Capitol Alert

Gavin Newsom reveals plan for California DMV. Why he warns of longer wait times

Things could get worse before they get better at California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, according to a new report Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office released Tuesday.

As many as 28.2 million Californians could request a Real ID between March 2019 and October 2020, raising the possibility of long wait times for customers and a return to the hours-long delays seen last summer.

“The DMV is not out of the woods yet,” the report said. “Significant challenges remain between now and October of 2020, and these strains may continue to mean frustrating wait times for customers.”

Newsom called for the review of the DMV when he took office in January, recognizing that a host of technology and customer service problems had damaged Californians’ confidence in their government. An April poll from Probolsky Research found that nearly one in four California voters, including 39 percent of Republicans, thought the DMV was in such poor shape it could not be fixed.

“The DMV is the retail face of government,” Newsom said at a news conference on Tuesday. “There’s a reason people don’t like government. They say government cannot do its job.”

The 18-page report largely focuses on the DMV’s challenges with implementing Real ID — a program mandated by federal law that requires people to get an updated ID card by Oct. 1, 2020 if they want to board airplanes or enter other federal facilities without a passport.

Government Operations Agency Secretary Marybel Batjer in the report outlines a series of recommendations to prevent delays and fix a department Newsom once called ‘chronically mismanaged.” Batjer was the leader of the DMV ‘strike team’ Newsom created in January to analyze the department.

She said the DMV needs to get people seeking Real ID cards into field offices immediately, while simultaneously directing customers with other issues to self-service kiosks and outside partners like AAA whenever possible.

“We want to encourage people to go to the DMV when they need to ... We don’t want this huge surge. If you need a Real ID, go now,” Batjer said.

Among the tactics being deployed are personalized mailers nudging customers to get their cards immediately and changes to the DMV’s website to clarify the steps customers must take to get a Real ID.

The DMV also sought out customers where they work, holding “pop-up” DMV offices at large companies, such as Health Net and Intel. A few hundred people have obtained Real ID cards after attending a “pop-up” event, the report says.

The report promotes a new analytical projection model to strategically fill open windows at DMV offices by highest priority. It also recommends procedural improvements for technicians to reduce the time needed to scan and authenticate documents required for Real ID.

Newsom acknowledged the department has a difficult road ahead. “Forget spiking the ball. We don’t even have the ball in our hands.”

Is the DMV actually being reinvented?

Critics say the report was short on specifics and that Newsom failed to deliver on the promise he made during his February State of the State Address in which he called for a “re-imagining the DMV.”

“I’m really disappointed in this because this isn’t re-imagining a new DMV. It’s really making excuses for the old one,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno. “I didn’t hear anything that suggested this was a really serious, bold, re-imagining of the most significant public-facing entity of California. (Newsom) dressed the old DMV up in new clothes and tried to convince us that we don’t notice it’s the same.”

Patterson nonetheless praised Newsom for bringing new leadership to the department. Newsom announced Steve Gordon would replace Acting Director Kathleen Webb, pending approval by the state Senate. Webb is expected to remain on staff as chief deputy director.

Gordon was a managing partner at zTransforms from 2017 to 2019 — a company that provides technology and consulting services to businesses. He also worked as vice president of technical services for Cisco from 1993 to 2011. He has minimal experience in government, though he worked as an auditor for San Diego County from 1983 to 1984. He is registered to vote with no party preference.

Newsom said Gordon “randomly went on the website and applied” for the position. He added, “We found a new director, someone who wanted to do it.”

The DMV’s pathway to success

Newsom’s strike team offered a series of proposals to address issues besides Real ID.

The DMV will soon accept credit card payments at field offices — a goal that Newsom highlighted in January when he announced his first budget proposal. The project will start at the Davis DMV by the end of September before expanding to Fresno, Victorville and Roseville the following month. The technology will then be offered at all 172 field offices.

The DMV also has awarded contracts to IBM and CGI to begin efforts to stabilize an outdated technological infrastructure that has created connectivity issues and system outages. An hourlong technology outage occurred on Tuesday, preventing customers from carrying out transactions in a few field offices.

The report urges the DMV to address back logs at call centers by hiring more workers. In 2018, the average hold time was 55 minutes. Those delays constantly change but rose to 60 minutes recently.

Open questions swirl around Motor Voter

The strike team report makes only a single mention of Motor Voter — the state-mandated program that automatically registers Californians to vote when they renew drivers’ licenses at DMV offices.

The department has acknowledged making 105,000 registration errors when it launched the program last year.

Newsom said an outside firm called Ernst & Young will release a report in the coming weeks diving into problems with Motor Voter. But that report will not examine the issue of ineligible people being added to the voter rolls, including one confirmed case of a non-citizen being erroneously registered to vote last year.

In April, Secretary of State Alex Padilla told The Sacramento Bee he is examining voting issues.

Newsom deferred to Padilla on the status of that review.

“Obviously all of those things are of concern,” Newsom said. “All of those things happened not on my watch, but I’m responsible for fixing them. ... I’m going to work on a lot of these things moving forward.”

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.