Michigan Secretary of State Queuing Tool Causes Frustration

The MI-TIME system, which allows customers to virtually get in line, was pulled in February after giving inaccurate wait times. It has since been relaunched in four branch offices in an effort to perfect the system.

by Emily Lawler, MLive.com / March 28, 2019

(TNS) — A system designed to save Michiganders time waiting in line at the Secretary of State’s office has been down for nearly a month, prompting frustration from those visiting the offices.

“Before, this used to be really fast, to come here,” said Heather Rivera, who left the Capital Area SUPER!Center in Lansing on March 22 because she didn’t have time to wait in a long line she was told could last two hours.

In the past, Rivera and others with business to conduct at the Secretary of State were able to use MI-TIME, a tool that allowed people get “in line” virtually and then come into the branch office close to their turn. It was active in 43 Secretary of State branches.

The Michigan Department of State pulled that part of the system down on Feb. 28 after noticing it was giving customers inaccurate wait times. It’s one of a number of things the department is examining and improving as it works to fulfill a campaign promise from Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson: a 30-minute guarantee for getting service at a branch office.

The wait times had been inaccurate for a long time, said Winnie Liao, Chief Operations Officer at the Michigan Department of State. This year, customers experienced swings of up to 270 minutes between the estimate the system initially gave a customer to how long the customer ultimately had to wait.

Before the system was pulled, Liao said, “I think people kind of just suffered in silence.”

The department is no longer measuring wait times in the branches with down MI-TIME systems, Liao said, and can’t say if the system being partially down is causing increased wait times.

The department is working to improve the system before re-deploying it as part of an overall vision to improve the experience at branch offices.

“I just want it to be delightful,” Liao said.

In the meantime, people are getting service for in-person transactions the old-fashioned way — by pulling a paper number.

Problems with time estimates prompt downtime

The MI-TIME system is two-pronged: one component lets people get in line online and the other allows customers to make appointments. It’s the first part, getting in line from afar, that’s been pulled down.

The state purchases the system through a vendor, a California-based company called QLess. And according to both Liao and QLess Founder and CEO Alex Bäcker, the problem isn’t exactly that the system is broken.

The incorrect wait time estimates came from a combination of factors, from what the system is predicting to how clerks were calling people earlier for some transactions.

“It’s not necessarily the technology itself,” Liao said.

The department pulled it from circulation but has re-deployed it in four offices to try and get it right.

“I would just say that I think that there’s a team now that is really intent on improving this, so it’s getting the attention it deserves,” Bäcker said.

The State has contracted with QLess since 2013, state records show. In September, the state extended the contract for a year, adding $853,989 to it and bringing the total contract to $4.3 million.

There are always provisions in state contracts for holding companies accountable, said Caleb Buhs, a spokesperson for the Department of Technology Management and Budget that handles much of the state’s contracting.

Buhs said he couldn’t speak immediately to the specific contract, but said in general, the accountability can be in the form of financial penalties, termination or other provisions.

But in this case, the Michigan Department of State is first seeking to work together with QLess to sort this out, Liao said.

Appointment system booking up fast

There are two ways to get service at Secretary of State branches now – by walking in, or by making an appointment using the portion of MI-TIME that is still functioning.

The appointment system has seen increased use with the outage of the other part of the system, said Michigan Department of State Director of Communications Shawn Starkey.

But increased use made those appointments harder to snag. At the Detroit New Center SUPER!Center branch, for example, the first available appointments aren’t until April 12 – more than two weeks away. In the Southeast Macomb County PLUS branch in Eastpointe, the next available appointment is April 15.

It’s affected people like Ramon Garza, who went to the Capital Area SUPER!Center to get a replacement for a lost ID card last week.

He lives 35 minutes away in Eaton County, but comes to this one specifically because it’s one of the locations with the MI-TIME system, which he’s used before and had a good experience with.

This time he noticed the getting in line function wasn’t there anymore, and the next available appointment was weeks away.

If they restored the function letting you get in line online, he said, “it would be a lot more convenient.”

System part of a bigger picture

Even as the department works to fix the MI-TIME issues, it’s also focusing on bigger improvements to the overall experience at branch offices.

Benson is making it a point to get to each of the 131 branch offices in the state during her first 100 days in office. It’s part of an early, fact-finding phase, Liao said, and the department is taking deep dives into the data, as well.

In terms of wait times specifically, the averages don’t sound bad. In 2018, the average wait time for all services once somebody came into the office, including through online cueing or by making an appointment, was 36.03 minutes.

But that number masks deeper issues; an average eight-minute wait at one office could be offset by an average of more than 100 minutes elsewhere.

To get at the root of those wait times, which Liao calls “unacceptable,” the department is focusing on two things: optimization through things like human resources and improving processes, and increasing self-service options that mean fewer people need to come in to a branch office.

“Branch 2.0 is simply a better version of what we were before,” Liao said.

©2019 MLive.com, Walker, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.