The DMV: A case study in steady improvement on outcomes

150 150 Gina Baleria

Stop and think about your most recent trip to the DMV. Did you get out of there more quickly than you thought you would? Did things go more smoothly than you expected?

It’s all because of a concerted effort over the past decade to make the DMV more efficient and streamlined, so you get what you need more quickly, and the government saves money and is better able to serve you.

The woman credited with getting this giant ball rolling is Sunne Wright McPeak, member of California Forward’s Leadership Council, president and CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund, and former secretary of the California Department of Business Transportation and Housing.

“It was an initial focus of governor Schwarzenegger,” McPeak said. He was sworn in at 11am, and by noon, he had signed the executive order to roll back the car tax. “This needed to be implemented by the DMV, so finding a way to do that efficiently became a top priority.”

“At that time, the DMV had legendary wait times… just to get normal transactions done.” So, McPeak and her colleagues began an intense study. “We developed a new business plan, focused on the outcomes, and got it done.”

One of the most important aspects of this overhaul was that it was done in close collaboration with those who worked at the DMV.

“They didn’t have anyone who listened to them. They knew a lot about what could be done to improve things,” McPeak said. “They wanted to do a good job, and they’re very pleased and proud of the job they are doing today.” 

McPeak told the CA Fwd Radio Show she is not sure whether confidence or naiveté guided her efforts. But, she does believe Californians can accomplish anything.  “If people of goodwill decide they want to get something done – whether they are public employees or workers in the private sector – with the right kind of leadership, it can be accomplished.”

The plan to fix the DMV was not flashy. It was a day-to-day path through to-do lists, idea creation, project planning, and meetings.

“That’s a pretty straightforward approach to tackling any challenge,” McPeak said. “It should be a lesson to Californians to have inspiration and confidence that there’s no problem we can’t solve, and we should not as taxpayers or customers accept anything less.”

Some solutions included synching a monitoring system to manage customer flow; moving certain transactions to partner organizations, such as insurance and trucking companies; and doing away with an online convenience fee, so that people would actually be encouraged to go online.

Prior to the removal of the convenience fee, 60 percent of people who began a transaction online aborted it once they saw the fee. “As soon as we got the convenience fee removed – which took a little bit of doing – the transactions online immediately went up by 50 percent without any advertising. And, they’ve just continued to climb in both English and Spanish.”

Increasing the online presence led to the cancellation of plans to build six new field offices, saving the DMV money.

Once the work began to pay off, McPeak was quick to find a way to thank DMV employees for their work and ideas to turn the agency around. In addition, those at offices that were doing well began to visit other DMV offices around the state to share best practices.

McPeak said it is important for public agencies to be innovative, as well as understand the importance of accountability, transparency, and results.

“There are a lot of amazingly dedicated people who serve in government but who may not have an appreciation to the extent they should of how important this culture of accountability and results is.”

As for innovation, “the biggest vision is that the DMV could be a kiosk at the local coffee shop or library,” said McPeak. The DMV already has partnerships with AAA in Northern and Southern California to have a DMV presence in their offices. “It’s moving the DMV into the community.”

Sunne still asks people about their experience at the DMV. When she gets a negative story, she shares it with the current secretary to ensure the culture of improvement continues.


Gina Baleria

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