July 20, 2009

Bureaucracy as it should be

Quico says: So, a little over a year ago, I wrote this epic post about going to get my driver's license in Caracas. In this blog's seven year history, it's one of the posts I'm proudest of: I just think it captured something special about both the glories and the miseries of Venezuelanity. Alas, last week I had to go trade in that hard-earned Venezuelan license for a new one so I can drive here, so I thought the time was ripe for a bit of compare and contrast. Because the contrast really couldn't be more complete: Quebec's provincial bureaucracy operates with simply bone-chilling efficiency, minimizing both your aggravation and the chance to make real human connections with the people you share the experience with.

The first thing you have to do here is make an appointment with the SAAQ, the Societé de l'assurance automobile du Québec, which is a kind of hybrid DMV/public insurance company. See, everyone knows Canadians get socialized medicine, but I guess not that many people realize that Québec just had to one-up the RoC (Rest of Canada) by socializing their damn car insurance, too. Figures.

When you call, there's usually a couple of weeks' wait for an appointment. Mine was set for last Wednesday, at 1:40 p.m. I turned up at 1:40 on the nose, but of course the 1:40 p.m. appointment people still hadn't been let through. A guard at the door pointed us to a waiting room off to the side of the entrance lobby where we had to wait for the call, which came, by my watch...at 1:42 p.m.

We went through to the reception where you present an ID. The receptionist crosses your name off of a printed out appointments sheet, asks you what you're there for, and gives you a little printed-out number. Then you're told to go to a larger waiting room inside, where about 8 different computerized lines move along in parallel to each other, with numbers called out by the computerized system.

Anyway, I had about a 20 minute wait there. The crowd was seriously mixed. Maybe 70% of us were obviously immigrants. Arabs and black Africans and Brazilian oligarchs and lots of chinese families with kids in toe. The other 30% were Quebeckers - basically teenagers there with their parents to get their learner's permits, most of them nervously paging through their heavily dog-eared Driver's Handbook just before their tests. At 2:03 p.m., by my watch, my number came up.

I sat down in semi-private booth with a SAAQ official and explained my case, which was slightly unusual in that I'm a new immigrant, but I also have an old SAAQ dossier from when I lived here with my parents back in 1997-98. He listened carefully, asked me for all the documents required, looked me up on the computer, meticulously updated my file, within 20 minutes, was charging me the $78 it costs to issue a replacement license. He left me with a handshake and a smile. By 2:30 p.m., I was cycling back to my house.

Obviously, the contrast with what happened to me in Los Chaguaramos couldn't have been more complete. On the one hand, the entire procedure was freakishly devoid of aggravation. On the other, nobody but nobody in the SAAQ waiting room would've dreamed of trying to strike up a conversation with anybody else in that line. We sat, silently, anonymously, safe in the expectation that the state would fulfill its minimum duty to us to treat us with professional courtesty and not to waste more of our time than is necessary.

In the SAAQ waiting room, we were dehumanized, but we were equal. Nobody could skip ahead of anybody else in that line - there's no way to bribe the computerized queue-management system. In fact, our dehumanization was the guarantee of our equality: it's precisely because the computer treated us all as ones-and-zeros-on-a-file that we could be certain nobody would get special treatment.

And that, in the end, is what bureaucracy does. In Venezuela Bureaucracy is, of course, a dirty word, but it really shouldn't be.

Real bureaucracy - rational bureaucracy of the kind that Canadians are so damn good at and Venezuelans so catastrophically hopeless at - is the truest guarantee of equality. In the SAAQ's hands, you temporarily trade in your individuality in return for equality, because in the SAAQ's eyes, you are not a person, you are an abstraction - an object that pre-determined rules are simply applied to.

If you're so inclined, you could see that as a terrible affront to your dignity. But believe you me, I've been through both, and I would infinitely prefer to get a driver's license in Montréal than in Caracas.

Post 16 of 100. I think this one came out pretty good...I like these licence posts.