FARMINGTON, N.M. (KRQE) – The people in charge of New Mexico’s Motor Vehicle Division envision a not-too-distant future in which drivers can walk into an MVD office, apply for a driver’s license, register their car and be out the door in 15 minutes.
The state is spending $45 million on a software package designed to make that vision a reality. It’s using a new facial recognition system to help prevent identity theft. And all New Mexico driver’s licenses are now printed in a more secure plant at a company in Washington state.
The system shows promise.
“It’s great,” beamed New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Secretary Demesia Padilla in an interview.
But there’s evidence that the MVD may not be changing as quickly as its leaders hope. The growing pains are frustrating both to its leaders and to the people caught in a maddeningly complex bureaucratic web.
Sitting at the dining room table in his home near Farmington, John Neale explained why.
“I figured I’d go in 45 days in advance and I’d have everything (and) not have to worry about it,” Neale said.
On June 15, Neale went to a third-party MVD contractor to renew his license, which was set to expire at the end of July. He walked out with a temporary license that was good for the next 45 days.
A retired dentist with a knack for precision — he tunes his triathlon bicycle in a flash and is busying himself in retirement by completely remodeling a mountain cabin — Neale had the notoriously byzantine MVD process dialed in.
Or so he thought.
His license didn’t arrive in the usual two-week window. When he checked its status online, the state’s system said it had been printed and mailed. When he called more than a week later to find out why his license still hadn’t arrived, the clerk on the other end of the line pleasantly told him it had been printed and mailed — but delayed.
It didn’t make sense to Neale. And it perfectly illustrated his frustration with the process.
“Their customer service is basically nil. Now, I’m not saying … the people that I dealt with at the offices were friendly and as helpful as they could be,” Neale said. “But that’s what the problem was: that was as helpful as they could be because they didn’t have the information and the resources that they need to provide the proper information.”
With just days until his temporary license expired, Neale made the trek to a brick-and-mortar MVD outlet at the Aztec city offices. There, friendly clerks told him they weren’t sure what the delay was but that they could extend his temporary license for another 45 days.
Not until the middle of August — almost exactly two months after he applied to renew his license — did Neale get some inkling as to why he didn’t have it yet. A letter arrived from MVD telling him, “the photo we captured did not transfer correctly to your license, nor did it store properly in our system.”
Neale hadn’t taken a new photo when he renewed his license. Though the letter didn’t explain it, the real issue was that his existing photo was too old. He needed to come back and take a new picture.
Alongside the new software system, the state has updated its facial recognition program. Designed in part to protect against identity theft, the program compares current and old driver’s license photographs to ensure the person applying for the license is the person who has been licensed in the past.
But older photographs like Neale’s 2007 picture aren’t detailed enough to allow the program to work. It spits out all photographs taken before October 2008, creating a delay in renewals.
Understandable, Neale said, but it was also completely solvable much earlier, with much less hassle.
“If the clerk on the phone (in mid-July) had said, ‘The system shows that they were not able to print your old photo onto your new license. We need to get you into an MVD office and get a new photo taken…,'” Neale said, “if that had happened before the end of July, this whole scenario would have been moot a month ago.”
Secretary Padilla, whose post as head of the Tax and Revenue Department makes her ultimately responsible for MVD, apologized in a recent interview for Neale’s ordeal.
“Whenever we have any little hiccup, it sets us back,” Padilla said. “And so we’re working extremely hard to make sure those hiccups are far and few between.”
Earlier this summer, the department worked to get past delays created by a mechanical issue at the out-of-state printing facility used to make New Mexico driver’s licenses.
Padilla thinks Neale’s initial renewal got caught in the thousands of licenses that were stuck in the printing backlog created by the mechanical breakdown. Then, she said, it was likely that the facial recognition program stopped his license application in its tracks.
The department said that while 1,026 drivers had photo resolution issues like Neale’s, only a handful got caught in both delays.
But an MVD spokesman could not explain why the problem with Neale’s license photo wasn’t communicated to him until two months after he applied. He could not offer insight on the letter’s vague wording. Nor could he explain why Neale was left in the dark.
…we will continue to train MVD employees how to use our new program to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again. As training continues and familiarity develops, MVD employees will be able to provide better customer service to New Mexicans, and our new program will help protect them from fraud and identity theft.”
— Benjamin Cloutier, MVD Spokesman
The state is sure John Neale won’t be the only one frustrated by a delay or other problem. For an IT rollout, Padilla said, the transition to the new system — called “Tapestry” — has been smooth.
Padilla said she is confident that the new software will be worth its price tag once clerks become more familiar with what it can do.
“We can drill down their transaction to exactly what was occurring, who was the clerk, what was the situation in the office at that time,” Padilla said. “It is amazing.”