Infrastructure & Environment

Motor Trouble

Joel Silverman was asked to reform his state's vehicle license management. Not everyone wanted it reformed.
by | August 2005

Until recently, Indiana had 157 motor vehicle license offices. That's more than any state except California and Texas. So you'd think it could lose a dozen without much fuss. But you would be very wrong, as Joel Silverman can tell you.

Silverman is commissioner of the state's Bureau of Motor Vehicles. He spent a long career as a retail executive, and when Republican Governor Mitch Daniels asked him to take over the BMV this year, it was with a mandate to bring some efficiency to the state's disorganized motor vehicle bureaucracy.

Silverman, who is 53, didn't need the job. A former CEO of the Galyans sporting-goods chain, he had pretty much retired--coaching high-school soccer, doing missionary work in Burma and China--when Daniels came calling. Despite the advice of family and friends, he signed up. "The more folks said the bureau couldn't be fixed, that it was always a political football," Silverman says, "the more I felt challenged to do it."

He had built his corporate career on stressing customer service and what he calls "fanatical execution" by his employees. This was not what awaited him at the BMV. "Decisions weren't made based on the customer but politically," he says. "People were hired based on what they did politically. They placed license branches where there was political capital to be gained. You could see why we were in the shape we were in."

Not only was the BMV's computer system archaic, so were its operations: The agency collects $1 billion a year in taxes and fees, for instance, but none of its branches had safes. Branch managers arranged to move cash around each night so it would be harder to steal.

Given all this, Silverman considered it a minor decision to close a few barely trafficked, mostly rural branch offices. It wasn't minor to the localities affected. "A lot of these small towns have lost a lot of things," says Brian Howey, who edits an Indiana politics newsletter. "They lost their high schools to consolidation, they lost a lot of their old-line manufacturing plants, the gas company and the utilities closed their offices, the feed mills are gone. So the BMV was the last government/utility storefront."

Silverman also acted without warning the legislature or making it clear that the closings were part of a larger strategy to improve customer service. "He tried to do everything too fast and didn't have it laid out--'I'm going to do this to your district, but here's what I'll do to ameliorate the problems this will create,'" says Tom Wyss, a Republican state senator from Fort Wayne.

Over the past few months, Silverman--and his boss, Governor Daniels-- have had to weather scathing criticism from rural newspapers and legislators. Among the critics is the Senate president, Robert Garton, in whose district the smallest and least-used branch office sits. Silverman heard Garton's message: That particular branch will remain open. "We're striving to make all decisions non-political as much as possible," he says, "but to go from zero to a hundred is a hard sell. So if we can go to 98 percent, that's pretty good."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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