The DMV. Or, Proof Private Companies Are More Accountable than Public Entities

by David Flemming 

The Vermont DMV has been the focus of controversy lately regarding its legally questionable facial-recognition program. “The department had stored 2.7 million images of license applicants — and had shared the database with police.” (Seven Days)

So, millions of photos of Vermonters, who have not committed a crime, are now in a government database. If this had happened in the private sector, the company that did this would more than likely be in both legal and PR nightmares. Heads would roll.

But, the folks at the Vermont DMV do not work for a private company. They work for the government. According to the Government Accountability Office, the odds that a federal employee will be fired in a given month are one-in-6000. Contrast that to private sector workers, who have a roughly one-in-77 chance of being fired or laid off in a given month. (1)

According to Career Builder, 15% of private sector employers have fired a worker for skipping work “without a legitimate reason,” while 22% of employers have fired someone for “using the Internet for “non-work related activity.” Compare that to this article, “Government can’t fire workers who spend six hours a day watching porn.” It would be fascinating to see what percentage of employers would fire an employee for storing and distributing photos of their customers without their consent. The private sector clearly has more stringent requirements for accountability and ‘what makes a good employee.’

On the Vermont DMV’s website, Rob Ide, Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles, states that “our goal is to offer services in a way that our customers expect from a top notch retail provider.” If that were so, someone would be fired over this massive violation of customers’ privacy. That doesn’t appear to be happening.

One key difference between the DMV, other government agencies, and private retailers is that the self-interests of a “top notch retail provider” align far more with those of its customers. If a retailer doesn’t give a customer the service they want (or plays fast and loose with their customer’s personal information), customers can go to another retailer with better service. If the DMV offers poor service, the “customer” cannot go to another licensing agency. They would have to quit driving altogether.

As such, there is no incentive to remove a bad decision maker, and no consequences for bad behavior or bad service. When there are no incentives to clean house, the house is never clean. People tend to think government needs to get involved in order to hold those in charge accountable, but the reality is most often the opposite. 

- David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Racourt August 4, 2017 at 9:45 pm

Well said.
The statistic re Gov’t. v. Private odds of being fired was especially illuminating..


Jim Bulmer August 5, 2017 at 12:49 pm

You want a job from womb to tomb with no accountability or over site, go to work for the Vermont DMV.


Chris Proton August 6, 2017 at 1:22 am

I disagree with the premise of the lead. “If this had happened in the private sector, the company that did this would more than likely be in both legal and PR nightmares. Heads would roll.”

Facebook mines personal data and likely has a treasure trove of facial recognition data available for sale. No one seems to care. I agree that DMV should not do same. EAI and VT ACLU apparently agree.


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