With director out, can Newsom reform troubled DMV?

California DMV Director Jean Shiomoto faces the state Assembly Budget Committee on Aug. 7, 2018.
California DMV Director Jean Shiomoto faces the state Assembly Budget Committee on Aug. 7, 2018. Sacramento Bee file

Had the California Department of Motor Vehicles director not announced her retirement this week after a year attempting to placate outraged customers and lawmakers, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom might well have fired her.

Gov. Jerry Brown shielded the department from an audit and vetoed DMV-related bills even as reports mounted — often from the Sacramento Bee’s Bryan Anderson — of long waits, technology outages and even a chronically sleeping employee. Newsom’s comments and writing on the agency indicate he might not have been so kind.

Director Jean Shiomoto, who has led the department since 2013, exits following recent reports that the DMV erroneously registered nearly 25,000 people to vote, including a handful of non-citizens.

Changing the department’s leadership is a good step forward, but fixing its problems will be harder than replacing the names on the stationery. While the DMV’s wait times and its headline-grabbing mistakes spiked this year, the frustrations of visiting its offices predate Shiomoto.

Ashton Kutcher even tried to make a reality TV show focused on the DMV experience in 2010. You know you’ve got a hot mess on your hands when the “Punk’d” producer comes knocking.

The department’s performance has grown only worse since then, as Congress and the state Legislature piled on new duties.

In addition to handling the state’s 24 million resident drivers and 30 million vehicles, the DMV now licenses undocumented immigrants and registers voters through the Motor Voter program. The department is charged with enrolling millions of Californians in the federally mandated “Real I.D.” program by 2020.

The programs are great ideas, but the DMV — with its $1.1 billion annual budget – is failing.

Shiomoto managed to reduce wait times this year, but it was too little, too late.

Newsom’s thoughts on the DMV are well-documented, giving voters a good chance to hold him accountable for his handling of its problems.

He has said any governor who can’t fix the DMV “should be recalled.” Republican legislators, who have pushed unsuccessfully for State Auditor Elaine Howle to officially review the department, will remember those words.

In Newsom’s 2014 book “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government,” he set forth novel ideas for fixing the agency.

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.”

Newsom also pondered forcing government departments to compete against each other, using a “Yelp-style scoreboard” to keep track of winners and losers.

“Let’s say the health department has two and a half stars, the DMV just two, and the police department four and a half – the police department wins for the month!” he wrote. “As we’ve seen, people will do a lot – and spend a lot and work a lot – to win even virtual prizes online. Why not take advantage of that natural competitiveness?”

He proposed setting up spirited contests between DMV offices in different cities.

“Why not set up a competition with other DMVs in the surrounding areas?” he wrote. “Which gives the best service? Which has the highest rating? And more important – how can we get ours higher than those other guys?”

As governor, Newsom can implement his ideas. Will he? Can competition, transparency and real-time public accountability fix the ailing DMV? We’re not sure, but it’s a great setup for a reality show.

Get Ashton Kutcher on the line.