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Audit lays bare DMV’s bad habits — ‘Reactive culture,’ poor planning and bad computers

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has “significant deficiencies” and an “outdated” organizational structure that set conditions for poor customer service and the failed implementation of a new ID program, according to an audit released Wednesday.

Department of Finance auditors determined the DMV was ill-prepared to implement Real ID — a federally mandated program requiring people to get special ID cards if they want to board airplanes or enter other federal facilities without a passport.

That project “was not recognized as a priority until 2017” — a year before the program’s January 2018 launch, the audit said. Congress passed the law requiring states to create Real IDs in 2005. About 20 million Californians are expected to come in for the new ID cards by 2023. The program goes into effect Oct. 1, 2020.

Citing a “reactive culture that has adversely impacted the field office customer experience,” the report also shed light on issues of misleading wait times, outdated technology and employees not showing up to work on time.

The report warns the “DMV will continue facing challenges in efficiently and effectively delivering services to its customers” if it cannot correct its shortcomings.

The 67-page report gives Gov. Gavin Newsom a road map to improve customer service at an often maligned state department that interacts with more Californians than any other.

His predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, ordered the audit in September after Democratic lawmakers killed a request from Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson of Fresno for a more extensive investigation into the DMV. Newsom has already formed a “strike team” to find solutions for challenges that have dogged the department for years.

Patterson said the audit “shows incompetence at the highest levels” and is “a very serious indictment.” He said he remains optimistic more improvements will come to the DMV under Newsom’s governorship.

“It took a long time to get Gov. Brown’s attention with respect to DMV,” Patterson said. “Right out of the inauguration, Gov. Newsom took some concrete action. I have increasing confidence this is now being treated as a serious matter. They’re not making excuses or looking the other way.”

Undercover auditors from the Finance Department carried out their review in part by sending teams to 30 DMV offices around the state. They took notes, documenting poor customer services that frustrated residents.

During their visits, the investigators found about 30 percent of service windows were closed during business hours, rendering them unavailable to customers. In some places, employees did not greet customers.

Even if workers were around, they were not always easily identifiable. One greeted customers in a hooded sweatshirt. The investigators said some offices also had confusing layouts and signage.

The audit also revealed extensive management, training, and technology failures.

One in five employees who deal with customer transactions had not attended either a driver license or vehicle registration training provided by DMV’s Training Branch, according to the audit. The DMV said it hadn’t yet trained the workers “because of the cost and time lost associated with sending them to training.”

The report suggests a number of solutions the DMV could implement to improve customer experiences, such as accepting credit card payments and making more use of text message notifications.

The department struggles with employees not coming to work. In mid-2018, the DMV reported an alarming absenteeism rate of 30 percent — meaning nearly a third of employees don’t show up for work when field offices open.

After adjusting for those on vacation and other factors, the DMV told lawmakers in March that its actual rate is just 6.2 percent. The updated numbers are still 82 percent higher than the average 3.4 percent absenteeism rate for states, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Field office managers told auditors that poor attendance contributes to “increased overtime worked by employees and the fact that some employees must request approval for vacation time up to a year in advance.”

The DMV experienced a wait time crisis last summer, with delays north of six hours. Wait times have dropped substantially since then, but the audit discovered problems that bring into question the accuracy of the DMV’s numbers.

The DMV electronically tracks customers’ wait times only after they receive check-in tickets. Before that, field offices are expected to measure “pre-queue” wait times by manually tracking customers. But investigators found that just two of the 15 offices with lengthy lines were accurately measuring pre-ticket wait times.

The department advertises the wait times it tracks electronically on its website and some people might feel misled if they are stuck in line for more time than they expected. The audit suggests the DMV update its website and “advertise wait times by appointment, non-appointment and transaction type.”

The DMV in a brief response agreed with all of the conclusions and said it is already taking a number of steps to address underlying problems, including more technology monitoring to reduce outages.

Brian Annis, secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, said in a statement he’s confident the DMV can turn things around. His agency is responsible for the DMV.

“The Department of Motor Vehicles is at a period of transition,” Annis wrote. “It’s my expectation that the department will fully implement the Department of Finance audit findings, continue work to streamline processes and improve the overall customer experience for all Californians.”

Newsom is looking to hire a new DMV director. His appointment will be the department’s fourth leader since December, when Jean Shiomoto announced she’d retire. Acting director, Bill Davidson, left the agency shortly thereafter. Kathleen Webb is now at the helm as acting director.

A private company has also been hired to provide a technical assessment of the DMV’s Motor Voter application, though that review won’t examine whether non-citizens were improperly added to the voter rolls in the June 2018 primary, according to the Department of Finance.

The DMV has two months to respond to the audit. It will then update its corrective plan every six months until all issues have been resolved. In the meantime, the DMV plans to work with the Department of Finance to ask lawmakers for budget increases.

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