Seriously–Two Hours in Line for Car License Plates?

I am still processing the reality that I am now home for good after three plus decades of constant packing and unpacking and bouncing between home and abroad.  First of all:  It is great to be back!  I have spent a diplomatic career extolling the dynamism, leadership and just sheer true grit of our society, and I am amazed to see how tough, resilient and still optimistic we Americans are after more than a decade of personal and national setbacks, and for too many,  real tragedies.  A lesser people would have crumbled under the pressure.  We have not.

In a few weeks we will chose our next President and other government leaders.  With the end of a long election season, the work on America’s recovery will not only continue, but intensify.  We will have to overcome political differences over the how and who and move forward — fast.  There is so much work to do!  Growing the economy and keeping our country safe are the overriding goals, but we will have to get specific on details.  As we look at other countries outperforming us in education and manufacturing or trade, it is clear that we have our work cut out for us.  We are so used to being ahead of the rest of the world that it is hard for us to have to talk about “catching up.”  So let’s not.  Let’s vault ahead, rather than just catch up to others.

Among the many macro challenges we will have to overcome,  here is a small sampling of seemingly small things that would have a big signal effect if we showed the world and ourselves a better way.  See what you think.

E-Governance:  Obtaining government services at any level in our country is much harder and old-fashioned than it should be in the 21st century.  We need state-of-the-art, fast, simple, service oriented access to our government, from obtaining vehicle license plates to passports; from mining permits to export licenses.  I just returned from tiny 21st century Estonia to vast and sometimes turn-of-the century America.  Estonians have a comfortable, even trusting relationship with their government, not because they spend a lot of time dealing with their bureaucracy, but because they spend very little.  Government services are delivered mostly electronically and fast, without long waiting lines, limited service hours, or complicated paperwork.  Most services can be obtained sitting in a comfortable easy chair at home with a laptop, tablet or smartphone, while enjoying a favorite beverage.

Wireless Communications:  I finally have my new iPhone 5, my home internet connection, and I can find he nearest Starbuck’s with free WiFi.  All good, and many around the world envy us for the technology we have invented and put in place.  But in fact our internet access is slower and/or more expensive than in other proudly “wired” — or better — “wireless” countries.  Too often during my once again daily commute from the Washington suburbs into the capital of the United States, I am faced with the “can you hear me now?” problem as my — hands free — phone connection suddenly drops put.  Outside the Beltway it is even worse.  In Estonia, broadband wireless access throughout the country — at little or no cost — is a given.  The internet is a utility, as universally available and affordable as water, electricity and indoor plumbing.  We still grit our teeth paying a hefty charge for slow internet access in top hotels in the country that invented the internet!

Cyber Security/Privacy Protection:  I spent a solid amount of my time as Ambassador on national and international cyber security issues.  It is a hot topic in diplomatic, military and international law enforcement circles.  Our leaders warn of potential “Cyber Attack Pearl Harbors.”  Serious stuff and deserving of its high national security priority.

On an individual level, protecting ourselves from identity theft and other forms of cyber crime is of similar importance.  In that latter area, the question is not whether we shield ourselves, but how.  We do what we can with computer virus detection software, encryption packages, and dozens of passwords with every internet entity from on-line stores to our banks and our digital media subscriptions.  We live on the internet, and we live with a confusing array of what we hope are adequate security and privacy protections.  Dozens or even hundreds of interloctutors in cyberspace have large chunks of our personal data and all promise “iron clad protection.”  Really?

Estonians too are fully vested in the internet age.  They embrace the reality that we work, live, shop, interact and play in cyberspace.  But  they have decided to entrust the security of these interactions, including access to government and commercial services, to a national identity access card — a most difficult subject to raise here in the U.S.   We start to shiver when we hear “national ID card” and “government central database.”  I readily share our wariness of “big brother.”   But I have concluded that big brother already exists in multiple databases that all too readily share  information to make big brother larger and more unpredictable than any single, user monitored and legally secured personal identity system would.  My friends in Estonia repeatedly demonstrated to me the utility of their ID cards as well as the electronic fingerprints they were able to monitor of those who had accessed their data, including even the police.

So I did spend two and a half hours at my local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in order to get my car license plates  — something I should have been able to do by inserting my ID card into a license plate vending machine similar to an ATM in about 2 minutes.   Of course my gripe is not simply about waiting in line for a government service or even slow or expensive internet access.  It is my concern that  what should be America’s leadership as a modern, agile, and innovative society is in a bit of a rut.  I am among those who believe in American exceptionalism — not arrogantly placing us above other nations, but accepting and exercising the unique role or country’s founders placed on our shoulders as visionaries and innovators.  The citizens of Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” should not be waiting hours at the DMV and the people of Madeline Albright’s “Indispensable Nation” should not have to shout into their smart phones “can you hear me now?”


Filed under American Values, Civil Society, good governance

23 responses to “Seriously–Two Hours in Line for Car License Plates?

  1. Justin

    I’ve lived in both Estonia and the US, and I’ve sort of closely followed this in terms of making comparisons.

    I’d say Estonia _was_ a leader in areas like e-government 5-10 years ago, and sadly lost it.

    Let’s take your example of the DMV. I have experience waiting in lines in both Maryland and Estonia for this, and the lines were just as long, but the process was more automated in Maryland. For example, in Maryland, a number of services I can just walk up to a kiosk to handle, while there is no such kiosk in Estonia. I also just went online to compare the e-services you can do on Estonia’s DMV vs Maryland’s, and Maryland offers many more services:

    As for long lines in the DMV, on Maryland’s site, you can view up-to-the-minute wait times for each transaction type, at each office. Likewise, if you need to get a state-required emissions test done, you can view live webcams of all testing stations. No such option exists in Estonia.

    Now let’s move over to neighboring DC. Here’s a full list of services I can handle online, including reporting a broken parking meter (which I did this week with my smartphone): No such services exist in Estonia.

    Or how about mobile parking, which Estonia was an world leader in (using SMS/text) 10 years ago? Well they only released a smartphone app for this about a year ago (end of 2011). When did the iPhone come out? 2008.

    As for internet availability, surely you agree it’s an unfair comparison to compare the speeds in such a vast last as the US compared to Estonia. The scale is just so much different, and it’s orders of magnitude more expensive to wire up the whole US. But in cities, again the US is leading. Where I live, the max speed for Verizon FIOS is 300/65 (download/upload), while the fastest speed offered by Elion in Estonia is 100/20.

    Want to look at business internet? Again, the US is a world leader. Datacenter costs are about 1/3rd the price in Estonia, and you get more connectivity also.

    In general, my experience has been that in Estonia, a lot of the high-tech image is good in theory but falls down in practice. Multiple times this year, I’ve had to get my signature both notarized and then apostilled, because organizations in Estonia, like Swedbank and notaries do not accept documents digitally signed with my Estonian ID card. In fact, only government agencies are legally required to accept digital signatures.

    In my opinion, the biggest and tragic failure of Estonia’s IT sector is in the mobile space. Estonia was a world leader in this about 10 years ago, back when people used more primitive phones known as feature phones. Then the smartphones came around, and the US dominated this, and in a big way. Want proof? Go to the iTunes store and look for an app to interact with the Estonian postal service, or look up any major Estonian news site. The postal service doesn’t even have an app, and Delfi’s app is awful compared to what you see from US news sites.

    • Irve

      The mobile context here is the fact that mobile devices were a luxury item back when smartphones started; adding an internet connection to a PC was far less expensive.

      The mobile space will recover as the devices are becoming more widespread. There’s a probable game-changer in progress as NFC-based ID using a mobile is less than half a year away. It could mean way more interesting services than would be possible without the existing id-card infrastructure.

      But yes, I feel that in many fields, Estonia is starting to slip as some developments are possible only with larger playing-fields…

    • Not to critisize, but to offer my view on the matters you brought out.

      I don’t own a car so I won’t comment on the DMV issues and comparisons. But I would like to comment on the fact that we are behind with the smartphone apps. Well the iphone might have been out in 2008 and our mobile parking app for it might have been out in 2011, but let’s remeber that in Estonia it’s not possible to just walk into the store and buy a iphone as it comes out in the US. There’s only one mobile provider that can sell it and I think they got the opportunity just a few years back (model 4Gs). And if you in the States can buy the cheapest iphone with just $ 200, here iphones cost around 600-800 €. Well the legal ones anyway. So you can imagine not a lot of Estonians have them and thus there is not a big need for iphone apps. There is 1,3 million of us and only 50 000 have iphones, most of them bought illegaly and then “cracked open” for the Estonian sim cards.

      As for the ITunes,it was opened to the Estonians a year ago (september 2011) and therefore there’s no point to compare this. Go to the Android app markets and you will find useful apps for Estonia 🙂

      Apple is not common , cheap nor the most used in Estonia. My point is there is no point in comparing apple products and app availability in Estonia. Maybe in 5 years, if more Estonians could afford buying Apple products.

      • Justin

        Steke: I do see your point about the Apple products being out of reach for many Estonians cost-wise, but then what about Android?

        Let’s take the example of mobile parking. The Android app for mobile parking appears to have been released only in March 2012:

        The first Android phone was released in October 2008, and Android became the leading smartphone OS by the end of 2010. So why aren’t we seeing Android app penetration in Estonia?

      • Justin: You have to understand that the same difference in purchasing power that prevents iPhone penetration reaching US levels affects smartphone penetration in general, meaning there are less Android devices as well…

        Also, when it comes to app availability, it just doesn’t make sense to compare a market of 300M people, more than half of which are smartphone users, to a market of just more than 1M, with maybe a hundred thousand smartphone users 🙂 It’s simply not economically viable for many businesses to invest in creating apps for their clients.

  2. Sonny Cline

    Your last assignment in Estonia ruined your outlook on what can, should, and reality in using the electronic world. Estonia is one of the most up-to-date in both business and personal use of the internet and the electronic business world in general. Their citizens can actually vote and even contact their elected officals from almost any location that has iternet access. I am sorry that I did not get the chance to meet you while you were in Estonia. Unforntunately, the economic downturns killed the 1.5 salary increase over the last 2 years. We had been using the inflation pay raise to visit my wife’s family in Estonia. As usuall man plans and God has a good laugh.
    After your BMV experience wait until you need to find a dentist or doctor in the US. Almost all dentists only work Monday through Thursday and increasingly medical Doctors are adopting the same work days. Even on the days they are open forget about obtaining services other than ER after 3 PM.
    Good luck and welcome back to the new/ old USA.
    Sonny Cline

  3. Thank you for the kind words on Estonia, and good luck adjusting 🙂

  4. Iwan

    thanks for a positive look at our country – a look much needed in this difficult time of rising prices and not-so-much-rising salaries. I am an Estonian citizen, and what You say about all the ID-card and Internet related services is mostly true, the benefits of all that hardly put on debate. However (in response to Sonny Cline), good luck, when You want to get to a doctor also in Estonia. Thats where the queues are.

    Cheers and thanks for Your years as ambassador.

    • Thanks for your comments, Iwan and Justin! I am very pleased that I have gotten a number of very thoughtful responses to my blog. As to such things as waiting in line for a doctor in Estonia, or Elion’s internet speeds in Estonia, the point of my article was not at all to say that everything was perfect in Estonia or that nothing works well in the U.S. I deeply love my country, which since its inception over 300 years ago has been destined to a greatness it has consistently shown throughout history — a record we must continue to build on. As for Estonia, I have great affection for that country, its people, and its leaders! Of course Estonians too are challenged every day to keep on improving and progressing. Success is part of the human condition and so is failure. The key is vision, confidence and most importantly leadership that puts country,people,and values first.

  5. Graeme Howard

    Indeed. Welcome back! You too will soon realize it is verboten for baseline Americans (the great masses watching 4 hours of Ryan Secrest intermingled with 3 hours of commercials telling them how great they are every day) to flirt with the idea that they are anything less than the greatest people who ever lived, despite the facts. This includes things they personally see and experience in their own daily lives, but somehow can’t process or acknowledge before their next session with their television and those heart warming commercials renewing and encouraging them. “You are awesome! Even though you work just to make enough money to buy gas to get to work and maybe stop at McDonalds on your way home. But you are an AMERICAN! A proud patriot of the greatest truck driving, football playing, chicken wing eating, hip hop dancing country on EARTH!”

    • Thanks for your input, Graeme. We deserve to be proud Americans! Not because of what we are fed in the media or because of our culinary or entertainment sophistication or lack thereof, but because our nation was born and sustained by the great heart, the bravery, the common toil, and the shed blood of the American people in support of something bigger and better than our individual wants and desires — be that chicken wing eating or sipping tea with raised pinkies.

  6. Kristi Hakkaja

    Thanks for the kind words towards Estonia Mr. Polt!
    And I quite agree with your last comment – US and Estonia have both been at the hight of technological edge in internet and mobile technology, and both are still riding the hype wave. Half of us already see we’re loosing the edge. Yet we shouldn’t get stuck in the catch-up game either. Instead, we need to be open for new ideas to find completely new avenues, opportunities abound.

  7. Philip Ewen

    After 6 weeks in Estonia with my Estonian partner I concur. Australia and most of Asia have also left the united states well behind. We arrived into JFK to wait 3 hours for immigration. The immigration officer said it was a typical day. Only and often in the USA do I in my many years of frequent travel experience such a sub standard welcome. Then there are no ATM in the terminal then the taxi has no GPS MAP. and the credit card device was so convoluted the driver could not work it. Really what I would call the problems facing the USA is a wholesale lack of common sense and this crazy notion by Americans that Americans have it better. They have it worse than most of the developed world particularily in health care and education and as you rightly point out infrastructure.

    • Thank you for your comment, Philip, but I want to be sure that you and other readers don’t misunderstand the meaning and purpose of my article.

      As you will have read in my blog, I firmly believe in American exceptionalism. That means the United States is special. Since the founding of our unique nation, we have committed ourselves to a set of high values that have brought our country and the world unparalleled success, progress, and of course, ultimately freedom from tyranny and comfort when in distress. We have the world’s highest quality health care and a top-class educational system. Look at the record of people coming to the U.S. from around the globe to receive medical care here and to be educated in our universities. It is by no means a “crazy notion” that we Americans are VERY fortunate to live in this truly amazing country. And part of what makes us so amazing is the ability to look in the mirror critically from time to time and to continuously “reinvent” ourselves. My blog was a contribution to that very proud American common sense spirit.

      • Philip Ewen

        Thanks Michael for your response. I have visited the USA many times and done business here for 20 years. My point about health care and education Is really directed to the lack of inclusiveness that prevails in the USA. In Australia my family private health insurance that I maintain and only required due to my income level costs me $110 a month. Any prescription medicine costs $22. My daughters university education is easily affordable. What really concerns me in the USA is that the economy has flat lined and will probably never return to what it once was and this country unlike countries with an inclusive social welfare system has no back up plan to carry the majority through tough times. We also have a higher tax base and one of the

      • Philip Ewen

        Sorry…my phone ….the strongest economies in the world today. The exceptionalism you refer to is focussed and eminating from a small base in pockets of elite categories of people around the country. So considering a population of 300 million one would expect that to exist. The challenge for the USA is to adjust to what is accepted as normal in the rest of the developed world and that is a more egalitarian and inclusive social structure that properly cares for the weaker less exceptional individuals in society.

      • Philip: Thoughtful comments, even if I very much disagree. The American economy will not only return to what it was, but expand to new dimensions. Our country has overcome far more difficult times than the current downturn and come out even stronger than before. I cannot prove the future today, but send me your comment a year or two from now and tell me what you think. Throughout history, whoever has bet against American success, has lost that bet. As to health care and university education, aside from the hype in some public debates, everyone who wants and is qualified can have and afford a quality university education in the U.S. Health care for the vast majority of our population is as affordable in relation to income and of absolute top quality. One of the challenges we face is that our health care system is tied employment and during economic hard times and high unemployment, that hits people hard. We know that and are working to improve that aspect of our care, along with the high cost of truly state-of-the art medicine.

        As to American exceptionalism, it is not a sentiment of a small elite, but a deeply ingrained understanding of most Americans. Please understand that this sense is not that we are great and flawless and other societies are wanting. It is the understanding we have that we as Americans have been blessed in many ways and must in turn help others who seek freedom, democracy, and a just society. Finally, our country has afforded more opportunities for our citizens to achieve success on all levels than any other society in the world. Even if there were a “normal for the rest of the world,” our tried and true prescription for continuing to provide for all our citizens is to maximize individual freedom and opportunity for every American in a healthy and fair global economy — a global economy that is sustained by U.S. innovation, production and consumption.

      • Philip Ewen

        Michael, thanks for engaging with me in this very interesting discussion. Yes America will survive but things will never be the same and the personal security and freedoms of Americans will no doubt be eroded by the continued polarization of wealth. Wealth has been concentrated and low taxes and funding wars means infrastructure and services in the country has fallen behind. My comments are not derived from popular media they come from my experience in business here, reading statistics and the like of sitting in factory lunch rooms listening to factory workers who had to skip medication due to cost. Living for the past month in a wide cross section of American homes across the country. From retired surgeons who say their tax is too low. To former students struggling to repay student loans, to the unemployed to small business owners struggling with palliative care costs looking after dying parents. And finally immigrant professionals who skip health insurance due to cost and employers not providing it and figure it’s better insurance for the future to leave and return to Germany.

    • Justin

      JFK immigration is a good example. I’ve waited just as long to go through immigration at London Heathrow.

      However, there is a faster solution developed, using IT. It’s called Global Entry, and I can now enter the US within a minute or two using a kiosk which has my biometrics on file.

      They actually have something similar in the UK (the IRIS system) though I don’t believe it is as widespread.

      In fact, using the same system (Global Entry), I am now qualified for TSA Pre-Check so at most US airports, I can go through security without removing my laptop, shoes, or jacket, since I’m an approved traveler.

      I definitely agree US infrastructure is in need of updating in many areas, and the aging JFK is a good place to start. When I fly to New York, I aim to travel to Laguardia or Newark airports since those are more modern and things do go more smoothly there.

  8. Pingback: For U.S. Diplomat, Culture Shock after Estonia Stint - Estonian World

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  10. Colonel Tim Evans


    Awesome thoughts on Estonia. I know you were one of the first cyber Ambassadors in the State Department.

    Col Tim Evans

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