Monday, November 3, 2008

A Trebechet for all Seasons

The picture is of a Trebechet built in New Hampshire for the express purpose of throwing pumpkins to record distances in an American Punkin' Chunkin' competition, held each autumn in Delaware. Its relevance to Romania stems from an e-mail received two weeks back from a fellow Fulbrighter who, having endured the queues to obtain his health insurance in preparation for applying for a Permis de Sedere, threatened therein to build such a device in order to throw cabbages at the guilty office. [Thanks to brother Walter of UPenn, who sent me the picture.]

Today I faced the Immigration Office line, and had another experience of Romanian government "services." On the wall were two large and new-looking Yellow Signs, and while I could not translate them precisely, I was able to glean that one stated a "Commitment" to offer excellent service, and the other promised fairness and transparency in dealings with the public. Under those auspicious signs, we stood on a narrow ramp leading to a tiny office foyer, having inside only one door. The line was about twenty or so as I arrived, with the long-suffering Carmen along to interpret for me. Most in the line were foreign students, who, as do I, need this permit to stay for as long as nine months in Romania. But students are not necessarily polite. Quickly it became evident that anyone seeing an acquaintence ahead in the line would push past all others to join the friend, as if the friend had been holding their place in line. After eight or ten had shoved past us, I started to question the new rude passers as to what they thought they were doing. I could not understand why the Romanians in the line let this happen so passively. All manner of excuses were given. "I was here this morning," "I just need to get a form," and most wonderfully, "We are a special case." "Who is not, in this line, a special case?" I asked. The line began to express assent with my assertiveness. Even Carmen did not seem particularly upset with me, though I did apologize, in case I had embarrassed her.

Adding to the comedy, while here in Cluj this weekend Charles Harris reported that he obtained his Permis de Sedere in Sibiu with one leu to the post office and a stop at the police station, where an immigration officer told him that he doesn't need the redundant health insurance for which we in Cluj paid 146 Lei, and for which we waited half-a-day. Further, Charles was told the official permit will be coming in the mail from Bucharest to his mailbox in Sibiu. Here in Cluj, I am told, I must return and wait again in line at Immigration to pick up my permit, once it comes back from Bucharest.

So much for the Yellow Signs.

Such clumsy, inconsistent and irritating management of public waiting lines and services is certainly not a Romanian monopoly. I remember being infuriated when the Marlboro Massachusetts DMV office cost me a whole morning back in 1980 when I was applying to convert a New Hampshire to a Massachusetts driver's license, a process that takes about ten minutes when performed in the opposite direction in New Hampshire. The fact is that good government service is not only possible, it is efficient. Romania could gain enormously as a nation if it paid some serious attention to solving this problem. As an operations management professor, I have offered to research how to solve the queuing problem at one Cluj office, which could then serve as a model for others. I hope that I get a chance to do this research.

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