Departments of Motor Vehicles: Their Evolving Role and Design Challenges

Service Design

Orchestrating experiences in context

A column by Laura Keller
April 1, 2013

Each of the states in the U.S. has a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) that is responsible for handling diverse citizen needs such as personal identity cards, driving permits and licenses, and registrations for vehicles such as cars, trucks, motorcycles, and boats—both commercial and personal. One of the most common interactions between people and their government is with their DMV. Everyone has to interact with the DMV at some point in his life and, more than likely, these interactions occur annually—whether for registration renewals or violations, if you drive like me.

What’s notable about the DMV is that people across the U.S. think it’s one of the most miserable customer experiences they’ve encountered. When you tell someone, “I have to go to the DMV,” the response is universally, “Oh, long groan, I’m so sorry…” and an empathetic pat on your shoulder. Few things cause a citizen more angst than preparing for a visit to the DMV. No matter how sure you are that you have got the right paperwork, have followed the right process, and have brought the right means of payment, you always have this nagging feeling that something will go wrong. While you might think that adding the human element to the experience—DMV employees—would conjure up a feeling of relief, the opposite is actually the case. You’d likely approach an employee of the DMV in much the same way Dorothy approaches the scary Wizard of Oz—with timidity, apologizing all the while, and being prepared to be yelled at.

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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.” [1]

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.” [1]

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.” [1]

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.” [1] 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.” [1]

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.” [1]

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.” [2] 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.” [1]

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.” [2]

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.” [2]

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.” [2]

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.

Embracing Its Entire Role

In 1998, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore wanted the state’s DMV to be a model of customer service, and he “transformed it so thoroughly that the state became notorious as a license mill for anyone who wanted to establish an identity—legitimate or otherwise.

Among the DMV’s satisfied customers were several illegal applicants with ties to the terrorists who crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.” [1] Essentially, Virginia made its DMV so customer friendly that it became too easy to acquire a license, with the result that the DMV was responsible for 7 of the 19 fake IDs that the 9/11 hijackers had acquired.

While the Virginia DMV quickly closed the loopholes that had allowed the creation of these IDs, “It hasn’t been an easy process for an agency that traditionally prided itself foremost on customer service and convenience. DMV’s culture changed to reflect its role in protecting national security, as well as highway safety…. It’s a lot bigger than just service.” [3] The Virginia DMV went through an identity crisis in determining how to be responsible for both national security and highway safety, while also being customer service-oriented: “Before Sept. 11, at DMV we were all about customer service, and getting the customer out as quickly and conveniently as possible…. Now, however, though the DMV still cares about customer service, it also must make security a high priority.” [4]

In Virginia, the DMV has made strides toward embracing its complex role, trying some interesting approaches. Unquestionably taking learnings from the D.C. Destiny debacle, the Virginia DMV strategically designed and rolled out its FACE system. “For All Customers and Employees (FACE) … will rely less on data entry and more on intuitive controls and navigation. Officials hope the overhaul will improve DMV’s image and increase efficiency throughout the agency…. The new front-end technology will allow DMV employees to concurrently handle multiple issues—such as renewing a driver’s license and then looking ahead in a person’s record to handle items such as car registrations—in a ‘one-stop shop’ mentality.” [5]

More interesting than the system’s functionality, however, is the fact that Virginia used a codesign approach to build it. As Virginia DMV Commissioner Rick Holcomb described it: “FACE was built in six months, entirely by DMV staff. Holcomb felt the system would benefit from the in-house design, chiefly because of the familiarity DMV IT workers have with the issues faced by their front counter brethren in the various branch offices around the state. ‘The front-line people are getting exactly what they want and need because their colleagues understand that,’ Holcomb said. ‘They also know if they don’t give them what they need, they’re going to hear about it. So it’s worked out wonderfully.’” [5]

Another interesting approach that the Virginia DMV is taking to embrace its role in ensuring both national security and highway safety, as well as good customer service, is creating new service offerings and partnerships. For example, it is working closely with the military and local prisons on programs to provide IDs, respectively, to military personnel who become civilians and to inmates who get released from prison. [6] This is fascinating for a couple of reasons:

  1. DMVs typically complain about how much responsibility they have. But in these examples, the Virginia DMV is volunteering to take on more work.
  2. Virginia—having previously been criticized for and embarrassed by its role in 9/11 ID processing—has improved its ways of working, technology, and employees so much that it is proactively and confidently offering to process IDs for people who are attempting to get a fresh start in life. The Virginia DMV is not only preventing bad people from being able to do harm, but also giving deserving citizens the opportunity to do good and contribute to society. And along with the right to legitimate identification come opportunities.

I believe that we can successfully reframe all DMVs’ roles to include both very serious national-security and highway-safety accountabilities, as well as their more positive civilian identity–management responsibilities.


Having evaluated the attempts of these various state DMVs’ to find solutions for their problems, I’d like to highlight a few key learnings—from a service-design perspective. While service design solutions must be sustainable, a solution for today’s challenges will inevitably become outdated tomorrow. Therefore, an organization’s overarching service strategy must drive its design solutions. Once you understand an organization’s role, you can begin creating a sustainable solution. Finally, you’ll know you’re doing things right when your organization can successfully take on more work—creating and managing new services and products. 


[1] Walters, Jonathan. “Who’s Afraid of the DMV?, July 2003. Retrieved February 25, 2013.

[2] DC Watch. “City Council Committee on Public Works and the Environment: Public Hearing on DMV’s Destiny Computer System.” DC Watch, June 11, 2002. Retrieved February 26, 2013.

[3] Martz, Michael. “Sept. 11, 2001, Attacks Forced Changes at Virginia’s DMV.” Daily Press, September 10, 2011. Retrieved February 26, 2013.

[4] Martinsville Bulletin. “Attack Changed Licensing: Drivers to Face More Security.” Martinsville Bulletin, September 11, 2006. Retrieved March 17, 2013.

[5] Heaton, Brian. “Virginia DMV Prepares for ‘FACE’ Lift.” Government Technology, January 18, 2012. Retrieved February 25, 2013.

[6] Brown, Sunni. “DMV Maximizes Technology, Increases Service in 2012.” DMV Now, February 15, 2013. Retrieved February 25, 2013.

Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data

Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA

Laura KellerLaura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey.  Read More

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