When the pandemic hit New Jersey, it hit the Motor Vehicle Commission hard.
Locations shuttered for months. Transactions backlogged in the hundreds of thousands. And when agencies reopened, lines formed well before dawn with customers hoping to get the golden ticket to see an agent and get their paperwork in order.
Now, an agency notorious for being a trip New Jersey residents dreaded has largely rebounded. And residents have noticed. In the 18 months since reopening, the MVC has:
- moved 80% of its business online, so many residents can skip the trip to the agency.
- upgraded its technology and modernized its system for processing transactions.
- added an appointment system for in-person transactions that has made visits to agency locations more palatable for customers.
Clarissa Mendez of Old Bridge said it was “super easy” to renew her license after she found out she could do it online when she received a renewal form in the mail. The online process took a few minutes and the new license came in the mail about a week later, she said.
“It was just convenient,” she said. “I saved time traveling there and waiting.”
The pandemic forced modernizations that Chief Administrator Sue Fulton said she had been hoping to make since she first took the role in 2018.
For the early part of Fulton’s tenure, the agency’s focus was on preparing for Real ID, which was originally scheduled to be in effect in October 2020, and improving the in-person customer experience with upgrades like a check-in option and text notifications to alert customers when it was their turn for service.
But the pandemic changed those plans.
COVID forced the agency to focus on the online experience. In the end, residents say the agency did improve customers’ experience by minimizing it.
“Any chance not to go there [MVC] is good with me,” Mendez said.
When locations closed throughout the state in March 2020, the agency had only a limited number of transactions online. It began moving them online one at a time, starting with license renewals and then moving to replacement licenses and registrations and so on. It moved 35 of about 100 types of business online by the summer.
The upgrades continued after the doors reopened at the end of June, and now 80% of all transactions can be completed online at NJMVC.gov.
The agency completed a record number of overall transactions in 2021: 12,265,402. That’s compared with 9,215,394 in 2020 and 11,765,437 in 2019.
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William Connolly, a spokesperson for the agency, and Fulton said the MVC made all of these changes while within its annual budget because they were done by the in-house IT team.
The budget allows for regular systems upgrades and improvements “in the ballpark of about $10 million out of a total budget of around $450 million,” Connolly said.
“Without a huge budget request or outsource bid or a big consulting company coming in, this internal state agency overhauled the whole … system that we used to have and turned it into primarily online,” Fulton said.
Fulton said the in-house IT team “saved a lot of money doing it step by step with people who knew the system and have the knowledge of what the most current technology is.”
Connolly said moving transactions online “helps save both money and time,” but he was unable to share exact cost savings.
It also helped limit the impact of staffing shortages due to COVID-19.
“Shifting transactions online has enabled us to continue operations despite those shortages,” Connolly said.
The in-person experience
When locations reopened to pandemonium in the summer of 2020, officials knew “early on” that the old walk-in ways would not work. Some online transactions were available, but people still showed up at agency locations and transactions were backlogged into the thousands.
Agency workers walked through long lines educating customers about online options and sending some home if their transactions could be done online.
“They would show up all night waiting to get in right when we opened,” Fulton said. “Even if there wasn’t a line at noon or 1 p.m. there was this panic that they had to get into the agency the second it opened.”
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So the agency created the appointment system, first for basic first-time license and registration transactions and later to include more things like commercial licenses and knowledge tests.
Michael Tucci had to go to the Hazlet location after buying out a lease and “was shocked at how easy it went.”
Tucci said the website was clear about what he needed to do and what forms he needed for his appointment. He said the appointment took about 20 minutes.
“I haven’t been to an agency in many years,” Tucci said. “Besides the streamlined process, I would say the folks working there are a little nicer than in the past.”
Ryan Irwin went to the Eatontown location as a walk-in after his appointment was canceled due to bad weather. He was turned away from an attempt to take his commercial driver’s license knowledge test because the MVC had run out of availability for the day. He had no issues when he tried to go a second time as a walk-in on a weekday.
Some agency locations allow for a small number of walk-ins but appointments are usually required, the agency said.
The agency’s new hurdle is communicating to customers to look online before heading to an agency.
“It’s taken a while to really educate the customers to go online first,” Fulton said. “That’s something we are trying to do.”
The MVC has emphasized the shift to online services throughout the pandemic in “practically every communication we make, including news releases, customer and media advisories and on our social media platforms,” Connolly said.
That includes information about online options mailed to customers with renewal forms. That has been in place since 2020.
The agency is also still working to expand online services. Last week registration for vehicles such as taxis, school buses, limousines and some farming equipment moved online.
It is also still learning to strike a balance with scheduling appointments, because there needs to be some flexibility. Right now, customers can make an appointment 30 days in advance, but the number of customers helped is reviewed each week so that the agency can determine how many appointments to make available in the weeks ahead.
The MVC ran into some staffing issues earlier this year when the omicron wave hit, and more than a third of the staff was out at one point.
“We had to cancel appointments. We had many locations down to half their staff,” Fulton said. “It’s a constant balancing act to have the number of appointments we can do.”
Transactions that require an in-person visit
The agency is getting ready and already making appointments for customers interested in getting Real ID, the federal standard for identification that will be required for air travel beginning next year.
Fulton said the types of transactions that require a visit to an agency location are when customers need to complete the “first of something,” like getting their first license or making a name change.
Here are some of the transactions that still require in-person visits to the agency:
- Out-of-state license transfer
- Real ID
- Non-driver ID
- New title or registration
- Knowledge test
- Road test
Katie Sobko is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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