Audit Details Customer Service Problems at MVC Agencies in NJ

Colleen O'Dea | October 2, 2019 | More Issues
Compliance officers would often skip visits to their assigned agencies and stop instead at one closer to home, especially on Fridays
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The MVC office in Rahway

Complaints about it may be clichéd, but the state Motor Vehicle Commission does indeed have customer-service issues, including wide discrepancies between different local agencies in the number of transactions processed and a lack of follow-up to customer grievances, a new state audit has found.

While not uncovering major problems, the report released Tuesday by the Legislature’s Office of the State Auditor did raise some troubling questions, particularly about the commission’s compliance unit, which is supposed to monitor the operations of local agencies. These include uneven reviews by compliance officers, reports of local agency visits that differed from vehicle use logs and officers often visiting agencies near their homes, rather than the ones they were supposed to check, especially on Fridays.

Targets of state audits often push back on at least some of the criticism, but in her response, MVC chief administrator B. Sue Fulton agreed with the findings and thanked the auditor for his recommendations.

A former U.S. Army captain, Fulton pledged on the day Gov. Phil Murphy nominated her in February 2018  that she would work to “ensure that all New Jerseyans are treated with respect when they come to our offices.” That was a nod to the MVC’s past reputation for long waits and poor service.

Problems with compliance unit

The MVC operates 39 local agencies and two mobile units and processed more than 11 million license, registration and title transactions in the 2018 fiscal year.

The audit, designed to assess the efficiency of customer service operations, covered the period from July 1, 2016 to Feb. 28, 2019. For slightly more than half that time, the former Christie administration was in charge.

Overall, the audit found that “customer service operations could be more efficient if improvements are made” to the compliance unit, use of mobile units and the handling of complaints.

The greatest issues were found within the compliance unit, tasked with monitoring the operations of the 39 agencies that process license, registration and title transactions. In the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years, the unit had 15 compliance officers, while in 2019 it had 11. Each officer is assigned to observe the workflow at between two and four agencies and is required to visit each of those agencies at least once a week, according to the audit. All officers have a state car and must fill out monthly vehicle use logs.

A lack of standard operating procedures and appropriate supervision led the unit to be ineffective overall and allowed for some questionable practices to occur, the audit found. These include:

  • Officers did not consistently review specific agency operations and there was no evidence that supervisors reviewed their work.
  • Vehicle use logs did not agree with officers’ daily field reports on 20% of the 87 days reviewed.
  • When an officer wrote a field report for an agency to which he had not been assigned that day, it was for one was close to his home. “This typically happened on Fridays,” the audit states.
  • Some officers visited agencies near their homes several times a week but did not make a required weekly visit to an assigned agency farther away or in an urban area.
  • Nearly half of 194 daily field reports from December 2017 could not be provided for review.

Fulton responded that the MVC has realigned the operations of the compliance unit and is working to establish and codify standard operating policies and procedures.

Mobile units underutilized

The audit also raised questions about utilization of MVC’s two mobile units, which together cost about $939,000 when purchased in late 2016 and early 2017. While the units could be used to process transactions at senior centers, universities and office parks and in underserved communities and places impacted by storms, they have mostly been deployed to Edison and Rahway to help reduce wait times resulting from the yearlong closure of the nearby South Plainfield agency beginning in May 2017. For the most part, that did not change when the South Plainfield agency reopened in May 2018, the audit states.

In addition, the units operated only about 75 percent of the time between December 2017 and October 2018, according to the report.

“The MVC could not provide a strategic plan or standard operating procedures for their mobile units operation prior to deployment, and neither has been developed to date,” the audit states. “As a result, the mobile units have not been efficiently utilized for their primary intended purpose of bringing essential MVC services directly to motorists statewide.”

Fulton replied that the agency created the position of community engagement manager in November 2018 and the mobile units did significantly more events in the six months ending Aug. 31 of this year than between June 2018 and February 2019. In this fiscal year, the priority for the mobile units will be serving veterans and the disabled.

The audit also found problems with the MVC’s process for resolving customer complaints. Based on a sample of website complaints received between July 1, 2016 and Aug. 30, 2018, the audit found that MVC officials had followed up on only one of 51 complaints. An additional sample of 15 complaints from November 2018 through January 2019 showed a better response rate after the commission put new procedures in place. But the audit still found four of the 15 complaints had no record of follow-up.

Fulton said that the MVC has further standardized its handling of complaints, allowing it to reduce response times, respond to complaints in Spanish via mail and email and increase customer-service training.

Productivity varies between agencies

Finally, the audit notes significant differences in staffing size and the number of transactions handled at different agencies. In the 2018 fiscal year, for example, 47 people at one unidentified agency processed an average of 374 transactions per month apiece, while at another, 26 workers completed 708 transactions each.

“Optimal staffing levels could provide more effective and efficient customer service,” the audit states.

Fulton agreed, writing that the MVC had reviewed work-force levels and “was the only Cabinet department to gain approval for additional staffing in the FY20 budget.” The commission was allowed to hire 209 full-time and 80 part-time staffers and used “rapid-recruitment measures” to fill open positions. So far, more than 200 spots have been filled and Fulton wrote that she expects “full staff on board within a matter of weeks.” Additionally, the MVC changed its hours last July, including expanded Saturday hours.

The MVC has taken other steps in areas not covered by the audit to improve customer service, Fulton added. For instance:

  • It replaced the servers and driver-testing software at all 39 agencies to improve the speed and reliability of its systems. Last year, the MVC experienced some computer outages that prevented agencies from processing transactions over several days.
  • Last spring, the commission added license renewal/replacement, vehicle registration replacement and address changes to the list of transactions that could be done online. So far, the MVC has processed 75,000 of these transactions, which let people avoid having to visit an agency.
  • Agencies are implementing a ticket system, which allows people to sit and wait until their number is called. The system also allows the MVC to track wait and transaction times, as well as counter staffing. An agency can then “quickly identify and address bottlenecks to reduce customer waiting time.”