Jocelyn Benson defends appointment-only plan at Secretary of State offices
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LANSING—Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson on Thursday defended her decision to move the department’s branch offices to an appointment-only system, saying it has helped with the agency’s capacity issues.
Testifying before the House Oversight Committee, Benson said the new system allows “customer transactions to go smoothly,” and customers are now in and out of the office in an average of 20 minutes, instead of waiting 43 minutes to be seen as was the case in 2018.
Benson’s testimony comes after her department received criticism from Republicans and members of the public who have had to wait months to get an advanced in-person appointment for tasks like getting a driver’s license or transferring a vehicle title.
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Branch offices also release next-day appointments twice a day, though due to the high demand a spot is not guaranteed.
“That's a capacity issue, not a reflection of a broken system,” Benson said. “The same capacity constraints that caused wait times to skyrocket in the past decade, are now what we see manifesting themselves in the demand for (office) appointments.”
Benson said “the difference is that now no one is forced to take time off work or pay for childcare to wait in line for hours at a branch office.”
The secretary of state initially switched to appointments in June 2020, as a response to the pandemic. In April, she announced she was going to make the model permanent.
Bridge Michigan has reported on the challenges people still face when trying to access certain services through the Secretary of State’s Office.
Many people don’t yet know they can’t walk in, or that besides advance appointments they could try to call or look up online their nearest branch at 8 a.m. or noon to test their luck and see if they can snag a next-day appointment.
Benson, a Democrat, said heavy demand for appointments stems from a backlog caused by the COVID19 pandemic — which temporarily closed some branches due to exposures to the coronavirus — and the Michigan Legislature’s decision to extend the expiration dates of licenses and tags, an action also taken with pandemic safety in mind.
All of which resulted in many residents not being able to renew licenses or transfer the title of a car.
Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, said the idea of requiring appointments “on paper makes sense, but in reality is a little difficult.”
“Some of our districts’ technology isn't necessarily up to snuff,” O’Malley said. “I have a hard enough time sometimes with my smartphone, and others with computers and things — they don't want anything to do with them.”
Push for walk-ins
Benson acknowledged the system still needs to be improved, but told the committee Thursday that a shift to an appointment-only system is part of her goal of modernizing the way people interact with the secretary of state’s office.
She said her department has upgraded the call center booking system to better assist those with internet limitations to book advanced and next-day appointments.
She insisted that going back to a walk-in system could create additional backlogs and delays.
But some lawmakers, including House Oversight Committee Steve Johnson, said it should at least be an option.
“We're not saying get rid of the appointments. If someone wants to make an appointment that works for him, that's great,” Johnson, R-Wayland, said. “What we are saying is why not have that walk-in option there?”
Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, also wants the option to walk-in into a branch to get services.
“I would be willing personally to walk into an office, as long as I've got a good book and I had a decent breakfast, and sit there for three or four hours. Because what I'm doing when I do that is I am signaling that I am willing to spend a lot of my time to prioritize my position in getting services from the secretary of state,” LaGrand said.
Benson told reporters that throughout the years the department reduced the number of branch workers to 46 percent because of budget cuts.
So, an appointment system would ensure that the limited number of employees can be ready to assist a customer, because they know in advance how many customers to expect, their needs, she said.
Benson predicted that over the next months demand for appointments is going to decrease. However, she said her office expects to increase the number of next-day appointments.
Future of SOS
Benson said her move to an appointment-only system has received positive feedback from customers, with internet reviews rising to 4.09 stars from 2.15 stars since 2019 when she first took office.
As part of her plan to modernize the department, Benson said she’d like to reduce the number of transactions that require the public to enter a branch office. According to the department, 74 percent of transactions in 2018 happened in an office.
In 2020, however, that number decreased to 40 percent. Benson said more people used the department’s self-service stations to renew driver licenses, IDs and vehicle registrations. More people have also used mail and online options. She told reporters Thursday she hopes to further decrease the number of in-office transactions to 25 percent.
But she warned that she needs help from the Republican-controlled legislature.
Benson said her office has identified a revenue stream that could give the agency up to $8 million additional dollars. This money, Benson said, would come from an increase in the state’s records look-up fee that companies pay when doing credit checks and looking for other records.
Benson said the revenue could be used to hire more staff, and create additional services such as “pop-up” branches in grocery stores.
“I am trying to completely innovate and reframe...how we do business with our citizens in a way that takes advantage of ideas, takes advantage of what the data says people want, and implements solutions,” Benson said. “It's a lot easier when you're able to work across party lines and develop solutions together.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this May 27, 2021 article misstated Jocelyn Benson's testimony on current average wait times at Secretary of State branch offices. The article has been corrected to say she testified that 20 minutes is the average time customers now spend at branch offices.
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