Government services can be dull news, but shorter lines and online services at Secretary of State Offices are positive notes worth sharing.
LANSING, Mich.—Michigan is a car state, no two ways about it. So it’s ironic that for most of the state’s recent history, drivers have been confronted with astronomical insurance rates, abominable roads, and hours-long waits in blizzards to endure bureaucracy.
The tide is turning, and while progress has been gradual, change is noticeable. New faces in elected leadership and a new round of policy has modernized how Michiganders drive, and untangled some of the knots in the system.
Roads are coming back little by little, and money from the latest infrastructure law passed through Congress will lend some much-needed assistance for the state’s many ailing highways and bridges. Some of that money will also go toward making highways electric-vehicle-friendly, a nascent trend where Michigan is poised to take the lead.
Drivers in the state are also recouping the financial benefits of a 2019 law that lowered auto insurance rates and has resulted in $400-per-vehicle payments to drivers. Those checks will be coming this spring.
For anybody looking to get behind a wheel in the state, conditions are better than they were just five years ago.
And to underscore it all, even visits to the local Secretary of State have become fewer and farther between—another chore ticked off the list—and smoother in person, thanks to technological improvements and a fresh set of eyes overseeing the agency.
Online interactions have doubled since Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson took office in 2019. Coupled with other policies, that has decluttered offices and reduced wait times.
Whereas in 2018, 24 offices had wait times of an hour or longer on average, now the average wait time across offices is 20 minutes. None of the offices have a wait time longer than an hour.
In 2021, customers rated their interactions with the SOS more than four out of five stars on average. That was the best tally in Michigan Secretary of State history.
“Now, Michiganders can access our services more efficiently and conveniently than ever before. They can walk up to an office or schedule their visit ahead of time, or use one of our self-service stations or online options,” said Benson, the former law school dean who was elected in 2018. “I am proud of the hundreds of state workers who have stepped up to ensure that even in challenging times we can make government work for everyone.”
In the list below, we’ll be looking at five major changes that Michigan SOS visits have undergone and how Michigan drivers have received them.
- Increased online services
Not long ago, just in 2018, Michiganders had to go to a Secretary of State office to renew their license or ask simple questions.
They had two options: Arrive early and potentially brace the cold outside, or arrive later in the day and risk sacrificing hours waiting for their number to be called.
Now, Michiganders are conducting more than half of their SOS transactions outside of the office. The figure, 60%, more than doubles the share in 2018, when Benson took over the Secretary of State.
Not only are some services moving online; the most popular ones are. In fact, 10 of the department’s 15 most requested interactions are online now, including license and ID renewals, which is a fresh feature this year.
Benson credited the change to technological improvements that let the state expand its online offerings. Prior to March, many of these services weren’t possible.
- No more take-a-ticket
Long-term Michigan residents will remember this well. Just five years ago, as soon as you walked into an SOS office, you’d grab a ticket. And then, you’d wait.
And then, you’d wait some more.
Ticket service may still be a fair, efficient system at delis, bakeries, and groceries across the country, but at government offices that require complex legal documents and serious transactions, the line doesn’t move so fast—especially not when there’s 50 numbers ahead of you in line.
“The ‘take-a-ticket-and-wait’ system we inherited was clearly failing the people of Michigan,” Benson said. “Now, the resident feedback speaks for itself, and Michiganders regularly tell us they are able to access our offices when it’s convenient for them, be seen right away and get multiple transactions done so they are out the door in under ten minutes.”
Benson did away with the ticket system. But times didn’t immediately improve, and in 2019, many offices had longer times than they did in the year before she took over.
Now though, technological improvements have flipped the script, and the state’s learned to work more efficiently.
- Quicker reception at offices
In 2021, average wait times were down to 20 minutes in SOS offices across the state. A major reason for this is that the state set up online appointments, which now 88% of residents use in lieu of just walking in.
Those appointments can be made for the day of, day after, or days and weeks in advance. But you don’t need an appointment, either, and more than 2,000 customers walk into SOS offices daily.
Those who do walk in are greeted by an SOS staff member at the door. If the day is busy, they’ll be asked to reschedule an appointment for a time they’re available, rather than wait hours in the office in case they can be squeezed in.
Offices also expanded their hours past regular working times on Wednesdays, so residents who can’t make it from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. can still be seen.
- Greater call center capacity
Residents can schedule appointments online, in person, or over the phone. In October, 25,000 visits were scheduled over the phone, five times greater than the April number of the same year.
The reason why is that Michigan hired more employees to work the phone lines, reducing wait times and helping customers book appointments.
- Convenient self-service stations
Another major change has been self-service stations found in central locations, not just SOS offices. At self-service stations in gas stations, grocery stores, and public buildings, residents can renew their driver’s license or renew registration, and the system works fast.
Across all self-service stations, the average time on the machine was just shy of two minutes. According to the Secretary of State, it takes longer to eat a donut.
Some of these options are available online as well, but the self-service stations offer a big screen and user-friendly interface that most residents will feel comfortable navigating. All of the machines are also new as of 2019, when Benson took over, as many that were broken were fixed through a public-private partnership, paid for without taxpayer money.
The machines take all major forms of credit card, and many accept cash.
You can also register to vote at any of the locations. You can find the closest one to you here.
- Expansion of mobile offices
Benson’s final push in 2021 has been to bring mobile offices on the road. Like libraries on wheels, these offices would reach rural and elderly Michiganders who might need in-person help but find it too inconvenient to reach an office.
“In addition to our expanded online services, new self-service machines and convenient scheduled and walk-up in-person services, the mobile office will go even further to make government work for all Michiganders,” Benson said. “It is another way we are making our services convenient and accessible for all Michiganders by bringing them directly to senior centers and other underserved communities.”
The office is being used to process driver’s license applications, vehicle title transactions, disability parking placards, and more.
The first mobile office rolled out in Southeastern Michigan in 2021, but Benson has lobbied the legislature for funds to bring in six more mobile offices that would travel around the state.