me I had passed the exam. She turned a large camera on the desk in my direction for my licence photo and thanked me. She said I would have the licence in the mail by Tuesday. She fibbed. I actually received it on Monday, the very next afternoon.
Customer service and government rarely go together, and for good reason. You aren’t a customer—you have no choice. When it came to driving tests in New Zealand, should one provider give lousy service, I could go to another.
Here in the United States I have one monopoly provider, the Department of Motor Vehicles. And they don’t care about customer service. The department doesn’t exist for the convenience of the public; at best it exists for the convenience of its employees. The DMV knows they won’t go out of business if people prefer the competition because no competition is allowed. That’s nice for them but bad for the public.
At the private testing agencies employees who give lousy service can be fired; in government departments often the only way to remove a bad employee is to promote them.
New Zealand’s use of private providers doesn’t lead to lax testing. In many ways the Kiwi system is stricter about matters such as proving vehicles are road worthy. With 3,000 private vendors providing that service, it can be done quickly and efficiently, usually at a time convenient to you. And, if one vendor can’t fit you in when you are free, just call another one. Try doing that with government run departments and see where it gets you.
James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute and author of several books including Exploding Population Myths and The Liberal Tide.