California Gov. Gavin Newsom has created a “DMV Reinvention Strike Team” to recommend “long-term . . . reform” for the state Department of Motor Vehicles. To be useful, the strike team must offer fundamental structural and operational reforms, not just more taxpayer money.
The DMV took its sloth-like reputation to a new level last summer when average wait times in branch offices grew nearly 50 percent from the year before. Five-to-seven-hour waits were common. Privileged lawmakers, however, can use a secret DMV office near the state Capitol, which requires no queuing. The DMV also botched record-keeping duties in 2018 by mishandling thousands of voter registrations from its motor-voter program.
Further, in late December we learned that the United States Department of Homeland Security concluded that California’s DMV had failed to comply with regulations when it issued nearly 2.5 million federally mandated Real IDs in 2018 after requiring only one residency document instead of two.
While the department has taken steps to reduce wait times, major changes are needed to address systemic failures, which won’t be fixed by throwing more money at it.
First, new leadership is needed. When embattled DMV Director Jean Shiomoto retired on Dec. 28, then-Gov. Jerry Brown installed Shiomoto’s chief deputy director, Bill Davidson, as acting director, even though he had helped oversee the current chaos. Then on Jan. 30, Newsom installed Kathleen Webb of the California Government Operations Agency as the DMV’s acting director. Californians deserve a DMV run by professional managers with demonstrated business and technology acumen, not by insider political hacks.
Second, the DMV should increase the number of third-party providers of motor-vehicle services. Currently, many members of the American Automobile Association can visit their local AAA branch for a fairly extensive list of services in a convenient, well-organized office. The option to bypass the DMV should be available to more residents through partnerships with supermarkets, drug stores, big-box stores, home-improvement stores, libraries, auto-parts retailers and auto dealers. Arizona has a varied list of partners that provide DMV services, including written driver’s tests and road tests. Additionally, the department should expand its “DMV Now Self-Service Terminals”—kiosks that enable Californians to receive limited services.
Third, the DMV should allow all routine paperwork to be filed online. The recent announcement that driver’s license applications can be filed online is long overdue. Arizona’s DMV allows for written driver’s tests to be completed at home and submitted online. California’s DMV should also accept credit cards at its field offices.
Fourth, California has led the global tech revolution, yet its DMV does not do enough to partner with technology companies. For example, QLess offers virtual check-ins and lines, as well as mobile notifications of wait times and place in line, reducing in-office waits. The DMV should seamlessly integrate new technology into its operations to accommodate the 23 million Californians who have yet to obtain their Real IDs (which are required by Oct. 1, 2020).
Finally, the DMV should be eventually replaced by cutting-edge private vendors that risk losing contracts if they provide poor service. In 2016 North Carolina converted the last of its state-run issuers of car titles and registration stickers to private contractors. If problems arise, a contractor can be audited, prosecuted and replaced.
Even more visionary is City Chain, a company that offers “citizenry information” services, such as vehicle registrations, using a secure blockchain-based online platform that integrates select partner services that customers access online. Competition imposes market discipline, which is absent when a government monopoly effectively controls every DMV branch.
The DMV has threatened a “return of unacceptable field office wait times” if it does not get millions more of taxpayer dollars—its current budget is $1.2 billion. Budgetary blackmail by a national poster child for bureaucratic incompetence is unacceptable. Instead, major reform is needed. Hopefully, Newsom’s “Strike Team” understands this.