A One-Stop Shop for Government Services Is One of the Oldest and Most Repeated Ideas. It’s Also an Impossible Dream.

By Joe Mathews.

I want nothing from California governments—except whatever I need right now.

So why doesn’t my state make things easier for me? In this internet age, shouldn’t there be a one-stop shop where I can go to renew my driver’s license and vehicle registration, register to vote, research state records, pay all my state and local taxes, and buy passes to take the family to a state park?

Mine is not a new notion. To the contrary, the one-stop shop for government services is one of the oldest and most repeated ideas in California governance—a staple of candidate position papers, chamber of commerce white papers, and commission reports. In the last year, California worthies have suggested one-stop online shops for poor people to sign up for multiple public assistance programs at once, for businesses to handle all their permitting and licensing, and for California parents signing up for child care.

“Imagine if Californians had one personalized log-in account to manage all their business with the state, from updating address information and voter registration to paying taxes and applying for and managing benefits, ” the Little Hoover Commission, the state’s independent oversight agency, suggested dreamily last fall. “And they could do it all from a mobile device while taking the bus to soccer practice or at home after putting their children to bed for the night.”

These are sweet dreams, kids. And they are only dreams. Because, like the Holy Grail, the effective California one-stop shop exists only in the realm of myth.


Here’s my one-stop answer: California has too many governments—literally thousands of them—and nearly every single one sees compliance with its separate standards and rules as a way to protect its very existence.

Indeed, our state government seems designed with the opposite of one-stop shopping as its guiding principle. California has more permitting agencies than most other states, all sorts of strange regional bodies, huge incentives for endless litigation, a divide between local governments that oversee land use and state agencies that regulate what you can do on the land, and the California Environmental Quality Act, which can kill almost any worthwhile project.

Hence, the paradox of the one-stop shop: Californians need one-stop shops to deal with the government because of the very inefficiencies that make creating one-stop shops nearly impossible here.

This paradox is also why the idea of the one-stop shop (though not the reality) is so very useful. It’s an essential dodge for politicians and governments that have no real interest in doing the hard work of consolidating agencies and making things clearer and more efficient for us taxpayers. So they instead invoke the magical notion that they will somehow put all the different layers of government and regulation together in one place.

Given the dysfunction these one-stop shops are proposed to mask, it’s hardly surprising that they ever make it very far off the ground. That’s why you’re constantly reading about the abandonment of state government technology projects—from payroll to the courts—that were supposed to upgrade and combine different systems. While such abandonments can waste hundreds of millions of dollars, they can be preferable to those rare moments when our governments actually open things that purport to be a one-stop shop.

If you must visit such places, you’ll sometimes wish you hadn’t. The best-known example is the Covered California exchange, which is supposed to be a one-stop shop for health insurance. Its main virtue is that it produces so many errors, unexpected cancellations, and unexplained switches into the Medi-Cal morass that it has inspired the creation of whole industries of consultants and fixers to help those who must navigate it.

Then there’s the much-touted California Business Portal, launched last year by the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) with the goal of helping people start businesses. The site skillfully lays out all the things you need to do, but it doesn’t provide what you need to get it done then and there: one form that could be filled out and sent to all the governments that must approve your enterprise. And once you’ve seen the sea of requirements on the portal, any business owner with any sense and dollars would hire lawyers and consultants to manage the process.

It’s true that the private sector has developed what are effectively one-stop shops—but those are rare and require a corporate dictator, like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Uber’s Travis Kalanick, crazed enough to destroy old industries. The few governments around the world able to pull off the one-stop shop don’t have America’s system of divided government and competing jurisdictions. Check out Great Britain’s miraculous GOV.UK, and dream of a California parliament.

For now, the best option available to those who want customer-friendly service in California is to hire consultants and lobbyists. The absence of a one-stop shop has been a boon to such influence peddlers; the numbers of lobbyists and other fixers keeps growing, a trend visible when you visit Sacramento and see the newer offices and restaurants around the Capitol.

Which gives me an idea. If California governments won’t give us a one-stop shop for the state, the least they can do is provide Californians with their own fixers. That’s right—concierges for all! With a ballot measure, we could make concierge service a constitutional right.

California government has experimented with concierge-style service before. Veterans of Pete Wilson’s administration like to talk about the “Red Teams”—essentially, concierges for companies—it organized in the 1990s. But concierges-for-all would be much costlier, with most of the approximately 100,000 (my best estimate) concierges being private contractors rather than government employees (we couldn’t afford the pensions).

These concierges wouldn’t have to wear uniforms or those golden-key badges like real hotel concierges—unless they were into that sort of thing. But each California adult would be assigned a concierge; we’d receive our concierge’s email and cell phone, and we could put them on speed dial like we do with the plumber or the dentist. These concierges would have to respond to our requests in 48 hours, and state and local officials would have to respond to their requests in 24 hours. Our concierges would have the power to secure permits and licenses, make appointments for us with any government official, or even schedule visits to our relatives who might be doing time in state prisons.

Call it a dream if you like, but it’s no less dreamy than a one-stop shop. Really, I want nothing from California government, except somebody whose job it is to get me whatever I need right now.

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Originally posted at Zocalo Public Square.