Testimony at a legislative hearing today about the troubles at the Registry of Motor Vehicles answered many questions, but left ultimate questions of accountability unresolved.
Clearly, the problems run deep: It emerged that for years, as long as anyone can remember, management simply boxed notices of out-of-state violations, some of which would have identified drivers who were potential dangers to the public.
When a driver admits or is found to have committed a moving violation, whether in-state or out-of-state, two kinds of things happen: Insurers get notice and may increase insurance rates. The Registry’s Driver Control Unit gets notice and may suspend or revoke the driver’s license.
Many of the unprocessed out-of state notices apparently pertained to minor matters like non-payment of fees, but some involved much more serious offenses that would have merited a suspension or loss of license in Massachusetts.
In October 2016, an effort was made to begin processing the out-of-state violations. The task was assigned to the Merit Rating Board, which has responsibility for processing in-state violations.
The MRB made no effort to catch up on the backlog, instead, the director of the MRB moved forward only with entry of newly received violations. Yet, even with only this limited task the MRB had fallen months behind by March 2018.
In March 2018, the Registry transitioned from the “ALARS” system to the “ATLAS” computer system for their operations. This was a massive change for the Registry and staff had difficulty stabilizing the new system.
With the system implementation challenges, the MRB began to fall behind in processing in-state driver violations and made a decision to drop the effort to process out-of-state violations.
This June, a Massachusetts driver who had had serious out-of-state violations, killed seven people in New Hampshire. The driver in question had a commercial license as to which there is a specialized processing mechanism which was only briefly backlogged, but the incident prompted the resignation of Registrar Erin Deveney and surfaced the depth of the general out-of-state backlog.
There was some conflict in the hearing as to whether inadequate staffing had caused the backlog. The head of the MRB testified that while the backlog was continuing to grow within his department, he asked to replace staff that had left but was told that he could not because of a hiring freeze in MassDOT.
Asked about whether there was a hiring freeze, former Registrar Deveney testified about the Governor’s efforts to reimagine state government processes “to work smarter not harder”: If a request was made for more staff, the response would not necessarily be to grant more staff, but to ask whether there was a better way to handle the business process.
It sounded as if the cost-control emphasis may have contributed to middle managers letting a serious problem slide rather than insisting on additional help to fix it. Yet, Secretary Pollack pushed back on this perception, pointing to statistics showing overall growth in staffing at the RMV and noting that the work of the MRB has been increasingly automated which should increase its capacity,
More telling, the new management that arrived after the problems surfaced cleared up the serious offenses within a good portion of the backlog in two weeks, suggesting that prior management had not been creative enough about how to triage and focus on safety priorities.
Secretary Pollack acknowledged that the testimony as to who was responsible for allowing the processing backlog was conflicting and emphasized MassDOT’s retention of forensic auditors to get a straight story.
I am hopeful that the report of the auditors and/or the continuing investigation by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation will shed more light on the management choices that led to the public being exposed to more dangerous drivers.
The public deserves a full accounting for the failures. At end of the day, I expect that a fair accounting will show that accountability runs in multiple directions and to multiple levels. We should approach the investigation as a mechanism to improve the organization rather than as a search for someone to punish.
The new team has already effectively concluded that there was a lack of adequate focus on safety — they have put in place a new Deputy Registrar to focus on safety issues. That much is certainly a welcome development.