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Lansing — Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Thursday she has achieved her campaign promise of getting customers in and out of branch offices in less than 30 minutes by ensuring customers can make online appointments at every branch office.

Benson declined to say whether, if ever, the same 30-minute guarantee could be extended to walk-in customers, but she encouraged people to do tasks online when possible and make an appointment when it isn't. 

The announcement came as three people visiting a Lansing Secretary of State's branch said Thursday they waited two hours or more to complete a renewal, while another resident said an online appointment cut her wait to less than 30 minutes.

The department had added appointment options to all of the state's 131 branches this summer and last month moved all branches on to the same appointment software. Republican former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson offered online appointment options at 43 branches in 2018.

So far this year, the Secretary of State's office conducted 500,000 transactions by appointment, a 35% increase from last year. 

It was not clear how long customers had to wait on average to get an appointment for the transactions. 

"The goal frankly is to make sure that if someone doesn’t have to come into a branch at all, that they don’t,” Benson said at a Thursday Lansing press conference. 

"We want to deeply overhaul the branch experience entirely and that is going to take some time but we've already begun that process," she said. 

In April, Benson warned that deep-seated problems at the Secretary of State's office could mean her 30-minute goal wouldn't be realized until 2022.  After visiting Michigan's 131 branches in her first 100 days in office, the Detroit Democrat said she found nearly one-third of the state’s self-service secretary of state kiosks were broken and customers were waiting in line “far too long” for basic services.

Her Republican predecessor Ruth Johnson spent the past several years urging residents to do driver license renewals and other tasks online and at state kiosks. 

Systemic issues in the department could be patched with short-term solutions, Benson said, but it would fail to recognize the consistent cuts to the department's budget or overall shifts in how services are rendered. 

"The way in which services are being delivered across many industries is not through brick-and-mortar offices and through people walking in and waiting in line," Benson said. "It's a failed model and it's an antiquated model for doing business."

The new software used for appointments produces intake data that helps a customer prepare the documents needed for the visit and helps the branch to know how many customers to expect and what types of transactions they'll be making, Benson said. The state currently is able to handle 4,000 appointments a day

The department hopes to offer same-day appointments in early 2020.

Nearly half of those coming into branch offices could have conducted their transactions online, by mail or via self-service kiosks, Benson said.

James Phillips waited in line two hours and twenty minutes at a Lansing Secretary of State branch Thursday, a visit he's come to dread because of the long wait. 

Appointments are a great option, Phillips said, but one he wasn't aware of until he heard other people being called to the front of the line inside the office. 

"You can bet now that I know about it, I'll use it," he said. 

Twin brothers Josh and Joe Beukema visited the Lansing branch together Thursday to renew their licenses for their 21st birthdays. The Michigan State University students waited two hours even though they reserved a spot in line to cut down the wait. 

"They don't make it really known that you can make an appointment," Josh said. 

Even if officials did, there should be shorter waits for walk-ins than what the twins experienced Thursday, they said.

"The way to change that would be to get more employees in there," said Joe, who noted four service desks were empty. 

But Mariela Torres, also renewing her license for her 21st birthday, had better luck. She made an appointment Wednesday after seeing a sign advertising as much and was in and out Thursday within a half-hour. 

"I'm just running short on time so I didn't want to wait," Torres said. 

The average wait time for customers at the 43 busiest Secretary of State branches increased from 55 minutes in 2017 to 71 minutes in 2018 to 78 minutes in 2019. But those times, the only tracking data currently available, have been inaccurate under the previous administration and Benson's, Benson's spokesman Jake Rollow said. 

The data reflects what is tracked visually by a branch manager, who monitors at least once a day the time it takes for someone at the back of the line to get to the front, and through in-branch check-ins for those who reserve a place in line.

Both methods are less than scientific, Rollow said. 

Nonetheless, using those measures, wait times appear to have been increasing consistently for several years, he said. Benson is working to address the root causes, but the systemic nature of the issues will take time to resolve, Rollow said. 

The office is exploring ways to push online commercial transactions and testing services that can tend to create bottlenecks in the office, Benson said. The department also is looking at the future of a program that allows you to reserve your spot in line because of constant inaccuracies. 

The department's website and mailers reminding people of renewals will be simplified and list the different options for carrying out those transactions, Benson said. 

Benson also plans to unroll a legislative package early next year to streamline services and request roughly $9 million more to fund the initiatives in the department. 

"The changes I've announced today are ones we're able to do with our current authority and within our office internally and, frankly, within our current budget," Benson said.  

Benson announced earlier this month that her office planned to replace older self-service kiosks and install more for a total of 150 by this spring. 

They will be located in branch offices as well as grocery stores such as Kroger and Meijer. Customers are able to process renewals and print auto and motorcycle tabs at the kiosks. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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