The good and the bad in government service

This is my column today, April 1, 2014. 

I celebrated my birthday recently.  I guess it must be a sign of creeping old age that I forgot what birthdays mean after reaching legal age:  Renewing one’s driver’s license. 
Government has extended the expiration date of driver’s licenses to two years which means one only needs to show up at some Land Transportation Office every other year.  I’ve been going to the same LTO office for almost two decades now partly because it’s near where I live and work and partly because I’ve been told there are less people that go there.  I am not sure there is truth in the latter, but it seems true given the fact that not one of the people I know seem aware that there is an LTO office in San Andres.  I’ve been told many times that the expiration date of a license is effective until the end of one’s birth month, but I have been reluctant to push my luck on this aspect since I seem to be a magnet for traffic cops – if there’s a traffic cop that desperately needs lunch money and I happen to be driving on the road at that specific time, that cop is bound to flag me down.   
I don’t like dealing with government offices.  I know this makes me sound like a snobbish prick but most of my experiences dealing with government offices and functionaries have not always been pleasant although I would not go as far as to say that they were extreme ordeals either.  Let’s just say that every time I walk into a government office, I always expect to be made to wait a long time even for the simplest transaction and to do so under the most uncomfortable environment. 
Imagine my surprise therefore when I breezed through the whole process of renewing my driver’s license in a record 30 minutes the other week.  I walked out of the San Andres Manila LTO grinning in disbelief that something that usually took at least four hours was completed in less the time it took me to finish a chapter of the book I brought with me to read.
First I am glad to note that drug testing has now been taken out of the whole process.   While I do think we must put in place a screening mechanism to deny driving privileges to drug-crazed individuals, I think requiring everyone to submit to a drug test was unnecessary.  Besides, it became painfully obvious that the whole drug-testing set-up at LTO offices was clearly nothing more than a money-making venture.  Second, I am glad that there seemed to be mechanisms in place to avoid fixers.  A LTO personnel was stationed at the entrance to give instructions and point people to the correct counters and tables.  I am happy to report that practically everyone was solicitous and seemed to be in a good mood.  It did seem like the whole process was almost automated – and human intervention was kept to a minimal. 
However, there was still the physical examination conducted by a medical practitioner.  At the San Andres LTO, this was conducted by the same doctor who has been since I started learning how to drive, who sat in his desk reading a tabloid and couldn’t be bothered to even shoot me a quick glance.  I was asked to sign two sheets of blank papers, which could have been petitions to allow blind people to drive, asked to step into a weighing machine that overstated my weight by 10 pounds (I complained and the clerk promptly deducted 10 pounds from the weight reading), made to pay a hundred bucks, and was promptly asked to go back to the main building to continue the process.  They took a picture of me, asked me to sign electronically into a pad, made to pay at another counter, and then after 10 minutes, my brand new license was ready for pick up at another counter.  The waiting area was still not air-conditioned but at least there were no stray cats loitering about anymore. 
I bragged about the whole experience to my friends and gloated about how government service has seemingly improved.  And then some told me about how the exact opposite still existed in the bigger LTO offices such as the one in Tayuman, Manila and Quezon City and my heart sank.  A friend told me he had to deal with fixers to enable his son to get his first driver’s license because he surprisingly flunked the written exams; he said someone told him the proctors of the driving test only gives passing marks to those who pay grease money.  
If there are some improvements in some government offices, I am afraid conditions in our government hospitals are still worse.  A relative in Tacloban City was admitted for acute appendicitis at the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center and was promptly scheduled for surgery.  It’s been three days and the poor guy is still waiting because the hospital supposedly prioritizes those who are critical; one hospital personnel brusquely told a relative that the patient would be wheeled into surgery if and when his appendix would rapture. I advised them to go to a private hospital but the EVRMC personnel would not give them the referral. And so they are still waiting.


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