Tag offices find computer system taxing (computer problem)

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12/6/99 -- 12:21 AM

Tag offices find new computer system taxing By CARLOS MONCADA of The Tampa Tribune

CLEARWATER - Local tax collectors say a $30 million state vehicle computer system has caused nothing but headaches.

When Ida Surcy didn't receive a notice to renew her car tag, which expires on her birthday this month, she called the Pinellas County Tax Collector's Office.

``I wanted to find out why we haven't gotten it,'' said the St. Petersburg resident, who normally gets the notice at least a month before her Dec. 31 birthday.

She's not alone: As many as 50,000 Pinellas motorists with December birthdays are receiving their vehicle registration renewal notices later than usual.

Pinellas officials blamed the problem on the latest glitch in a new statewide computer system that has bedeviled tax offices across the Tampa Bay area and across Florida much of this year.

The state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles designed the $30 million system to speed the processing of millions of records and prepare county tax offices for the next century.

But local tax collectors say that hasn't happened.

They say the complex system, fully implemented in all 67 Florida counties as of Sept. 30, creates delays in processing even the simplest of transactions, causing longer waits for motorists at tax offices.

``We have not noticed a substantial increase in the speed,'' said Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden, whose office piloted the system with Pinellas and four other counties in mid-1998. ``The transaction time is sometimes two to three times slower, with numerous busy signals.''

Besides processing delays, the new system has also caused computer errors that have resulted in some vehicle owners in Pinellas receiving registration renewal notices with incorrect information.

Some notices have carried the wrong name of a co-owner, inaccurate fee amounts or erroneously stated no emissions test for pollution was required.

``When you own a car and it says you don't need an emissions inspection, and we kick it back and say, yes it does, we end up losing our credibility,'' said Diane Nelson, director of tag and title operations in Pinellas.

DMV officials in Tallahassee acknowledge that problems have occurred but said they are working hard to correct them.

Charles Brantley, state motor vehicles director, said the new system is capable of performing at a higher level than its decades-old predecessor. He urged tax office employees to be patient.

``Is it at the speed that everyone wants it to be at this point? Probably not,'' Brantley said. ``But when you compare it to what we had before, it is so far advanced.''

The Florida Real-time Vehicle Identification System 2000 was designed to handle more data faster, replacing the state's 21-year-old system and avoiding a potential Y2K crash.

It merges vehicle registrations, driver's licenses, and title information into one database, providing more functions not available under its predecessor.

Now, vehicle information may be accessed with only a name, whereas a registration number was needed before.

BUT THE NEW system is also more complicated than its predecessor because it has more computer screens through which clerks must enter transactions.

Shortly after the system came online statewide last spring, tax collectors reported that it created longer waits for motorists - up to two hours in some cases.

Overtime hours piled up, and extra workers were brought in. Motorists were warned of potentially long waits and urged to handle their business by mail.

In August, state Auditor General Charles Lester issued a report that said many of the problems may have been caused by the DMV putting the new system into use before it was fully tested.

The report also found ``deficiencies'' in the training and technical support the state agency provided tax office employees.

``It started out as a nightmare,'' said Pasco Tax Collector Mike Olson. ``It's still a tremendous concern, and we can only hope it gets better.''

Tax collectors have griped to Gov. Jeb Bush and Cabinet members. Bush's office did not respond to The Tampa Tribune's request for comment last week.

Hillsborough's Belden said he plans to meet with Fred Dickinson, the highway department's executive director, in Tallahassee Dec. 14 to share his concerns.

``They're being cooperative,'' Belden said of DMV officials. ``But we're not there yet.''

AMONG THE MOST recent problems were recurring ``busy'' messages on computer screens that delayed things even more.

The situation improved after DMV officials added two more processors to the system, boosting its speed by 50 percent.

``I'm disturbed that for a year we begged them to speed it up, and it wasn't until it got so slow, and there was so much pressure coming from everywhere that they decided, `Oh, we can put in two more processors,' '' said Pinellas Tax Collector W. Fred Petty.

Seminole County Tax Collector Ray Valdez, perhaps the most vocal critic, blamed problems with speed on system design flaws.

``We've been trying our best to coordinate and explain to the DMV where the difficulties are, but it's sort of difficult,'' Valdez said.

But Brantley said the state tax collectors association added to the processing time by requesting more than 870 enhancements during the system's development, which began in 1995.

TAX COLLECTORS SAID they were never told the changes would cause the delays they've seen.

Brantley said processing times will improve by mid-December. That's when the DMV will begin enabling employees to go offline to process transactions if there are system delays or other problems.

The motor vehicles director predicted most of the delays and bugs will be gone by Oct. 2000, after the system has been in operation for a year.

By then, most people in the database will have renewed their tag or title, so workers won't have to keep entering or verifying their information, Brantley said.

Some data transferred from the old system was missing or incomplete, he said.

``We regret that inconvenience to the public, but we have to suffer through that inconvenience for a year in order to get the correct data,'' Brantley said.

But tax collectors remain skeptical. ``I have my doubts as to whether it will ever be as good as the old system,'' Olson said.

-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), December 06, 1999


http://www.lasvegassun.com/sunbin/stories/lv-other/1999/dec/05/5095535 90.html


December 05, 1999

A kinder, gentler DMV

Director promises more cordial service to customers


Enduring long lines at the state Department of Motor Vehicles and Public Safety in recent weeks has been bad enough. Now Nevada residents can look forward to DMV workers going postal.

No, not in the common sense of the phrase -- that is, unhinged postal workers gunning down co-workers. Instead, state DMV officials want to "go postal" in mimicking the successful efforts of the U.S. Postal Service in recent years to provide better customer service.

Acting DMV Director John Drew said the public relations fallout since the September launch of Genesis, the agency's troubled new statewide computer system, underscores that DMV employees need help with more than high-tech skills.

"My personal opinion is that this department, on the motor-vehicle side, has not been very customer-service-oriented. Customer service and people skills should be higher priorities than they have been in the past," Drew said.

"If you can teach something like that to post office workers, why can't the DMV do the same thing? I think we can."

Such jaw-dropping candor from a government official is rare in itself. But more to the point, Drew's comments amount to what DMV critics view as a long overdue admission that, beyond exterminating bugs in the Genesis system, the agency's user-unfriendly reputation has got to go.

Drew's acknowledgement of the need for a kinder, gentler DMV comes as the furor -- and seemingly endless lines -- created by Genesis finally begin to subside. The $33.5 million glitch-plagued computer program, designed to up the agency's efficiency in processing driver licensing and vehicle registration, did just the opposite for weeks after the system debuted Sept. 7.

A maddening combination of computer snafus and a lack of employee training on the new system resulted in huge delays at DMV branch offices across the state. Customers were forced to wait six to eight hours for something as simple as a driver's license renewal. Their frustration led to verbal run-ins with overwhelmed DMV clerks who on occasion reacted by offering service with a sneer.

Persistent customer complaints about the attitude of DMV employees convinced Drew that the agency has to find ways to repair its dented image. He thinks the DMV could bolster its customer relations by adopting methods used by the postal service and large retailers, including monitoring of phone calls for "quality assurance" and posting supervisors on the floor to assist workers.

The agency also should give greater weight to people skills when screening potential employees, and provide rigorous, hands-on, customer-service training to new hires, Drew added.

"We teach them the mechanics of how to do a motor-vehicle transaction, but we don't necessarily teach them how to interact with a customer. We need to do that if we're going to improve," he said.

A little late

The ideas may seem obvious -- and late in coming. But state lawmakers critical of the DMV will take late over never.

State Sen. Joe Neal, D-North Las Vegas, sits on the legislative subcommittee charged with reviewing the progress of Genesis. He said DMV administrators sometimes bristle at the scrutiny, and that their contentious disposition can quickly trickle down to employees who deal with the public.

"Management has to have employees understand who the customers are, and (managers) have to instill in those workers that you are trying to meet the needs of the public. And if you can't, your butt should be fired," Neal said.

"You're not there to pick a fight with people trying to do a transaction. You're supposed to be helping them. That's something that starts with management, and that's something management has to make clear to (employees)."

Assemblywoman Vonne Chowning, D-North Las Vegas, another subcommittee member, described DMV administrators as "very, very defensive. But without the oversight committee, without this constant watchful eye from the Legislature, I don't know if everything would've progressed as it has. And they (administrators) have to remember that employees take their cue from them."

No one has ever mistaken the DMV in Nevada -- or, for that matter, in any state -- for Wal-Mart, a place where a grinning greeter offers a hearty welcome to customers. But Genesis represents a new low even when judged against the DMV's historically unpopular standing, according to legislators.

Critics ascribe at least part of the problem to turnover in the DMV's top job: Drew is the agency's fourth director in two years. The lack of continuity has hobbled the department, said Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, D-Las Vegas.

"The turnover has led to some mismanagement and some difficulties over the last couple of years. There's been an unwillingness to listen to employees and legislators," she said.

Giunchigliani's penchant for checking under the DMV hood irked at least one of Drew's predecessors. Former DMV Director Jim Weller left the post in 1997 grousing that some legislators were "total idiots" prone to micromanaging the department, a dig that Giunchigliani said he meant for her.

More recently, Giunchigliani gained few admirers within the department when she persuaded the Assembly Ways and Means Committee in May to reject a proposal to hire 50 new DMV employees. She pointed out during hearings on the request that the agency already had 83 vacancies among its 825 positions in the motor vehicle branch, and that 17 jobs created two years ago were never filled.

The proposal reflected the department's muddled leadership, Giunchigliani said. She blames part of the confusion on past DMV directors emphasizing the agency's public safety branch over the motor vehicle side. Previous agency chiefs such as Weller, a former FBI agent, and Don Denison, an ex-cop and now head of the state Parole Board, cared little about management and customer service, Giunchigliani said.

"They've had people in charge who have been more concerned with FBI-ish things than with customer service," she said.

Like past directors, Drew has a public safety background: He headed the DMV's investigations division before then Gov. Bob Miller named him acting director in November 1998. But Drew recognized early on that the agency's motor vehicle branch required greater attention -- in no small part because of Genesis.

"Without trying to speak ill of other directors, some of them may have come in here and had a certain interest in public safety. But I can tell you, 80 percent of my time the last 12 months has been chewed up by motor vehicle (issues) and Genesis, and rightly so," he said.

Drew and other DMV officials defend Genesis despite its myriad problems. The agency needed to replace its computer system both because of concerns regarding the Y2K bug and to enhance the DMV's services with such features as Internet license renewals, Deputy Director Ginny Lewis said.

The DMV processed about 40,000 vehicle registrations in October, a jump of 5,000 over October 1998.

Yet the chaos wrought by Genesis provoked questions over why the DMV opted to build an ambitious new system rather than buy a proven one from another state. Lewis explained that DMV laws differ too much from one state to the next to make purchasing a cast-off system worthwhile. Rewriting another state's program to fit Nevada statutes ultimately would have wound up costing the state more money and time than Genesis, she said.

Assemblyman Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, refuses to swallow that assumption. He heads the legislative subcommittee overseeing Genesis and serves as president of a computer consulting firm.

"It makes no sense for one of the smallest states to pioneer computer software. And any mid- to upper-level manager who disagrees with that just doesn't get it," Beers said.

Whether or not Nevada should have bought a hand-me-down system from another state, Lewis conceded that DMV clerks needed more Genesis training prior to Sept. 7. "In a perfect world, we would've closed all the field offices for a week before the launch and taught all the employees more. But that wasn't an option," she said.

The agency sought to warn Nevada residents of the impending delays through a statewide public relations campaign composed of newspaper, radio and TV ads, as well as reminders mailed with license and registration renewal notices. But that effort -- and the fact that the subcommittee chaired by Beers held no meetings between May and September, which hurt lawmakers as far as receiving updates on the system's glitches -- has been lost amid the brickbats thrown at the DMV, Lewis said.

"Maybe I've been defensive and others have been defensive in meetings" with legislators, she said. "But it's been so intense since we went live with Genesis and we're trying to fix this as quickly as we can. Sometimes that's forgotten."

Fewer delays

DMV officials now report delays of less than two hours at branch offices -- still longer than under the agency's old computer system, but better than a month ago. On a recent weekday at the DMV office near Carey Avenue in North Las Vegas, several customers reported waiting less than an hour to finish their business.

"It's not as bad," Teresa Warmoth said. The 33-year-old sales assistant waited 45 minutes to renew the registration on her motorcycle. "When I went a few weeks ago, people were there for hours. I didn't even try to stay around."

Customers also took mercy on DMV employees who a few weeks ago may have flashed their pearly whites in a snarl instead of a smile. Randi Haupt, 44, who waited about an hour to receive a new set of license plates, said the tension between clerks and customers has ebbed considerably since the labored birth of Genesis.

"You can't blame the workers. They get frustrated, too. They're just trying to do their job," Haupt said.

Even so, Drew sees room for improvement. Yet long-range plans for ratcheting up the DMV's customer service could depend on whether Gov. Kenny Guinn elevates him from acting to permanent director. Drew noted that Guinn has said only that "you're director until I tell you otherwise."

Guinn spokesman Jack Finn said the governor will continue reviewing the DMV and Drew as part of his overall assessment of state government. In the meantime, Drew figures he may as well proceed full-steam -- or full-smile -- ahead.

"We need to help our employees to do a better job of helping the public, and I think we can do that," Drew said. "It's not going to happen in 30 days, but over the next several months and couple of years, we want to get better."

-- Homer Beanfang (Bats@inbellfry.com), December 06, 1999.

" ... the state tax collectors association added to the processing time by requesting more than 870 enhancements during the system's development, which began in 1995.

Tax collectors said they were never told the changes would cause the delays they've seen.

Breathtaking stupidity in .gov

-- Ashton & Leska in Cascadia (allaha@earthlink.net), December 06, 1999.

Ha ha. But they'll have it all fixed by 1/1/19002000. Fer sure this time. Yup. Almost, very nearly, sort of guaranteed. ;)

Thanks for the post.

-- Colin MacDonald (roborogerborg@yahoo.com), December 06, 1999.

Boom - there goes all these mythical surpluses - as soon as people find out they are NOT getting their tax bills - how many do you think will just 'forget" to pay?

On the other hand, those whose bill is way too high will complain, but those whose bill is only 'slighty" high (100.00 or 1000.000 out of 10,000.00 "normal" bill) will probably never notice.

BE VERY CAREFUL - and spread this message as widely as you can - be very suspicious of ANY government tax bill the next year - it MUST be checked against your current (1999-1998) bills. ANY difference must be justified and validated: higher property evaluation, higer millage rate (houses), higher pay rate (if you get a government paycheck), etc.

Accept NO EXCUSES - it's becoming very apparent that state and local tax software is (in many cases) screwed up and needs to be audited carefully against your past bills.

-- Robert A. Cook, PE (Marietta, GA) (cook.r@csaatl.com), December 06, 1999.

Implementing a new, large scale system is never a painless process. Let's forget Y2K commentary for the moment. Every large scale implementation that I've ever been involved with requires end user training, and more importantly, a learning curve for end users. Users will always, without fail, bitch about a new system when it's turned on for the first time.

So, I view this problem in Florida as a normal growth process. Yeah, there might be a few bugs, and maybe the system was rushed into production because their backs were up against the Y2K wall. There's been a lot of this in the recent past (and there's going to be more in the near future). I have to believe, though, that end user learning curves are contributing more to the problem than anything else.

Of course, the situation begs the question: why wasn't the system up and running two years ago? Every IT manager in the world knows that user training / learning curve is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to successful implementation. And now, with the clock ticking down to hours, we're rushing buggy large systems into production without adequate training or time for users to get used to the system.

Of course there's going to be delays!

As Robert said, check all important records received in the next few months against prior years records for consistency.

-- Nom (nom@de.plume), December 06, 1999.

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