California’s state government has a computer problem
As California’s Department of Motor Vehicles takes heat for a 46 percent rise in customer wait times over the last year, DMV officials are largely blaming the delays on the number of customers flocking to local offices to get their Real IDs.
It’s true lines are longer because more people are going to offices for the new licenses, which the federal government is requiring starting in 2020 for people who want to board a flight without a passport.
But an underlying cause of the DMV’s misery this year is a familiar one in California state government: A creaky, decades-old computer system the department agrees is “a 40-year-old dinosaur.” The department also told The Sacramento Bee that it has had dozens of technology outages in the past 20 months that have disabled operations, sometimes for hours at a time.
At a hearing last week, DMV Director Jean Shiomoto said it would take three years to modernize that technology and bring its systems into the 21st century. “Our system is an old, antiquated system. We are working to modernize that and are working on that project right now.”
In the meantime, the DMV’s approach has been to ask lawmakers for more money to hire additional workers.
On the day the Legislature denied Republicans’ call to audit the agency, it also approved $16.6 million to hire 230 more DMV employees. A separate request for $26 million to hire another 400 employees remains under consideration. They’re even considering allowing unlimited funds to be available at the discretion of the Department of Finance.
A DMV supervisor who testified at a legislative hearing this month said the problems run deeper than staffing.
“They’re doing all this mass hiring but it’s not fixing the problem,” said Cullen Grant, a 13-year DMV employee now managing a Los Angeles field office.
DMV Automation, the department’s internal database management system, first launched in the 1980s, and employees still use an outdated system for entering customer information.
The DMV relies heavily on a series of smaller systems as a workaround for employees to enter information and complete requests. According to Grant, employees waste time trying to navigate through the categories.
“You have all these sub-systems that are not integrated into the main system, which is causing transaction and processing times to go up,” Grant said. “What’s going on is the department has been misleading or over-exaggerating that Real ID has been the cause of it.”
Though the DMV is working to update that system, Grant said the department has a poor track record of implementing new technology.
One example lies in the queuing system, which the DMV uses to determine a customer’s place in line.
Under a previous program called Orchestra, employees could give customers a ticket with a single click of a button. A 2-inch-by-2-inch sheet of paper was printed immediately.
But late last year, the DMV adopted a new Customer Flow Management System (CFS), which requires employees to collect customers’ personal information so the system could generate a unique number — their initials and the last four digits of their phone number.
Employees then have to write that number on a piece of paper because CFS was unable to go ticketless and send text messages to customers.
“Going from one button to get somebody checked in to almost taking two, three minutes to check a customer in, it makes no sense,” Grant said.
The California Department of Technology considers the queuing system to be highly critical and estimates the total project cost at nearly $18 million. Though the system “is expected to provide enhanced report capabilities that will help the DMV manage and reduce customer wait times,” it is behind schedule and continues to have lingering quality issues that “remain to be fully addressed.”
DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez acknowledged the past issues with the system, and said the department is in the process of “a staggered roll-out” to ensure it will work properly. Gonzalez also urges customers to check the DMV website and use office kiosks to help reduce wait times.
“Obviously, we saw issues when we first rolled out CFS,” Gonzalez said. “It caused a lot of confusion with people. We did switch back to a manual process until we could get the system going.”
The DMV said in last week’s hearings it is piloting a text messaging system but did not discuss its history of technical issues. The department repeatedly declined to answer questions from Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, during a budget hearing about the scope of the problems it sees with system outages. On Aug. 6 — the day before the hearing — several offices experienced outages that halted service for a couple hours.
When Patterson asked about the seriousness and frequency of the outages, Shiomoto replied by broadly saying the DMV works with the Department of Technology to identify the root causes of the issues.
“I’m asking for a descriptive terminology,” Patterson persisted. “That was not an answer to the question. How often? A lot? A little? Every now and then? I mean, you must have some idea of the description of how often your technology fails. Can you give me some kind of a description?”
“I would have to go back to get the definite numbers of where we have outages,” Shiomoto answered. “I don’t have that with me today. I will definitely get you that tomorrow.”
A week later, Patterson’s office says it has not received any such information.
“How often do @CA_DMV computer systems crash?” Patterson tweeted on Tuesday. “The Director didn’t know. Said she’d tell me tomorrow...that was last week. I’m still waiting.”
But this week, the DMV told The Sacramento Bee that it has experienced 34 IT outages since January 2017, including six statewide office system outages and six non-statewide, multiple-office systems. The outages ranged anywhere from 15 minutes to nine hours.
“Prior to full implementation of the new appointment system on May 8, 2018, DMV had experienced stability issues with the appointment system, which have since been addressed,” the department said in a statement. “After complete implementation of the appointment system in May 2018, DMV’s appointment system has experienced 5 outages ranging from 18 minutes to 6 hours.”
The DMV expects wait times to start dropping by mid-September and return to a more reasonable level by the end of the year. But for the customers who continue to wait in line, change cannot come soon enough.
The Bee obtained 159 pages of customer complaints from Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Dublin. The comments highlighted a range of subjects, including positive and negative interactions with employees, inequities in service and customers nearly passing out from fatigue.
“In our current world with so much technology, there has to be a better process,” one customer wrote.