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Have you ever wondered why our government doesn't seem to work? We have a very modern system of electronic data and communication, but apparently that modernity only functions at the level of the CIA and the NSA. Yes, our government knows all about every letter we write and step we take. But when we want information – even about ourselves – we are stymied at every turn. Bureaucracy takes over.

Bureaucratic Nightmare

Caught in a Mare's Nest of Bureaucracy—Michael T. Hertz

I was reminded about this problem just today when I learned that I have been summoned to jury duty at the Fresno County Superior Court. Now, I haven't lived in Fresno County since 2007, and the last time I voted there was in 2012. Furthermore, in all the time I lived in Fresno (27 years), I was only called up for jury duty once (I wasn't accepted, although I was put in the jury box and questioned).

In April of this year, I registered as a voter in Los Angeles County. I guess I naively assumed that this was all there was to it, but apparently not. After receiving the summons to be on a Fresno jury, I called the Jury Selection office in Fresno and told them my story. They politely said that they were sorry but that I had to write them a letter to tell them that I no longer lived in Fresno.

After hearing this, I telephoned the Fresno Voter Registration office and learned that – yes – I was no longer on the voter rolls there and had been taken off in June when I registered to vote in Los Angeles. That would seem to have solved the problem, so I called the Fresno County Court back and told them this. And they told me that – too bad – I still had to write them a letter to give them the same information that I was giving over the telephone, even though their own local voter registrar could verify that I was no longer a resident. And, they warned in their best bureaucratic voice, if I failed to do this I might be arrested for failing to appear for jury duty!

Now this is pretty amazing. The County government knows that I no longer live in their county. They have records that are a lot better than a letter that I might sign and send to them. If I wrote them a letter, explaining that I was not a resident, wouldn't they just check with the Fresno Voter Registrar to see if I were telling the truth? Or would they just believe my letter? And if they are going to check with the voter records after they receive my letter, why don't they just do it now?

By some miracle, I received an email address for the Jury Commissioner. So I wrote them the following:

“I have not lived in Fresno for eight years. I have not voted in Fresno since 2012. Nevertheless, a letter was sent to me at my mother's address in Mexico (!) for me to report for jury service by December 28.

I moved to Los Angeles in April after living outside the U.S. since October 2013. I signed up to vote there and I am on the voting rolls in LA as of June 2015. I phoned the Fresno County Registrar of Voters and was advised that I am not on the rolls and haven't been since June 2015.

I am no longer a Fresno resident and the letter sent to me is inaccurate.

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Despite all of the foregoing, your jury selection service insists that I must write a letter to tell them these facts. They can just as readily look at the Fresno County Voter Registration records and verify that I am no longer a Fresno resident. I would appreciate it if the clerk's office would advise the Jury Selection Office not to be so bureaucratic. I am not planning on writing a letter to recite all of the foregoing.”

And they emailed me back to say,

“Please submit this information in writing (cannot process from e-mail). The address is:

Fresno County Superior Court
Jury Commissioner
1100 Van Ness Avenue
Fresno, CA 93724

If you have any further questions you may call this office during business hours at (559)457-1600, press 1 for the automated system then -0- to speak to someone in the office. If you wish you may ask to speak to a supervisor at that time.”

This is just a simple example of how our modern world doesn't function all that well. I should say in passing that I am grateful that the Fresno County offices still pick up their phones and talk to people, because if you are trying to deal with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, it's an entirely different story. But the fact that some parts of our government (e.g., the NSA) seem to know everything about the citizenry while another part (Fresno County) cannot even check the records of its own related agency shows that we have a very inefficient system.

It's a sad state of affairs that we have so much data and so many computers, and yet the positive impact for the citizenry isn't there. I've noticed this particularly with bureaucracies such as medical organizations. The UCLA hospital system is rated as one of the top three in the country. Every patient has access to the “patient portal.” The doctors there must have access to all the UCLA information that the patients do. Yet when you are dealing with three doctors in different departments at UCLA, they do not even bother to copy one another on the communications involving the same patient. When I use the patient portal and want to write to all three doctors about my condition, I have to write separately to each of them. When one of the doctors has a question for another of my doctors, he doesn't write directly to the other doctor; he asks me to ask the question!

If we are going to take advantage of our modern system, we need to think through what it takes to make the system efficient for the ultimate consumer – the people like you and me who are impacted by the system. That doesn't seem to be happening, and it's part of what makes modern life as unsatisfactory as it is getting. If you are wondering why Donald Trump is having such an impact, consider the anger that situations such as I describe can engender. These are minor, annoying problems, but they reflect that much larger problems that the society is experiencing.


Michael T. Hertz