Driven to License

A federal mandate that states love to hate, Real ID may also harbor some hidden opportunities.
May 2006
Mark Stencel
By Mark Stencel  |  Former Editor
Mark Stencel was previously GOVERNING's executive editor and deputy publisher.

The new federal law to standardize state procedures for issuing driver's licenses has plenty of critics. Civil liberty groups, privacy advocates and small-government conservatives strongly opposed the so- called Real ID Act last year because of concerns about its costs and invasiveness. So did many of the state officials now charged with implementing the law in the next 24 months.

But few in state government talk about Real ID the way Matt Miszewski, the head of Enterprise Technology at Wisconsin's Department of Administration, does. As president of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, Miszewski is immersed in the law's bureaucratic and technological mandates. But he also sees the law as a catalyst "that can change the way we deliver state services." Miszewski envisions self-service kiosks to help collect and digitize the documents needed to request a driver's license, while simultaneously serving as online gateways to help citizens "decide when and how they want to receive state services" of all kinds.

"We have started to look at mandates as opportunities," Miszewski says, "kind of making lemonade from lemons."

It's a refreshing outlook. But before we let Miszewski pour us that tall glass of optimism, those lemons need a serious look.

Critics say the Real ID Act turns state driver's licenses into de facto national ID cards. As of May 2008, state driver's licenses that do not conform to the national law will no longer be valid for federal purposes, such as passing through airport security. Temporary state driving certificates will not have to meet the same requirements but cannot be used for federal purposes.

The new rules are based on recommendations from the independent commission that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks. The law establishes a uniform standard for the information that must appear on licenses, including full legal name, date of birth, gender, home address, signature and a digital photograph. New licenses also will need some kind of machine-readable technology, such as the magnetic strips and bar codes already used in most states or possibly a more advanced Radio Frequency Identification--RFID--chip. That alarms privacy advocates, who worry that machine-readable personal information could be easily compromised.

The law's costs are another concern. National estimates range from $100 million to billions of dollars. Last year, a Virginia task force figured start-up costs at somewhere between $35 million and $169 million for that state, with recurring annual costs as high as $63 million. One major factor is whether states will have to reissue licenses to the roughly 230 million people who already have them.

Authentication requirements also add to the cost--and to potential headaches. Applicants will need to present a photo ID, birth certificate, Social Security card and proof of residential address; states will have to verify the authenticity of those documents--and keep paper and electronic copies. States also must make their license information accessible on a nationwide database--another privacy concern.

Those are some of the reasons the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Governors Association, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and the Council of State Governments opposed Real ID, which they said in a joint letter would be a "massive unfunded federal mandate" that "would impose technological standards and verification procedures on states, many of which are beyond the current capacity of even the federal government."

NASCIO's Miszewski recognizes the challenge, but the Wisconsin CIO says Real ID also can help states make strides in implementing a robust Service Oriented Architecture--a software philosophy based on highly integrated computerized services.

To meet Real ID's requirements, Miszewski wants "do-it-yourself" kiosks "set up to do business with taxpayers where they are already"-- in malls, stores and other venues. This would also keep from increasing waiting lines at DMVs. He is not worried that offering cross-governmental services via kiosks will make guaranteeing privacy any more difficult than the Real ID law already makes it. "In essence, the privacy concerns exist once the government collects the data," he says. "Extending the interactiveness of that data does not further weaken privacy protections." From his perspective, once states get past the unfunded-mandate concerns, "they will start to realize the opportunities."

Miszewski's vision is an appealing contrast to the gloom with which many state officials have greeted Real ID's imposing mandates. That lemonade might be worth a sip after all.