Management & Labor

The Commonwealth of Boastfulness

When I started writing this column, I promised myself I wouldn't use it as a soapbox for personal grudges or quarrels. It can come off as bad sportsmanship, and most of the time, it bores the reader. But some opportunities are just too juicy to pass up.
by | October 2001

When I started writing this column, I promised myself I wouldn't use it as a soapbox for personal grudges or quarrels. It can come off as bad sportsmanship, and most of the time, it bores the reader. But some opportunities are just too juicy to pass up.

A couple of weeks ago, reading through the copy for this month's issue of Governing, I learned that the Virginia Department of Taxation had won an award for excellent performance from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers. I almost fell out of my chair.

That very afternoon, I had fought one of many skirmishes in what has been a prolonged battle with the Virginia Department of Taxation over my state income tax for the year 2000.

Every couple of weeks since May, I have received a letter from the agency asking where the payment was, and adding on a hefty penalty each time for my failure to file promptly. The initial letters were reasonably polite; the more recent ones have been on the aggressive side.

"You must send full payment," one of the August letters warned me. "If collection action is necessary, the department may immediately begin legal proceedings, including the issuance of a memorandum of lien which is a judgment recorded against you in the circuit court."

I pondered that letter while holding in my hand a copy of cancelled personal check #1269, on my account at First Union Bank, for $1,140, the amount that was due. That check was mailed on April 29, two days before the deadline, and in mid-May it was deposited in the state's bank account in Richmond.

When I first started receiving these letters, I naively assumed I didn't need to worry about them. Sooner or later the state would realize it had my money, and would send me a nice, warm letter of apology.

But all I got was more threats. On August 31, I was informed that I had 10 days to clear the matter up, or the wheels of justice would begin turning against me. I realized I had to do something.

So I went to the Department of Taxation's Web site. It's a pretty spiffy little Web site, with links to all sorts of impressive testimony that my happiness is the department's only concern. The mission of the department, Commissioner Danny Payne explains, is "to create a dynamic environment that makes it easier for all taxpayers to understand tax requirements and to file and pay in a timely, efficient manner."

In other words, they want more taxpayers like me. That was encouraging. Even more encouraging was their invitation to contact them by e-mail. "Your comments are very important," the department assured me. "Tell us what you think."

I did that. I said I think a mistake has been made. Would someone please look into it? I received a message back saying that for privacy reasons, the department didn't deal with individual accounts by e- mail. I told them there was no privacy issue for me. I would gladly waive all my privacy rights. Sorry, they wrote back. If you want help, you should contact us by phone.

If you have ever dealt with the Virginia Department of Taxation, you probably know that reaching them by phone is virtually impossible. The line is always busy. It can take days to get through. Pinning your hopes on a call to this agency is a little like assuming you will win a lottery jackpot. Of course, I'm beginning to understand why the line is so busy, but that doesn't help much.

Nevertheless, after several dozen tries, I was able to get through. I reported to the customer service officer, Katrice Hunt, that I had paid my taxes in April, and I had the cancelled check. Perhaps I could fax it to her, and we could clear this up. "You can fax it," she told me, "but we have a huge backlog of faxes. It might be weeks."

Okay, I said. These things can take a while. I understand that. But while we wait, could you at least stop sending these letters? They are scaring me.

"I'm not sending you any letters," Ms. Hunt protested. "A computer is sending those letters."

Let me ask you a question, I said. "Aren't you and the computer both working for the Department of Taxation? Isn't it all one agency?" She didn't seem very interested in discussing the fine points of my theory.

The good news is that someday my documents will reach the top of the agency's mile-high stack of faxes, and someone will realize that I am all paid up. By then, of course, I may be in prison for tax evasion. Fortunately, our publisher, Peter Harkness, has assured me that he will provide pencil and paper so I can continue writing this column while I am behind bars.

As for the Virginia Department of Taxation, maybe I shouldn't be too hard on them. The award the agency got from NASCIO was for entering into a partnership with AMS, a private technology company, to rethink and modernize all of their business practices. Based on my experience, they have a lot to work on. But beneath the veneer of cockiness, they seem to realize they have a problem. At least that's something

Elsewhere in the government of my state, there are agencies for whom humility is a totally foreign concept. Consider, for example, the Department of Motor Vehicles. A couple of months ago, one of our editors wrote a column on the Governing Web site asking why auto license and tag renewal was such an unpleasant experience in so many jurisdictions around the country.

This column received an indignant response from Asbury W. Quillian, Virginia's acting DMV commissioner, who told us that obviously we had not bothered to check on the way things were done in his agency. Virginia's DMV, Quillian says, provides "the ultimate in customer service." In fact, Quillian boasted, a survey conducted by the University of Virginia gave his office rave reviews and reported 94 percent citizen satisfaction.

I'm not sure whom they surveyed. It couldn't have been anybody I know. Take one of the basics of DMV management--license plate renewal. Even a marginally competent DMV, let alone a self-proclaimed champion, knows how to send out renewal notices when the time comes.

Our household, however, hasn't received a renewal notice in years. The way we remember to get new tags is that the old ones expire, somebody in my family is pulled over for driving with them, and we're hit with a fine. You can argue that we ought to pay more attention to the deadlines, but still, mailing out renewal notices should be within the capacity of an agency that modestly considers itself "a role model for motor vehicle administrations and government agencies across the nation."

The first time this happened to us, my wife called the DMV and suggested that somewhere they must have a list of automobiles registered in the state. Since two of these cars belong to us, maybe they would consider adding our names to the mailing list for renewal purposes. It didn't work. The next time the tags expired, we got nailed again. Maybe they will finally notify us on the third try a couple of years from now. Meanwhile, however, I'm afraid I must count myself among the alleged 6 percent of Virginia residents who don't believe the self-serving press releases the agency continually pours out.

Having gotten all this off my chest, perhaps I should back off a little bit. I don't doubt that the Virginia DMV--and even the Department of Taxation--handles a good portion of its work in a competent way. Even the best government agency is bound to make a mistake once in a while. Bashing an entire bureaucracy on the basis of scattered consumer horror stories is a questionable thing to do, even when you yourself are the aggrieved consumer. Radio talk-show loudmouths play that sort of game. It's not a form of journalism that I find very appealing.

What angers me is the combination of bureaucratic mess-ups and incessant boastfulness. If the Virginia DMV weren't so self- congratulatory, I'd be inclined to cut them a little more slack for forgetting to send out my renewal notices. If the Department of Taxation didn't publish news releases bragging about how they had launched "a new era in tax administration," I'd be more charitable to them when they lose track of my check. They don't seem to understand that.

But then, the entire state has a humility problem these days under its braggart-in-chief, Governor James S. Gilmore III. I'm well aware that most governors have a tendency to brag a little, but in his 3 1/2 years in office, Gilmore has carried the habit to new levels, especially when it comes to management and IT.

"We stand as the architects," Gilmore declared last year, "of a model for governing in the Internet age. Our actions have written history... no state has approached government like this."

As I go over the specifics of that speech, I find them palpably false. Virginia isn't bad when it comes to technology, but most of the things it's doing other states such as Michigan, Washington and Utah started doing at the same time, if not before. Somebody needs to tell these people to try solving problems first and then talking about it afterward, instead of the other way around.

As I write this column, the governor's hand-picked Republican candidate to succeed him trails his Democratic opponent by 15 points in most of the polls--in a state that went for George W. Bush over Al Gore by more than 200,000 votes and hasn't elected a Democratic governor since the 1980s.

There are many ways to explain an anomaly like that, of course, but I sometimes wonder if at least a small part of it doesn't have to do with the mundane customer dissatisfactions of people like me, who read and listen to all the bragging out of Richmond, and then find that the government has trouble doing something very simple, like processing a tax payment or sending out a renewal notice.

Back in the 1930s, when Dizzy Dean had had one of his best years with the St. Louis Cardinals, somebody asked him why he bragged so much. "It ain't bragging," Dean said, "as long as you can do it."

He had a point. It's when you brag and can't do it that you get in trouble. That's as true in government as it is in baseball.

Alan Ehrenhalt
Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Contributing Editor
aehrenhalt@governing.com  | 

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