Watson: Working to improve MS driver’s license services

(Written by guest columnist, Secretary of State, Michael Watson)

Since I took office as Mississippi’s Secretary of State earlier this month, my team and I have been working hard to implement the plans we discussed on the campaign trail.  We’ve put together a great staff across the state working for the betterment of Mississippians.

As we reach the time of year when many people struggle with keeping their New Year’s resolutions, I wanted to update you on my biggest resolution for 2020: improving Mississippi’s driver’s license services.

Waiting in line for a new driver’s license is something that most of us dread and procrastinate, but I am working to change that.

While campaigning across the state this past year, I promoted the idea of having the legislature move the driver’s license services bureau from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to the Secretary of State’s office. Many of you shared your frustration with long lines, faulty kiosk machines, limited renewal options, and “day of” office closures, among other issues.

I hear stories repeatedly from people who drive long distances from their homes to other towns many miles away just to avoid long lines and limited service. As a conservative, I am for limited government, but in the areas it must exist, it should serve citizens in the best manner possible. There must be a more efficient way to operate the DMV than the unacceptable way it’s being handled right now. As a taxpayer, you have a right to expect greater efficiency and customer service in this process. Getting a driver’s license should be as quick and painless as possible, and I plan to work diligently during the 2020 legislative session to make that happen by implementing something new that I call the “SIP Plan” which stands for Service, Information, and Professionalism.

The change I am proposing is not without precedent. Several states already have their driver’s license services operated by their Secretary of State’s offices. I have researched these states’ programs and am confident we can implement a successful system here, with the goal of having the most efficient way to both issue and renew personal and commercial driver’s licenses.

Not unlike other state agencies, DPS and the Mississippi Highway Patrol (MHP) face funding and staffing challenges that are stretching them thin. My proposal is not a criticism of DPS in any way. In fact, it is intended to better support their primary mission of law enforcement. Transferring driver’s license duties away from DPS will enable them to reallocate more resources toward public safety efforts to keep Mississippians safe. The DPS personnel who work at driver’s license offices will better serve the public by utilizing their experience and expertise on the roadways, not in an office. Additionally, our plan would separate the Sex Offender Registry from the DMV so our families will not be subject to being in the presence of sexual predators when waiting at the DMV.

What would be different for our citizens by transferring driver’s license services from one state agency to another? We can find efficiencies, increase the use of technology, promote more online renewals, hire customer-focused managers at each office, and also outsource the written and driving tests. For example, our plan would make sure our Driver’s Education teachers are certified to administer both the written and driving portions of the test, which would remove numerous new drivers from the backlog in the offices to dramatically transform people’s experiences for the better.

We also need to implement new ways of conducting business such as an enhanced and expanded online scheduling system and improved renewal options that will save people time in the short and long term, so they do not have to return as frequently to renew a driver’s license.

Moving driver’s license services to the Secretary of State’s office is a natural fit. The office already handles business licensing for entities such as limited liability companies (LLCs) and charitable organizations, has secure record-keeping systems and is the lead elections official for the state. We can also more efficiently and securely administer the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which allows people to register to vote when applying for or renewing a license.

My proposal is a very real change that affects most Mississippians.  If you have more questions about the SIP plan, you can read about it on my website here.  I welcome your ideas and suggestions as we move forward to pass a bill this legislative session and I hope you will join me in encouraging our legislators to move the DMV to the Secretary of State’s office.

Service, Information and Professionalism from our state government is a New Year’s resolution we can all support and should see through to completion.