On a hot July day two years ago, within days of being sworn into office, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that Steve Gordon would lead the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) — the agency’s fourth chief in eight months. Newsom handpicked Gordon to make good on the promise “to improve and revamp the way the California DMV does business.”
Gordon would have to conquer several major challenges. Two he knew when he took the job: overhauling and updating the DMV’s information technology (IT) infrastructure, and meeting the Real ID mandate. The third challenge that arose in March 2020 was keeping the department running and on a path of continual improvement during a pandemic.
Modernizing the technological backbone of the country’s largest DMV required fundamental changes. The department’s infrastructure was woefully out-of-date, a patchwork of hardware and obsolete computer programs, some dating to the 1970s. As if to underscore the point, “part of the state’s network that affected the DMV went down” during the news conference that introduced him, Gordon said.
Real ID, Real Challenge
Adding to the challenge was the looming deadline for Real ID, a federal mandate that imposes strict new rules for state-issued driver’s licenses and identification cards. Gordon took over 14 months ahead of the Real ID deadline of Oct. 1, 2020, by which time California would need to issue more than 8 million credentials. The deadline has since been pushed back to May 2023, but residents have continued to submit applications.
Real ID requires customers to be in person at the DMV to verify multiple documents, a process that has resulted in long lines and extended wait times. Prior to the pandemic, the typical interaction time between California DMV clerks and customers was over 28 minutes. The added requirements of processing Real IDs resulted in longer lines and wait times at the field offices and often required multiple visits to a DMV field office.
The pandemic exacerbated those challenges. Overnight, its emergence forced offices to close or severely reduce operating hours. Thousands of workers who had commuted to offices and used government IT systems to do their jobs were suddenly displaced. To keep operations humming — and improving — the DMV had to quickly find a way to accommodate thousands of employees who had no choice but to work from remote locations.
Solution: Foundation First
Early in his tenure, Gordon and his team began looking for opportunities to make foundational changes that would support long-term improvements at the DMV.
Before the pandemic, the California DMV couldn’t support large-scale remote work. At best, two dozen or so people were prepared to work remotely using a legacy desktop emulation solution. Yet in less than two weeks of the DMV’s offices closing, it leveraged Amazon AppStream to enable 1,200 employees to access on-premises computers from home. AppStream is a desktop application service that provides safe and secure access to department data from home.
“Amazon Web Services (AWS) solutions allowed us to very quickly put applications in an environment that would allow people to work from home over the internet using a browser,” Gordon said.
Collaborating With AWS
The DMV was able to mount a robust response to the novel challenges of the pandemic in part because of improvements made by the department before COVID-19 hit. California’s DMV had engaged AWS to help establish a cloud platform on which to build out a modern IT enterprise infrastructure.
The first step was an extensive improvement to the DMV’s networks. “We ripped and replaced our legacy backbone with a software-defined network that enabled us to move all our offices from low-speed circuits to 100-megabit circuits at a minimum to have reliable high-speed connections everywhere,” Gordon said.
Significantly improved network capabilities also made it possible to vanquish “the nightmare” of performing mass security updates on the DMV’s 7,000 or so devices.
To enable the DMV’s workforce to work safely at home, the department also adopted Amazon WorkSpaces, a highly scalable, virtual desktop service that enables users to access data, applications and resources — anywhere, anytime and from any supported device. Amazon WorkSpaces, deployed in an Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC), stores no data on local devices to minimize attack areas and strengthen cybersecurity.
Moving applications to the cloud was essential, because it enabled the department to add functionality quickly as needed. “We didn’t have to go through the traditional process of buying hardware, putting it in the data center, getting it provisioned and getting it qualified,” he said.
To further bolster the DMV’s ability to process Real ID applications, the department used its new platform to give customers the option of remotely uploading their documents to the cloud, enabling the DMV to authenticate them before their appointment. As a result, the department has succeeded in shortening the time DMV staff interact with customers to complete Real ID applications from 28 to 10 minutes, a significant reduction across millions of applicants, which also reduced the wait times for everyone standing in line behind Real ID applicants.
The DMV is further shortening customers’ transaction times “by using artificial intelligence, machine learning and machine vision to allow customers to upload documents, to recognize those and give them essentially a kind of a pre-check experience like you might have with an airline,” Gordon said.
This blog post is an excerpt from a new case study, “California DMV’s Largest Progress Continues Despite the Pandemic,” download the full case study here.