Can Newsom overhaul a broken DMV?

California DMV Director Jean Shiomoto faces the state Assembly Budget Committee on Aug. 7, 2018.
California DMV Director Jean Shiomoto faces the state Assembly Budget Committee on Aug. 7, 2018. Sacramento Bee file

Had the California Department of Motor Vehicles director not announced her retirement this week after a year attempting to placate outraged customers and lawmakers, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom might well have fired her.

Gov. Jerry Brown shielded the department from an audit and vetoed DMV-related bills even as reports mounted — often from the Sacramento Bee’s Bryan Anderson — of long waits, technology outages, special perks for legislators and even an employee frequently found sleeping on the job. Newsom’s comments and writing on the agency indicate he might not have been so kind.

Director Jean Shiomoto, who has led the department since 2013, exits following recent reports that the DMV erroneously registered nearly 25,000 people to vote, including a handful of non-citizens. That led Secretary of State Alex Padilla to call for a freeze on all motor-voter registration.

Changing the department’s leadership is a good step forward, but fixing its problems will be harder than replacing the names on the stationery. While the DMV’s wait times and its headline-grabbing mistakes spiked this year, the frustrations of visiting its offices predate Shiomoto.

Ashton Kutcher even pitched a reality TV show focused on the DMV experience in 2010. You know you’ve got a hot mess on your hands when the “Punk’d” producer comes knocking.

Shiomoto managed to reduce wait times, but it was too little, too late. Meanwhile, Congress and the state Legislature piled on new duties.

In addition to handling the state’s 24 million resident drivers and 30 million vehicles, the DMV now licenses undocumented immigrants and registers voters through the poorly run Motor Voter program. The department is expected to enroll millions more in the federally mandated “Real ID” program by 2020.

The programs are great ideas, but the DMV — with its $1.1 billion annual budget – is failing.

Newsom has said any governor who can’t fix the DMV “should be recalled.” Well, now he’s getting his chance.

In his 2014 book “Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government,” Newsom came up with some novel ideas. He suggested a “RateMyDMV” website where people could post “their ratings, their rants, or their praise” on things like wait time, friendliness and – jokingly – bad driver’s license photos.

Newsom also pondered forcing government departments to compete against each other, using a “Yelp-style scoreboard” to keep track of winners and losers.

“Let’s say the health department has two and a half stars, the DMV just two, and the police department four and a half – the police department wins for the month!” he wrote. “As we’ve seen, people will do a lot – and spend a lot and work a lot – to win even virtual prizes online.”

He proposed setting up spirited contests between DMV offices in different cities.

“Why not set up a competition with other DMVs in the surrounding areas?” he wrote. “Which gives the best service? Which has the highest rating? And more important – how can we get ours higher than those other guys?”

As governor, Newsom can implement his ideas. And his book gives voters a well-documented opportunity to rate how he’s doing in fixing one of the state’s most glaring problems. Republican legislators, who pushed unsuccessfully for State Auditor Elaine Howle to officially review the department, will keep their own scorecards. So should voters.

We’re not sure competition and real-time public ratings can fix the ailing DMV. But it’s worth trying.