It's a pretty safe bet that the year and month a vehicle registration is due for renewal is unknown to the average car owner living in Maryland or anywhere else for that matter. Most of us probably can't recall our tag number (even though it's a useful bit of information when registering at a hotel) let alone when it's time to get new stickers.
So it's understandable that the latest misstep by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration — a delay in sending out registration renewal notices by mail — caught some drivers off-guard. The result was that instead of the customary 45-to-60 days of advance notice by mail, some people had just days to renew their registration or violate the law.
What were the consequences of this? It's not entirely clear. The MVA says the vast majority received a renewal notice by email so the written notice was actually a redundancy. However, more than 12,000 people got only the late written notice by mail as they did not have an email address on file — providing one is an option, not a requirement — with the agency.
This isn't the end of the world as we know it, of course. There is no late fee for a tardy registration renewal, and the MVA offers a variety of ways to renew including doing so online, at a kiosk or even by telephone. Most have likely already renewed and plastered their stickers on their license plates. Nevertheless, it raises the possibility that some who registered late could have been pulled over by police with expired plates or may yet run into that problem.
And as police don't keep statistics on citations issued specifically for expired tags — and certainly not based on when those tags may have expired — we'll probably never know the impact. Yet the episode is instructive. Did the MVA as an agency of state government react to this dilemma by putting the interests of its customers first?
Mistakes happen. In this case, the problem was traced to a mail sorting machine that was experiencing intermittent problems beginning in mid-May and was corrected by June 18, according to an agency spokesman. But the MVA didn't publicly announce the problem, temporarily change the deadlines for renewal or, as far as anyone can tell, ask police to temporarily halt enforcement of recently-expired tags.
The episode may have been relatively minor, but it raises concerns that seem very much on the public's mind these days: Is government candid about its screw-ups? Does it care about those caught up in them? Does it show the same forgiveness of others that it grants itself?
Whether it's treatment of patients at medical facilities managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the handling of tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service or the creation of health care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act, there's certainly been plenty of reason to have grave doubts about matters of government competence, transparency and the treatment of consumers. The indifferent bureaucrat has become a symbol of government overreach.
One imagines that if the average Maryland motorists showed up at the MVA with a long story about their own woes (the dog ate my renewal notice), employees would be none too interested. (Here's what they'd probably hear in response: "Next customer, please.") Even if a 45-day renewal notification isn't mandated under state law, it's been a custom for as long as anyone can remember.
What consumers have a right to expect is a little more humility and a bit more accommodation. The day when such transactions are handled electronically is coming (more than 2 million have signed up for email notification with the MVA), but it's not here yet. Old-fashioned letters still count, particularly for the older and less affluent who don't regularly use a computer.
More than ever, people are doubting the competence and intentions of government. By its very nature (and frequent contact with consumers), the MVA is on the front lines of this debate over whether government is a help or a hindrance. The agency has made great strides over the years to adapt to technology and reduce the hassles of registration, licensing and renewals. Whether they've sufficiently adopted a "customers first" mindset, however, is another matter.
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