One part of the Department of Administration that gets a lot of press is the Department of Motor Vehicles, which is actually a unit of the Department of Revenue. DMV, of course, gets press because people don’t like it, and the lines are long, and it’s in an inconvenient place, and so on and on.
Over last spring and summer, the agency saw a turnaround. Spurred on by stories of multiple-hour wait times, Governor Chafee appointed a new director, who made some management changes, shuffled people around, re-engineered the lines, put “greeters” out front to explain things, closed some satellite branches, and generally shook things up. Lo and behold, the wait times plummeted. An inspiring tale of how good management can make all the difference? A story of re-inventing government to do more with less in the 21st century? Well sort of, but not quite.
Watching the ticking clock in line at DMV has been a part of life for all of us in Rhode Island for a long time, but it’s not right to say that it’s been a neglected problem. Lincoln Almond suggested adding $300,000 per year to expand their hours, and Don Carcieri made a point of “fixing” it, too. He even listed new efficiencies and reduced wait times as one of his accomplishments in a 2004 interview.
But time went on and service decayed until it took hours just for routine business to happen. I waited there with my daughter for three excruciating hours one fine day in 2010, along with about three hundred good friends. By the time Lincoln Chafee took office, DMV was a joke, a travesty of government service. Chafee brought in a new interim director, Lisa Holley, to troubleshoot the agency, and — what do you know? — she got results. Wait times shrank dramatically and while it’s still hard to describe a visit to the DMV as a pleasure, the last time I was in one, last August, I was in and out in 25 minutes.
So what happened? What management magic did Holley bring to the agency? What lessons can we learn? Mostly just that it takes people to do the work.
In the dark days of 2004, when Don Carcieri was taking credit for improving wait times, he was adding employees, and adding satellite locations. You can see the progress in the graph to the right, which counts customer service representatives in the department. Service got better with the new workers, and a little worse with the satellite offices. But then around 2006, Carcieri decided it was ok to let the service decay a little bit. He said the state had too many employees, and he started to enforce the statewide hiring freeze on DMV. And then the retirement fiasco of 2009 came, and a bunch of people left, and so in 2010 you had all the satellite locations, and 22% fewer people to stand behind all those desks.
And that’s the crazy thing about management by attrition: you don’t get to plan for the loss of people. Carcieri simply said we’re not hiring any new people and we’re going to encourage people to retire, and that’s that. The only surprise was that people were surprised that service suffered — a lot.
So again, what management magic did Holley bring? She insisted on having more people, that’s what. Chafee asked the Assembly for 25 new workers. They balked, but they did cough up some, and so now there are almost as many people on the customer-facing staff as there were in 2006, at half as many locations. Of course there were some other improvements: line management systems, those greeters, a redivision of labor. But sometimes the big story is the simpler one: we got better service with more people.
There is another story I see lurking here. Governor Chafee saw a problem of poor service and acted to fix it, while Governor Carcieri saw the problem in terms of taxes, and acted to fix that instead, mostly by giving tax cuts to rich people. How did that work out for you?
There is one other feature to the DMV budget that should not go unremarked while we’re here. The RIMS computer system that was supposed to create a whole new class of efficiencies by getting all of DMV’s information about you in a single database is quite a bit behind schedule and over budget. This is pretty much SOP in the database development world, public and private. That is, it’s a shame and a waste of state dollars, but it’s not exactly unprecedented. I bring it up at least in part because you can’t exactly see it in the budget presentation, but you can see it in the Capital Budget, which we’ll get to soon.
NEXT: The Quasi-Publics
Read the previous posts in this series