So many years of bureaucracy, poor technology, inefficient processes, and low employee morale have led to the DMV’s deeply embedded reputation that it’s difficult to change it. This is unfortunate because, in many states, DMVs are shifting their ways. At one point or another, states decide that they’ve had enough and want to solve the problems with their DMV. However, the changes they make are not always for the better. In this column, I’ll share three sets of solutions that states have tried, with varying degrees of success, in the hope of addressing the customer-service problems within their DMV.
Simple, but Unsustainable
Back in the 1990s, New York had reached its breaking point and decided it was time to improve the experience of its DMV. “Citizens crawled along in line, waiting to register a car or renew a license, all the while trying to quell a gnawing feeling that the transaction would unravel when they reached the clerk’s window. They wondered how it could have been any worse waiting in a bread line in Russia in the 1950s.” A citizen who then became Director of the DMV, Ray Martinez explained, “I used to go to the DMV and pack a lunch … because you never knew when you were going to get out of there.” 
As is typical in service design, the problems at the DMV were not isolated to customer service. Karen Pellegrino, a former union rep for New York State DMV employees, described issues with the employee culture: “It was almost a sweat-shop mentality…. It was about following the rules and making your numbers, and nobody wanted to hear suggestions about ways to improve the process.” 
In New York, the DMV’s solutions were simple: “A labor-management initiative led to a host of customer-service improvements, from instituting ‘take-a-number’ lobby management (something neighborhood bakeries had been doing since about 1910) to sprucing up the DMV offices themselves with new paint and furniture. Clerks were trained not only in customer service, but also in basic problem solving, so they could actually help people rather than inform them that they’d have to come back later with more pieces of paper.” 
But these band-aid solutions were not sustainable. Why? Because the DMV’s role and responsibilities were changing: “New York and other states quickly discovered that ficus trees and cheerful clerks alone could not create smooth-running, effective motor vehicle departments. That’s partly because the sheer volume of transactions that DMVs are responsible for has continued to grow at a staggering pace. And it’s partly because DMVs have been forced to take on a new role as government gatekeeper, policing everything from immigration law to child support enforcement, and monitoring the fidelity and sanctity of citizens’ very identities.”  State DMVs began realizing that they needed to create solutions that were flexible and adaptable to their ever-evolving role.
A Lack of Focus and Strategy
Solutions then shifted toward improving technology versus human interactions and waiting-room processes. The states that were able to focus strategically on certain aspects of technology were more successful than those that wanted to overhaul their existing systems from soup to nuts. For example, Minnesota’s initial, reasonable goal was to make 25% of its transactions self-service for customers, alleviating some of the burden on DMV employees to offset the increasing number of new tasks being given to them. Other states focused on making things better for DMV staff: “Iowa has focused its IT innovations on making the job of the employees easier, in the belief that this is the best way to help citizens in the long run.” 
On the other hand, in the spirit of addressing its evolving role as security and government gatekeeper, the DMV in Washington, D.C., “aimed at moving virtually every transaction in the department away from paper dependence and onto computers. The goal was not merely to make the process less painful for citizens, but also to ensure that anyone renewing a license or auto registration had ‘clean hands’ when it came to unpaid fines or other outstanding legal obligations.” 
D.C.’s DMV launched its much-anticipated Destiny system in 2002, which was intended to “consolidate information from 22 previously independent systems…, including SSN verification, check and credit card verification, and most notably, the ticket collection system.”  However, the system failed at launch. “Scores of residents trying to renew their driver’s licenses and car registrations discovered they were being interrogated about incidents involving child support, bad checks, and parking tickets, some of which were listed accurately—but had long since been resolved—and some of which had never occurred at all.” 
Destiny was such an epic failure that the City Council held a public hearing on the issues with the system. Notes from the hearing exude the anger of the Chair of the Council’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment, Carol Schwartz: “The Destiny system is perhaps one of the most eagerly anticipated computer upgrade projects this city has known, and certainly one of the most highly touted projects. I sure know that, in recent months, going on 2 years perhaps, anytime I inquired about various customer service complaints, the response from DMV was always, ‘just be patient and wait for Destiny.’” And I did. And Destiny is here—albeit in limited form. And what a mess.” 
She was emphatic as she proceeded to list customer quotations and complaints, questioning why the D.C. DMV had invested in the Destiny system when Nevada had already rolled it out with similar failures: “DC’s system is the very same system tweaked a little to meet the needs of District laws that caused utter chaos and turmoil in Nevada for almost 3 years. Turmoil that resulted in the replacing of the DMV Director, and the State Legislature conducting hearing after hearing after hearing, culminating in an October 2000 Post-Implementation Review of the system that confirmed the failures of the Project Genesis design. Failures—I might add—that are eerily similar to those being seen in our Destiny system.” 
The DMV then had its opportunity to respond to the inquisition, and Angell Jacobs, former Deputy Director of the DC DMV, explained, “We’d like to use this hearing as an opportunity to not only answer questions, but as a means of educating the public about the DMV…. As we follow along the road to complete our mission, there are clear guidelines about what we do as a department and what we don’t do…. By clarifying what we do and what we don’t, we hope to begin the process of setting the appropriate levels of expectation of our customers.” 
Take note of what occurred during this meeting: When the Deputy Director of the DC DMV was being interrogated about the Destiny debacle, he felt compelled to clarify the DMV’s role and its accountabilities as a government organization. So, whatever responsibility the organization believed it had for Destiny’s failures, leadership believed that part of the explanation needed to include taking a step back and aligning on the role of the DMV—one that is always in a state of flux.