This doesn’t go where many of you think it might go.

I generally find that workers in for-profit companies perform better than workers in government agencies. The main reason is that for-profit companies have good incentives to make sure their workers, whether in or under management, are productive. The better they perform, all else equal, the greater is the company’s profit. Performance includes responding well to customer requests and concerns, especially if those customer concerns are what most people would regard as reasonable.

Government agencies, on the other hand, don’t get more “profit” if their employees perform well. That means that the managers of the government agencies have very little incentive to monitor employee performance. With less monitoring, performance suffers. That’s the basic economic theory, and the theory goes a long way in explaining behavior.

I’m also an empiricist. No matter what economic theory says, I judge people’s performance well or badly depending on my observations of their performance.

I had an experience last week with two for-profit firms, State Farm and Storelli Brothers auto repair, and one government agency, the Pacific Grove police department. State Farm did badly, the PG police department did very well, and Storelli Brothers did very well.

On Wednesday evening, a young man came to my door and told me that he had witnessed a driver do a hit and run on my car. The driver had smashed my driver-side rearview mirror. Fortunately, the young man had quickly taken a picture of the car and the license plate. I thanked him, got his name and phone number, and got his permission to use him as a witness.

Because my local insurance agent for State Farm was closed, I called an 800 number and reported the facts. The next morning someone at State Farm called me. Here’s where it got weird.

I told her the license number and she surprised me, saying that State Farm couldn’t necessarily track down who owned the car. “Do you realize that every California car license plate is unique?” I asked. “So you should be able to track it down.” “I didn’t realize that,” she answered, “thanks for telling me that.”

But the information I gave her didn’t seem to affect her strategy. I asked her her name. “Why do you want my name?” she asked. “I would like to know it; after all, you know my name.” She refused.

“I would like to talk to your supervisor,” I said. “She would tell you what I’m telling you,” she answered. “You don’t know that,” I responded. “After all, you admit that you didn’t know that license plate numbers are unique. Maybe there are other things she knows that you don’t.” I kept repeating that I wanted to talk to her supervisor. She kept refusing. At one point, I raised my voice. “If you talk loud, I can’t hear you,” she said. So I dialed down my volume but stuck to my request. Finally, she put me on hold and came back a few minutes later with a vague promise to call me the next week. (This was Thursday morning, December 21.)

I thought I would do better with my local State Farm rep. It worked out slightly better but not great. At least, she understood that license plate numbers are unique identifiers of owners. She also said I should contact the Pacific Grove police. This turned out to be her best piece of advice. I asked her whether it was better to call them or to go down to the station. “I can’t advise you what to do,” she said. “I understand,” I said, “but I figure you have more information from past clients’ experience than I have, which is why I asked which is better.” “I can’t tell you what you should do,” she answered.

“Ok,” I said, “I’ll go down there. Now once they identify who owns the car, am I hurting my chances of getting reimbursed if I get it fixed quickly or should I wait until the person admits guilt?” “They might not be insured,” she said, “in which case you wouldn’t get reimbursed.” “Fair enough,” I said, “but if the person is insured, do I hurt my changes of collecting if I get my repairs done first?” “They might not be insured,” she answered, “in which case you wouldn’t get reimbursed.” I said goodbye to the broken record.

Now it gets good. I drove the 5 minutes to the PG police headquarters and said I wanted to report a hit and run. I gave the police employee my information and he told me that if I wanted to wait, it would be only about 20 minutes. So I retrieved a Wall Street Journal from my car and waited. About 20 or so minutes later, a police officer came in. I told her I recognized her. We live on one of the 2 busiest streets in PG, a city of about 15,000 people, and so I had seen her drive by.

I’ve forgotten her last name. Her first name was Giselle. I gave her the details and showed her the picture of the license plate. She told me that the two letters I identified as “F” could be “E” or one of them could be “E.” She went away and came back less than 10 minutes later. She had found the owner and called the owner but got an answering machine message from someone who identified herself as a doctor. She told me that she would go to the address.

I realized that in all the excitement I had completely forgotten to have breakfast, a rare event for me. So I went home and ate quickly. While brushing my teeth, I received a phone call from Giselle. She had tracked the woman down at her house and got all her insurance and driver’s license information. The woman had admitted that she was the driver. Giselle gave me the woman’s phone number; she was a fellow PG resident.

I planned to call the woman; I’ll give her a fictitious name: Abby. But before I could call, Abby called me. She asked me if I would call her once I got the body shop estimate so that she could pay and not bother with insurance. I said I would. Less than an hour later, I got the estimate and found that it could be repaired the next morning. The estimate wasn’t bad. By reusing a piece that had been barely scratched, I could save her money. I decided to do so since I had to look closely even to see the scratch. The estimate: $338.85.

The next day I got the work done and called Abby to see if she wanted to come over with the check or she wanted me to come over. She asked me to come over. I did, and she wrote the check. I told her that I managed to have the repair people, Storelli Brothers, reuse a part and that that had saved her money. I thought she would thank me, but no. She gave me a nice bottle of champagne, but I would have traded that for a simple apology. Not once in our 2 phone calls or our in-person conversation did Abby say she was sorry.

So State Farm let me down, the Pacific Grove policy department did very well, and Storelli Brothers, as always did well.

I did learn something: the next time that happens, I’ll contact the police right away, even before I contact my insurance company.

By the way, I sent a check for $40 to the young man who bothered taking a picture and knocking on my door.

Quiz: “Abby” made a payment for the exact amount of the repair bill. Which part of my cost, which is comparable in magnitude to the repair bill, did she not cover?