Monday, April 11, 2011

Three hours at the LTO

This post is antedated. This was my column on the date indicated above.

Visiting the offices of some government agency in order to perform a civic duty or to comply with some regulatory or legal requirement is not something somebody in his right mind relishes—at least in this country. It’s definitely not fun. Renewing licenses, getting permits, paying taxes, etc. are things we wish we didn’t have to do, not necessarily because we begrudge having to shell out hard-earned money but more because we know we will have to put up with a number of aggravations.

I know this is not a fair generalization but don’t we all expect that we have to put up with large-scale inefficiency, perhaps even some corruption, and lots and lots of waiting everytime we have to transact business with a government agency?

I have been told that some government agencies have been able to streamline processes and that some have even been able to maximize the use of technology to improve turnaround time. But I guess whatever improvements have been made has not really been significant because the negative perceptions continue to linger.

Anyway. I celebrated my birthday recently and that meant enduring a trek to the national centers for interminable waiting also known as the Land Transportation Office. I don’t know anyone who looks forward to having his driver’s license renewed even if the renewal is now done only every three years. Sadly, the risks and disadvantages of driving with an expired license are simply untenable. It would be tantamount to wearing a sign on one’s forehead that communicates to traffic cops “Go ahead, mulct from me. I am easy prey.”

I am pleased to announce that just like in other government offices, the LTO branch that I went to was also a firm believer in the power of tarpaulin banners. I concede that tarpaulin banners are more durable and probably more convenient but for crying out loud, do all signs have to be on tarpaulin banners? I am sure there is more to this tarpaulin phenomenon than meets the eye and I fear that at some point we’ll all be complaining about “death by tarpaulin.”

They had tarpaulin banners that announced the steps to be taken for renewing vehicle registration and driver’s licences but alas, these were positioned towards the back of the hall rather than near the entrance where they would have helped people. This reminded me of similar signs I saw more than two decades ago at the Tayuman Branch of the LTO where I got my first driver’s license—the signs were written at the back of the building where the only people who could read them were those who were looking for a place to hang out quietly while waiting for the processing to be completed. Why bother to have these signs if they don’t help people anyway?

Unlike in other LTO branches where fixers hang around like flies at a banquet, I must note that the LTO branch I went to was fixer-free, or at least not a single one offered his or her services to me when I went there.

Strangely, what this LTO branch had in great abundance was cats—as in animals of the feline kind. I love cats and I am a proud owner of an orange tabby but for the life of me I couldn’t understand how a government office could become overrun by a clowder of cats; somebody must be feeding them to encourage them to take up residence there. The cats at this LTO branch weren’t shy either, they went about their business right in the hallway and blocked passageways. I didn’t know what to make of the fact that everyone had to tiptoe around them gingerly while transacting business.

Why aren’t our government offices designed to provide comfort and convenience to people? I still have to see a LTO branch that provided air-conditioned areas for people transacting business with them. Fortunately, the employees behind glass walls already enjoy airconditioning but President Benigno Aquino’s “bosses” are made to suffer the sweltering heat outside. The day I went to the LTO was a particularly hot day and I was wearing an office attire so you can just imagine the level of discomfort I went through. And for three long hours, at that!

The process started with the submission of my expired driver’s license to a guy who looked like he had been in a bad mood for the last ten years—he looked natural wearing a scowl on his face. This guy was wearing sunglasses although I couldn’t really blame him for doing so. His desk was situated right in front of the main door and the intensity of the glare from the noonday sun was enough to cause debilitating migraines. The guy asked me if I had a taxpayer’s information number (there are fortyish-looking people in this country who still have no TIN?), gave me a form to fill out, and then sent me off to undergo a drug test and a physical examination.

Another digression: The form asked for body statistics in the metric system which is what it should be because it’s supposedly the prescribed measurement system in this country. The problem is that most of the equipment that measures height and weight are still in the old English system. For example, most weighing scales measure pounds rather than kilos. This is just one more example of how deeply-ingrained the ningas-cogon attitude is in our culture, programs don’t really get fully implemented all the way through. The metric system was a great program that never really got fully implemented resulting in a confusing situation where some forms specify measurements in metric while others continue to require measurements in the old English system.

The drug testing and the physical examinations were really plain and simple livelihood projects designed to benefit some enterprising people. The drug test cost P300 while the physical examination cost another hundred pesos. I actually think there is value in requiring drug testing before anyone is given a license to drive provided the integrity of the test is guaranteed. Let’s make no bones about this: There is no way the current drug testing being conducted in LTO branches is foolproof. When I went to have my drug test last week, the clerk didn’t even look up from what she was doing in the computer to check if I peed into the designated plastic receptacle. In fact, she left the room briefly when I was there. I could have switched the urine sample easily and she wouldn’t have known any better.

Besides, I had the distinct feeling that they didn’t even subject the urine sample for testing. I was asked to go to another room to undergo physical examinations (a pleasant clerk asked me some questions while an elderly man sat in the doctor’s chair reading a sleazy tabloid) which was completed in less than five minutes. When I got back to the drug testing room, the results of my drug test was already done despite the fact that the plastic receptable containing my urine was still sitting there looking untouched.

Less than 20 minutes later, the application for renewal of my driver’s license was feed to an assembly line that took more than two hours to process it. The inefficiency rankled because it wasn’t really a busy day—there were only a handful of people transacting business with them on that day. To make matters worse, they broke for lunch with nary an announcement to the people waiting in line.

I could go on and on griping about the ineficiency at our LTO branches and in government offices in general but the exercise is probably futile. The sad thing is that most among us have resigned ourselves to the fact that we couldn’t expect government offices to be exemplars of efficiency and productivity. But then again, why not? In other countries, government offices are the benchmark of new systems and cutting edge processes. Not in this country, though.

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