By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Our new, customer-friendly RMV

From the Department of You Can’t Make This Up: I had to clear up a matter with the Registry for Motor Vehicles this morning, and decided to do it online. Other than taking care of it in person, I figured it was my best bet to get print-outable confirmation that could be produced in case of a side-of-the-highway misunderstanding.

So I did. But before I logged off, I was informed that even though the transaction had been processed, it could take up to three days to clear. Sounded to me like the Registry’s website was little more than a front end to an old-fashioned hand-processing operation.

It gets better. Within minutes, I received an e-mail confirmation. All was forgiven — until I actually read it:

Citation Number xxx has been paid in the amount of xxx. To ensure the Citation is fully cleared and your license remains active, immediate action is required. Please contact the Phone Center or visit a Branch to confirm this matter is now resolved.

Yes, you read that correctly. I paid up online. I got an e-mail confirming that I paid. Yet now I have to call the Registry just to make really, really sure. Amazing. And remember, we’re all paying for this.

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  1. BP Myers

    Remember the firestorm last year when Deval was going to appoint Marian Walsh to a cushy position she was in no way qualified for? Think if you look up our current registrar’s “qualifications,” you’ll see more of the same.

    And in their literature, they’re still foisting that old canard that “driving is a privilege.” No, Madam Registrar. You’re freedom to move from place to place, in the standard conveyance of your day, is a right, a right that has been reaffirmed many times at the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Where’s Joe Grabauskas when you need him?

  2. Neil Sagan

    How long did the phone call take? What did they tell you?

    You’re absolutely right Dan, we should spend much more money automating this system so that people who break the law and get traffic citations can dispose of the obligation the citation entails (their hard earned cash) much more efficiently.

    But seriously, if you could double the fine to fiance a more efficient fine payment system, would you sign on?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Neil: You can’t call on a Saturday.

      Are you seriously telling us that it’s cheaper to have Registry employees do this than to finish the job of computerizing it? What’s your day job – running a public-employees union?

  3. Neil Sagan

    No. My day job is Information Technology in systems architecture and software design. You got something against public employees or public employee unions?

    What’s your day job. Dan? Journalism professor? How does that inform you on costs and benefits of automation decisions? Yea yea, I know, you installed Chrome recently. Let us know how long the phone call takes.

    It’s too bad we can’t ask the person responsible for the system why a traffic violation offender must call to determine if their fine payment has cleared through the system, and what resources it would take to automate it.

    What I’ve learned from this exchange is that sometimes people just like to rant and they’re not really looking for information about the problem they encounter.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Neil: You don’t have to be in IT to know that if you set up a computerized payment system *and* require a phone call, you’re wasting money somewhere.

  4. BP Myers

    @Neil Sagan says: My day job is Information Technology in systems architecture and software design. You got something against public employees or public employee unions?

    Hilarious. Why not just come out and say it?

    My day job is Information Technology in systems architecture and software design in a public employee union.

    Save us a lot of time.

  5. MJ Coughlin

    @Dan — I’ve used their site for routine business, including online payments, a number of times. (I’ve only had to venture inside an RMV office once in the past 6-7 years.) I don’t recall receiving such a message as you describe. They’ve done a great job of making that agency more consumer friendly in recent years….and that’s what we pay for.

  6. Ryan Grannan-Doll

    Unfortunately, this kind of so-called customer friendly service is commonplace for the RMV. I suggest you lookup the firestorm with closing the branch in Southbridge and opening of one on the pike in Charlton.
    For instance, the RMV says you can renew a license online. You fill out the form online, pay, and then you are informed that you must visit a branch to complete the transaction!

  7. Neil Sagan

    BP Myers says:

    Why not just come out and say it?

    My day job is Information Technology in systems architecture and software design in a public employee union.

    Save us a lot of time.

    Why put words in my mouth? You’re too smart by half. Don’t feel compelled to spend your time divining who I work for. What’s it to you anyway?

  8. Brad Deltan

    Something that occurred to me recently: it seems the only place left that still has unions is the public sector – the one place they really shouldn’t exist.

    Isn’t it time for a law that bans unionization amongst public sector employees? It’s become rather obvious that instead of the unions protecting the employees from the politics of the electorate, the unions are only using politics to inflict the employees on the electorate.

    Flush ’em out of the public sector and let’s force unions to focus on a place where they’re needed: the private sector.

    Oh, and before you say anything about how I’m wrong because Detroit having powerful private-sector unions? First of all, the auto industry IS the public sector now, for all intents and purposes, thanks to bailout fever over the last three years. Second, it’s been the public sector for decades thanks to intense lobbying efforts that have created oodles of government exceptions and protections for the auto industry.

  9. Mike Benedict

    Gee, Brad, by your definition, Wall Street would be considered a union, too. And yes, they lobby too!

  10. Dan,

    I work in IT for the Commonwealth. Although I don’t work for the Registry, I’ve worked with them over the years, beginning with helping them put their first Internet services up in 1996. Their computer system was old then; it’s now ancient. It was put together when systems were brought up only during office hours, and weren’t available any other time. The fact that you can do so many things online is due to the ingenuity and motivation of RMV IT: offering 24×7 service when dependent on batch mode processing is a bear.

    It’s also an astonishingly complicated system. If it was easy to replace, it would have been replaced already. If it was cheap to replace, it would have been replaced already.

    Even it was a brand new system, built on all the latest and greatest technology, some people would still have to call or visit an office. Some transactions are dependent on systems or processes outside of the Registry. For instance, ID photographs can’t be more than 10 years old according to post-9/11 federal law. If your picture is older than that, you can’t renew online because you have to go to the Registry to have a new picture taken. Citations require interaction with other state and local systems; which one depends on whether it’s a civil or criminal citation and who issued it, and then the Registry is dependent on the capabilities of that system.

    So, you have a mission-critical system whose age is measured in decades and whose replacement cost is measured in tens of millions. Hopeless? No, just difficult. The good news is that that work has begun already. There hasn’t been much talk about it because it’s still very early in a multi-year project, which is the bad news. Meanwhile, they will keep trying to make it possible for people do as much online as they can.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Sarah: If there are certain transactions that haven’t been computerized, then the Registry should just say so. Having a computerized front end feeding in to people answering the phone is silly. I could have just waited until Monday to call rather than pretend-paying online.

  11. @Dan,

    I believe most citation transactions are successful. In that case, the message you quote above should have some indication that this is not the usual outcome; adding an apology would be nice. If I’m wrong (always a possibility!) then their instructions should mention the extra step. In either case, I’ll be getting in touch with them when I get back to work.

  12. L.K. Collins

    Ms. Bourne makes some cogent points.

    And look at it this way. If it weren’t for what is in place now, you’d have to visit the RMV.

    You have a convenience at this juncture, just not the convenience you expected or think that you are due.

    Which brings us back to Ms. Bourne’s cogent points.

    Note, too, that it takes money to accomplish your desired level of convenience, and for the RMV that means getting it from revenue generated or enlightened action of the legislature.

    And after getting the money it takes time and effort.

    We all know what trouble the state’s finances are in. What essential service do you recommend cutting?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @L.K.: It’s cheaper to have a pure phone system than a phony computer system attached to a phone system. And, of course, over time it would a lot of money to move to a pure computer system.

      Which essential services do you recommend cutting in order to maintain the current absurdity, in which we are paying for both?

  13. L.K. Collins

    Not necessarily Dan. Depends upon the what the intent of the phone component requirement is.

    Throwing money at software development doesn’t usually mean getting the system faster or having the product glitch free.

    What to cut? Isn’t that what we have enlightened legislature elected to decide? Hasn’t one party controlled that body for decades, one with which you frequently identify? They seem to be more adept handouts to hacks than they are at managing priorities or conveniences that you are afforded.

    I could recommend elimination of tax breaks for colleges and universities that have journalism schools, but I think we might hear a certain amount wailing and gnashing of teeth. 😀

  14. C.E. Stead

    DK – I want to second what Sarah said, as I am a former insurance agent.

    I once had my own car towed by my hometown police, as they found I was unregistered at a traffic stop. Since I WROTE the policy, and had my on-line renewal in the glove box, I knew this was an error, but the cops were mandated to tow me anyway because they must abide by what their on-board computer tells them. Turns out the Registry had ‘dropped’ a batch – that is, an incoming bundle of transmissions from an insurance company had had an electronic glitch and had gone unprocessed, wiping out the effect of all those transmissions. That is what she meant by ‘batch transactions’.

    Also – the RMV has to wait for the town hall where the ticket was paid to notify THEM electronically to verify that they have booked the transaction. And various jurisdictions have differing views on this – some do it automatically, others like to wait until they have a ‘few piled up’, and do it all at once. Indeed, some town halls aren’t even open five days a week to acknowledge transactions. (Was your ticket from the Berkshires?)

    That’s the reason for the phone call – so you can verify that the transaction has been processed before you begin driving again, or you’ll wind up like me being towed.

    And before you huff that they shouldn’t take the money in, then, consider that before you had to present yourself in East Overshoe to pay your ticket, and STILL wait for them to notify the RMV. At least the ticket paying experience has been dealt with; the timely posting really is out of their hands to a certain extent.

    BTW – this happened to Michael Graham, too. His out of state license records weren’t transmitted properly, and he had his license suspended.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @C.E.: Sarah seemed to understand what I was saying. I’m not sure you do. In this case, everything had migrated to the Registry. It’s not a matter of checking back with local police. It’s a matter of the Registry buying computer equipment and software, and then not really using them because you have to call anyway.

  15. L.K. Collins

    Seeing as though you don’t yet know what the reason is for their requiring you to call, Dan, isn’t the assumption that just buying computer equipment and software a little premature?

    And it’s quite a bit more than just “buying” hardware and software.

  16. Kaz Brown

    So, there were two parts that made you anxious to know if the process had worked: 1) the potential three-day processing clearance, and 2) the e-mail telling you to call to verify that the citation was cleared and your license remains active.

    1) The “might take 3 days to clear” is a pretty standard disclaimer from anything that just took money via credit card/bank account withdrawal online. Nearly everything will tell you that if you look at the fine print because (as your example shows), they can only withdrawal the money on a banking day and there’s usually only a single time of day that electronic transactions take place. You did this on a Saturday…the charge wouldn’t have been actually cleared until Monday morning at the earliest. I doubt it has anything to do with hand-processing.

    2) Did you take care of this citation right before some deadline? That sounds like the kind of response you’d get if you were pushing up against a deadline for automatic blocking/expiration of your license due to the citation sitting unpaid for so long. They probably need you to call in to confirm that you paid (which hasn’t processed since it was a Saturday) and they can bump your expiration/termination problem down the road a week or two to wait for the payment to clear and citation to then clear. They’re not going to clear your citation from your record automatically just because you logged in and tried to pay them (you could use an empty account, etc). So, it sounds like you were toeing a line and the system wants you to call in to deal with a situation that could end up trapping you in a no-man’s-land between having paid but waiting too long to trigger the automatic suspension/expiration of your license…just to have the citation get paid/cleared…and then have to undo the suspension (something the automation will never do for good reason).

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Kaz: Credit card. No waiting necessary. Your other theorizing is wrong.

  17. Kaz Brown

    Well, Dan. I took a shot at trying to help you understand the mythical world of online transactions. Even credit cards may not be processed until later, it’s entirely up to their policy, your card company’s policy, and the charging company’s policy (since the RMV isn’t likely running their own charges). Since you obviously must know exactly what’s going on behind the curtain, I find it hard for you to be so distraught over it here.

    Since you don’t give any details, only the lucky will know exactly what citation you got and why it might have flagged your account for the “please call” message instead of the “thanks, you’re good to go” message…and I don’t play the lottery.

    Let me leave you with this one last piece of advice on how to avoid this “You Can’t Make This Up” system in the future so you’re no longer troubled by it:

    Don’t get citations.

  18. Steve Stein

    This item made me chuckle. If this happened to me, my wife would MAKE me call to confirm, whether the Registry told me to or not.

    • Dan Kennedy

      This morning: 20 minutes on hold before I gave up. It was a taxpayer-funded 800 number. All because the Registry didn’t complete the job of enabling online payments. This is not a matter of personal convenience or customer service. It is a matter of taxpayer money being wasted. Per usual.

  19. Mike Benedict

    I find it funny that those who usually are the loudest to complain about the inefficiencies and waste of “big government” are in this case defending those same inefficiencies and waste.

    I’m not surprised, though. Those who were loudest about Clinton getting a hummer from an intern almost to a man were later found to be cheating on their own wives (and sometimes with other men).

    Projection evidently is part of the conservative platform.

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