Lifestyles Left and Right

Excuses, Excuses

Whatever happened to organizations that under-promised and over-performed?

6.3.02

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"When I got here, we tried to make rapid change very quickly." A gem from literature's Mrs. Malaprop? Nope. It is the excuse offered by Ms. Sherryl Hobbs Newman, director of the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles, for hours-long waits endured by D.C. citizens to have driver's and auto licenses renewed.

Over at the United States Postal Service, the money-losing government monopoly that is digging itself a deeper hole every year, new statistics show that its ballyhooed Priority Mail, at $3.50 a pop, takes longer to reach its destination than ordinary First Class mail at 34 cents an ounce. The USPS touts Priority Mail as a fast (two-to-three day delivery) alternative to First Class. Yet one of its websites (postcalc.usps.gov) shows that both First Class and Priority Mail from Chicago to Washington, D.C. can be expected to take two days.

Whatever happened to organizations that under-promised and over-performed? Nowadays it always seems to be the other way around. Then, when the high expectations aren't fulfilled, there are excuses, excuses.

In the case of the D.C. motor vehicle office, slow service was legendary in the days of Mayor-for-Life (not quite, as it turned out) Marion Barry. In 1984, when she set out to re-register a California car in the District, my wife was advised by friends to "take a sleeping bag and a good book." It wasn't quite that bad, but it was an all-day excursion. For years the local government blamed poor service on antiquated computers and not enough money to replace them.

All that was taken care of soon after businesslike Mayor Anthony Williams took office. The DMV installed $19 million-worth of new computers. Waiting time dropped dramatically, averaging for much of last year the 30 minutes the department promoted as its goal. Alas, this year it is back to the bad old days. One lifelong resident left in disgust after waiting in vain four-and-a-half hours recently to get her auto license renewed. She had gone to the department because -- like thousands of others -- it had not sent out renewal-by-mail notices before her license expired.

The other day it was revealed that from 1991-98 the department double-charged $17.8 million in traffic fines. Although a 1998 audit spotted this problem, the department is just now -- nearly four years later -- getting around to sending refund notices to 21,000 people.

Who's to blame? The new computers! Mayor Williams is nonchalant about it: "Yeah, you have lines right now...sometimes because there are computer glitches," he says. Come election day, he should tell that to the folks who wait an average of three hours in his DMV lines.

The Postal Service has a different excuse. It blames the slow Priority Mail service on post-September 11 security measures requiring passenger plane cargo -- such as mail packages -- to be screened. Very handy, but it doesn't explain why Priority Mail performance has declined steadily since 1999.

Last summer, for example, we spent several weeks at our retreat on the Northern California coast. We arranged for office colleagues and family each to send us a weekly Priority Mail packet of bills and letters. Delivery time ran from six to 10 days, averaging eight. By contrast, both Federal Express and United Parcel Service promise -- and deliver -- second-day service to this rural location.

These are only two of the latest examples of deplorable consumer service. Such failings never seem to be the fault of human beings. Rather, they are caused by computer "glitches" or third-party regulations -- as if these were Acts of God and no one was possessed of the training or intelligence to adjust for such things. Computers and regulations, after all, do not materialize from thin air.

Like the double-billed traffic tickets, there always seems to be enough time and money to correct the problem. That being the case, why wasn't somebody paying attention early on, to catch the problem and correct it before it became a multi-million-dollar mistake?

There is a sign in the window of the general store in the village near our California place which reads: "We guarantee fast service, no matter how long it takes." Unlike the Postal Service and the D.C. motor vehicle office, they were kidding.

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