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Jocelyn Benson plans overhaul of Michigan Secretary of State offices

April 2021: Renewing plates, licenses in Michigan can take months, despite promises
August 2019: Michigan’s Secretary of State promised 30-minute waits — lines are worse

August 2019: Check out wait times at your Michigan Secretary of State offices

Next time you go to renew your driver’s license, there may be a smiling face there to greet you. You might then step up to a sleek self-service station to quickly process your paperwork. And if you have problems, you could bank on there being a local staff member; perhaps even one who speaks your native language if it’s not English.  

Those are among the changes Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson vows to implement after visits to the state’s 131 branch offices. Over two months, Benson said she’d visited the offices in each county unannounced to observe daily operations. What she found, she said at a press conference Thursday, was “heartbreaking.”

One third of the existing self-service kiosks weren’t working, employees were working overtime regularly and some visitors were waiting hours for help.

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Related: Jocelyn Benson says she’s committed to increasing Michigan voter turnout

“In many situations I was frankly devastated to see the challenges that some of the branches were facing,” she said.

Benson said she was inspired, however, by the dedication of branch employees, who she said “are ready for change.”

Over the coming months and years, Benson said she plans to implement a wide variety of fixes she hopes will modernize the office’s interactions with residents, smooth branch operations and achieve her central campaign promise of a 30-minutes-or-less guaranteed wait time when residents visit their local branch.  

That will include targeted support for high-volume customers such as car dealerships, improvements to self-service kiosks for renewing license plate tabs or watercraft and motorcycle registration, and possible changes to branch locations and amenities in some urban areas with limited available parking. She also hopes to explore options for multi-year license plates and automatic driver’s license renewal, she wrote in an accompanying report detailing her plans.

Benson also hopes offices will “celebrate local communities” by being more responsive to local needs. When she visited the Dearborn office, she said she saw Arabic-speaking customers were having trouble getting the service they needed because none of the office employees spoke Arabic. After her visit, Benson said, the branch quickly hired two Arabic-speaking employees.

Since beginning the tour, Benson said her office has already changed the MI-TIME appointment system, which allowed customers to get in line remotely and receive updated time estimates for how long their wait would be. The system was reporting dramatically inaccurate wait times and causing “deep frustration” for customers and employees, she said. Now the system simply shows people their place in line, allowing them to decide when to return to the office.

Benson did not directly address a question about how much the planned changes might cost, saying only that she is a “fiscally conservative leader” and hopes certain changes — such as using the self-service stations to cut down on the state’s $7 million postage costs to, for instance, send registration forms to customers — will save the state money.

The department’s problems are the result of “too many short-term solutions” over years, Benson said. Benson’s predecessor, Ruth Johnson, first implemented many of the services Benson says she wants to improve, such as the MI-TIME system and the self-service kiosks.

“There’s no short-term solution here. There’s no silver bullet, there’s no quick fix,” Benson said. “More than anything, we’re asking for patience… stay tuned, we’ve got a lot of ahead of us that we plan to do.”

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