Is This Any Way to Run Government? : DMV’s computer botch-up is a $50-million lulu

The Department of Motor Vehicles bungled a computer project, violated contracting laws and squandered $50 million in the process. As a result, California has nothing to show after seven years of trying to merge the state’s massive driver’s license database and its motor vehicle registration information.

It’s no wonder that for so many the DMV has come to symbolize all that’s wrong with government these days-- waste, inefficiency, too much bureaucracy. Everyone has a DMV horror story. When opponents of President Clinton’s health care reform wanted to denigrate the notion of government running health care, they pointed to--what else?--the DMV.

TROUBLE GALORE: The DMV’s computer debacle was cited earlier this year by the legislative analyst’s office as one of 11 troubled state computer projects. All were riddled with cost overruns, mismanagement and oversight failures that have cost California a total of $1.3 billion, or $1 out of every $23 spent on state operations. The nonpartisan office recommended that the Wilson Administration enact legislation or take specific actions to address these problems, but little, even in light of the DMV problem, has been done.

The DMV started out in 1987 with the good intention of using computers to modernize its antiquated system, improve service and create better tools for law enforcement. In the wake of its miserable failure comes the question of accountability. Three agencies were involved in the ambitious computer project, yet state administrators repeatedly ignored early warning signs. Instead, they continued to pour money into the project, often bypassing rules and regulations designed to curb runaway government costs, according to a state audit. They went so far as to allegedly circumvent state criminal laws by falsifying $46,000 in invoices to pay consultants. Spending finally ended last year.


The audit stopped short of identifying those responsible. Four lower-level bureaucrats, who were not named, have been disciplined as a result of the audit. Well-documented in that report were the actions of two top administrators, also not identified. Elsewhere they were disclosed to be state Lottery Director A. A. (Del) Pierce, who headed the DMV during the early, critical phases of the project, and Steve Kolodeny, director of the Office of Information Technology. The current DMV director, Frank Zolin, eventually stopped the computer project but only after putting more money into it, trying to salvage the program.

FOUL INHERITANCE?: Gov. Pete Wilson claims he inherited the DMV fiasco from Gov. George Deukmejian and says he is “disappointed the department was not more aggressive in surfacing the issue.” He is dumping responsibility on Business, Transportation and Housing Secretary Dean Dunphy to review the audit findings for possible disciplinary action.

The lack of action so far in the DMV case is as troubling as the waste of $50 million. This can only contribute to declining confidence in government. Doesn’t anyone in Sacramento ever get angry about something like this?