Congratulations – and condolences – to Steve Gordon. Gov. Gavin Newsom has named the 59-year-old San Jose technology executive to the post of director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Gordon will take the wheel at one of the state’s most beleaguered, despised and necessary departments. His mandate: to completely reform and modernize the sprawling DMV, which handles the state’s 24 million drivers and 30 million vehicles.
“He just randomly went on a website and applied for this,” said Newsom at a press conference where he introduced Gordon. “I love that.”
Gordon inherits serious challenges left to him by previous administrations. These include long wait times, tech glitches, botched voter registrations, sleeping employees and poor customer service. Newsom has called the DMV “chronically mismanaged” and said any governor who can’t fix the DMV “should be recalled.”
Those words may come back to haunt him now that he’s governor. While introducing Gordon and unveiling an 18-page report on DMV’s problems, Newsom had more bad news for Californians.
“Things could get worse before they get better at California’s Department of Motor Vehicles,” according to a story by The Sacramento Bee’s Bryan Anderson. “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.”
Real ID is a federally mandated program that requires people to update their ID cards by October 2020 if they want to board planes or enter federal facilities without showing their passport.
The DMV, already straining under the weight of its existing duties, will be hard pressed to process millions of new IDs in the next year. On Tuesday, the next available appointment to apply for a Real ID in Sacramento’s Broadway DMV office was October.
Newsom took pains to project humility in the face of fixing DMV.
“Forget spiking the ball,” he said. “We don’t even have the ball in our hands.”
It’s a far cry from the tone he struck back in 2014, when he was brimming with “big hairy audacious goals” for the department. In his book “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government,” Newsom proposed cutting edge ideas for fixing the DMV.
He suggested setting up a “RateMyDMV” website where people could post “their ratings, their rants, or their praise” on things like “wait time,” “friendliness” and – jokingly – the “horribleness of driver’s license photos.” He also pondered forcing government departments to compete against each other, using a “Yelp-style scoreboard” to keep track of winners and losers.
Now, after a deep dive by the DMV “strike team” he created to review the department in January, Newsom seems content to frame credit card payment options and more self-service kiosks as good progress.
Newsom’s report disappointed the DMV’s staunchest critics.
“I didn’t hear anything that suggested this was a really serious, bold, re-imagining of the most significant public-facing entity of California,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno. “(Newsom) dressed the old DMV up in new clothes and tried to convince us that we don’t notice it’s the same.”
In truth, it’s too early to judge whether Gordon’s tenure at the DMV will be a success or a failure. He certainly has a tough road ahead, and the limitations of government bureaucracy have a way of frustrating the boldest of ambitions.
Just ask Secretary of State Alex Padilla, whose great idea for a Motor Voter law that saddled DMV with responsibility for registering California voters has become a scandalous debacle. A separate report from Ernst & Young will delve into the messy failures of that program in coming weeks.
To seek a challenge of this magnitude instead of retiring after a successful career takes courage on Gordon’s part. So, we join millions of Californians in hoping he is the person who can turn around the DMV.
Much is riding on the outcome of his performance – including, by the governor’s own declaration, the fate of the Newsom administration.