Troubles at the RMV

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.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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15 Comments

  1. The RMV not only provides a vital public service, but also has an important responsibility to public safety. Apparently their policy to be “customer friendly” also extended to those non-deserving dangerous drivers. The RMV, or at least the enforcement arm of the RMV should be run by a committed law enforcement official who understands the extremely tragic consequences we just saw of mismanagement of those drivers unsafe to be driving. Public safety should never be taken lightly by politicians when choosing people for important positions such as the RMV .

  2. Will, I find it frustrating that when events like this happen, the focus of the hearings always seem to be on “who is responsible” in the particular case in the headlines. But the evidence that there may be a disaster-in-the-making are often objectively evident.
    Rather than focus exclusively on who within the RMV is going to get blamed for this event, why not focus on what it would take to recognize ahead of time situations like this in all agencies across our state government? How about a roving “safety inspector” with authority to audit the procedures of all state offices, to identify and publicize evident problems-in-the-making?
    And by the way–how does a middle manager in state government “insist” that they get additional staff?

    1. I agree! What is the important thing? Should we be prioritizing finding someone to blame or should we prioritize solutions? Personally, I am more interested in investing in the fix and applying the lessons learned to other departments by reviewing similar situations.

      1. I do agree with this. I added this language into my post above.

        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.

  3. I do not think that anyone would deliberately not do their jobs and ignore public safety so I must assume that they do not understand their own processes which is just poor management.

  4. “the work of the MRB has been increasingly automated which should increase its capacity”. What I’ve seen is that automation (if actually used, as it apparently wasn’t here) increases what can be done but often does not make individual tasks faster. I used to work for a company that sold software that was supposed to make tracking development and production of hard goods (anything from toys to turbojets) easier — but my reaction to their making us use the software to track our own projects was unprintable. (It wasn’t the worst thing management did to us — the faddish sprint-development process was worse — but it was bad enough). Automating a process involves a huge learning curve.

    wrt a “roving ‘safety inspector’ ” — that sounds like a variant of the old Taylorist idea that someone from the outside can be enough of an expert to redirect people who work with a process every day; it might help occasionally, but it will probably miss a lot, and sometimes be actively wrong. Better IMO would be to encourage the people who do the work to speak up, and make sure they’re heard; I find it improbable that nobody noticed this issue in the years that it had been going on. That being said, it would be instructive to find out how “new management that arrived after the problems surfaced cleared up the serious offenses within a good portion of the backlog in two weeks” — was this really cleared up (e.g., has anyone from another state tested whether reports from years ago are now findable), and if so what was done? Did they simply define “serious offenses” as a tiny fraction of the notices?

  5. Thomas Bowes was too busy traveling and Facebooking from Europe during this crisis. This is a life and death situation and in the private sector he would have flown home immediately and helped his team. Why does he still have a job with the RMV?! Disgraceful.

    1. Michael, In the private sector he most likely would have participated in a conference call or some other type of communication.

  6. How anyone who has observed the “function” of Government employees, certainly since the days of Tweed, Honey Fitz, Curley and of late, Bulger et al, can be surprised by each new “shocking” revelation of thoroughgoing incompence simply baffles me. Be it the Red Line, the Pike Patrols, Logan, whatever, the ONLY concern of Government employees is there ever-escalating pay and lifetime benefits, all conveyed without the slightest linkage to performance. And while Will will harrump and wring his hands and “investigate” for a few days, he knows that he and his colleagues are feasting upon the bounteous river of cash that flows back to them from the verysame overpaid, unresponsive Government “workers”. They know well where their bread is buttered. Lord help us if they secure full control of our Doctors and Hospitals as so many seem to desire.

  7. Will— itnisncommin for managers in a situation with processes such as the RMV’s to report monthly on key performance indicators. If they cannot or do not have that process in place, they are sunk and left putting front line staff or middle
    Managers in untenable conversations about blame. Where are the reports that should be going to Sec Pollack EVERY month? If they cannot be produced in 24 hours, then this is a team that has little capacity to respond to the Governor’s “work smarter” expectation. Either give this team the tools and right expectations or let the new group that cleaned up the backlog takeover. The good news is that this problem can be fixed with good processes and management— it is not a global
    social issue that confounds generations of people who work hard to improve things. Enough with excuses for the RMV.

  8. Isn’t the State Auditor’s office responsible for examining the procedures of all departments of state government to see if they are effective and being followed? Was there a stated, written policy regarding the processing of these out-of-state communications? More people should resign or be fired.

  9. I have to wonder, is this the result of patronage hiring, together with a directive or “understanding” that there will be no new budget (to deal with problems like this) in Baker’s regime, plus a very lax management culture (no standards, no oversight, hide the problems). I might be missing about 10% of the cause of this problem.

  10. I have lived in Mass since 1970. It seems that the RMV courts problems. I googled “RMV history scandals” and found several hits but none seemed to chronicle them. One described problems in the early 1990s as well as the RMV’s capability to abuse its powers: https://www.wired.com/1994/02/dmv/

      1. Plus, this article has a road map of the trucker who killed all the motorcyclists. The map shows enough incidences where the trucker should have lost his license or landed in jail, IMHO. It seems that not enough coordination occurs among the various state DMVs; on the other hand, these DMVs hold a lot of information that might provide a threatening example of Big Brother.

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