This was not an improvement

Published 6:28 pm Tuesday, September 20, 2016

    Even when something is working well, a government agency too often feels the need to mess with it, and the result is often bad news for customers — i.e., taxpayers.

    For a number of years, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has sold hunting and fishing licenses online. You can still go to sporting good stores to buy hunting and fishing licenses. In Smithfield, the folks at Farmers Service are delighted to help. But the online feature was simple, relatively quick and increasingly convenient.

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    That is, until this year. Somebody sold the VDGIF on the idea of completely changing the online license sales system. A new website was developed with a new process for entering it.

    I rarely hunt anymore, but always buy a license just in case I choose to pick up a gun once in a while. So, a couple days before dove season opened, I went online to VDGIF and was sent from there to something labeled The site is subtitled as the “Go Outdoors Virginia Online Portal.”

    It’s basically where anyone who want to do most anything in Virginia other than watch television can go to buy a license for said activity, whether it’s fishing, hunting, applying for a “quota” hunt at a state site, registering a watercraft, checking game or reporting game harvest. I suspect the state will add to the list of one-site permits as time goes on, and that may be the logic behind the all-encompassing “portal.”

    It seemed pretty straightforward, so I plunged into the site and attempted, at its bidding, to “create an account.” Two visits and about an hour and a half of time later, I gave up and called a customer service number where I found would-be licensees with questions stacked up ahead of me.

    Forty five minutes later, a very nice lady came on the line and acknowledged that “yes, we are having a lot of problems.”

    The problem I was having, she explained, was that I already had a VDGIF account and that I should have gone to that. But unfortunately I couldn’t, she explained, without knowing my “account number,” which is not the same as my hunting license number and, in fact, is not recorded on any material that I have in my possession.

    The nice lady went into the computer system, found my account number and read it to me. I dutifully recorded it with “go Virginia” and “Voila!” the account opened and I bought the license.

    Just to double check my sanity I did ask a license distributor if the system was causing anyone else problems and was assured that it was. One hunter said he spent a couple of hours trying to obtain licenses for himself and several family members, a process that took minutes in years past.

    I suppose we can assume that somebody at the Game Commission will consider this customer service nightmare to be sufficiently large to require a quick fix, but then, I’m not all that hopeful.

    What’s ironic is that the VDGIF relies on hunting and fishing licenses for the bulk of its revenue and is understandably concerned that most every year, there are fewer hunters than there were the previous year. I’m betting that this system will bring about yet another decline in those numbers among people who aren’t all that serious about hunting in the first place.

    Yet, computer foul-ups are not just a VDGIF problem. A decade ago, Virginia turned its entire computer management system over to a private company and almost immediately, the Division of Motor Vehicles’ system crashed. It was months before it was fully operational again.

    And even if VDGIF works out the kinks in this new system, stand by for the next local, state or federal agency that decides to monkey around with an existing computer program designed to help the public. It is an axiom of the computer age that, in and of government, that if a program is working well, it has to be changed.