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Benson: 30-minute promise is kept — with an appointment

FILE - In this Jan. 25, 2019 file photo, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, speaks at her office in Lansing, Mich. Benson, who campaigned on a 30-minute wait promise amid complaints over long lines, at branch Secretary of State offices, said Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, that people who book an appointment will get in and out of branch offices within a half-hour, but the guarantee does not apply to those who show up without one. (AP Photo/David Eggert, File)

By DAVID EGGERT
Associated Press
LANSING — Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said Thursday that people who book an appointment will get in and out of branch offices within half an hour, but that guarantee does not apply to those who show up without one.
Benson, who campaigned on a 30-minute promise amid complaints over long lines, said she has achieved it because residents can now go online or call to make an appointment at all 131 branches — a threefold increase — even though average wait times have increased since she took office in January. Walking into a branch and waiting in line is a “failed” and “antiquated” model of doing business, she said, and one that people can avoid by renewing vehicle registrations and driver’s licenses online or — when in-person service is necessary — booking appointments.
“In our view, the 30-minute guarantee is available to every resident in the state, and that’s what I campaigned on. It’s available through appointments,” Benson, a Democrat, said at a news conference in which she spoke about her department’s efforts to address customer service challenges. She said there are long waits for people who have no appointment and “I do not think for a second that our work is done. In fact, we’re just beginning.”
An estimated half of all people visiting branch offices “didn’t have to come into our branch office at all and could utilize one of our self-service options,” she said. The state, she said, will offer same-day appointments in the first few months of 2020 and simplify confusing, cluttered registration renewal mailings.
“These renewal mailers as they are today were not effectively communicating to our residents all the options they have to achieve whatever it is that they need to achieve with our office,” Benson said.
Additional self-service stations will be installed, she said, and the department’s website will be updated to make it easier for customers to do tasks such as renewing their license plates.
Roughly 500,000 transactions have been completed during appointments this year, a 35% increase from the same point in 2018.
“What we have planned ahead is for our capacity to increase and the opportunities for those appointments to increase even more in the year ahead,” Benson said.
She said when she took the helm that she found the department’s employees had been working in a structure that was “unsustainable and enduring great stress.” She pointed to a 46% cut in the number of offices since the 1980s and a 40% reduction in branch positions since 2001, along with low morale among staff.
Even tracking wait times, she said, has been difficult because the technology is inaccurate and unscientific. She said average waits more than doubled under her predecessor, Republican Ruth Johnson, to almost 30 minutes in less-crowded branches in northern Michigan and to more than 70 minutes at the busiest offices.
A spokesman for Benson said the average wait time across all branches has risen to 51 minutes since she started, from 43 minutes in 2018. Jake Rollow said the rate of increase is the same as what was occurring in the years before she took over.
“I don’t think it’s due to any one incident,” he said. “I think it’s just the department has deep flaws. And those flaws persist.”
While drivers can renew their registration by mail or online, they sometimes do have to visit a branch. State law requires a motorist to renew a license in person every eight years.
A visit is required to title a vehicle.
Starting next October, residents wanting to fly will need a passport or a driver’s license that complies with requirements known as REAL ID, which may lead to an increase in visits to branch offices.