With Less Staff to Renew Driver’s Licenses, Georgia Pivots to Machines
- Driver’s license tests and renewals are getting a boost in Georgia with automated technology.
- The new tech aims to offset a 60% loss in customer service staff at DDS offices since 2018.
- Upcoming license expirations could drive up DDS customer wait times in the next few years.
More Georgians are getting their driver’s licenses without having to wait in frustrating lines or even interact with another human. A big reason why is the huge number of workers who quit the state Department of Driver Services (DDS) during the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing the DDS to bring in machines.
DDS lost 60% of its customer service staff who handle license renewals and run its help hotline since 2018, state personnel records show.
There were about 270 customer service representatives that year. Now, there are less than 110.
There’s also been a revolving door for ride-along driver examiners, who conduct license tests for new motorists and commercial truck drivers. Out of today’s roughly 450 examiners, only one-third were on staff in 2018. The rest are newer hires.
To avoid a crisis, DDS officials are pivoting to new technology that lets Georgia drivers renew licenses or replace lost permits on their own – without needing to visit an office. The new tech includes self-serve kiosks for renewing licenses, dash cams to do virtual driving tests and automated voice “bots” to field questions for the agency’s busy call center.
“We want to give people every opportunity to be served,” said DDS Commissioner Spencer Moore in a recent interview with State Affairs. “And increasingly, we have a public that wants to be served at their convenience.”
Why It Matters
Nearly 4 million Georgians last year tapped DDS for new or updated licenses, of whom more than 70% were served in-person at the agency’s 67 offices throughout the state.
Workers at call centers also fielded hundreds of thousands of calls from Georgians seeking help with renewals or to obtain driving records.
The new technology at DDS isn’t just for giving short-handed staff some help. It also aims to head off a potential rise in wait times once a round of license expirations kicks in over the next two years.
DDS Commissioner Spencer Moore (left) watches Gov. Kemp sign the 2022 state budget in Atlanta. (Credit: Georgia Department of Driver Services)
Officials say wait times have been down lately after DDS extended expiration dates for driver’s licenses from 5 years to 8 years in 2012. That’s helped relieve some of the frustrations people have long felt over the need to take off work and wait in line to get their licenses.
“A big reason that the wait times are not suffering is that we are in a down cycle as far as expiration dates,” said Susan Sports, a DDS spokeswoman.
Georgians like Tony Britt have benefitted from the “down cycle.” An Atlanta resident, Britt was recently in and out of a DDS office in less than 30 minutes to get his license reinstated.
“It was good, really good,” Britt said outside a DDS office in downtown Atlanta earlier this month. “For as much as you hear bad things about (DDS) services, that was fantastic.”
Kiosks, Cams and Bots
First to roll out on the DDS technology line was the voice “bot” at the call center, which started in November 2021. Through January, the automated service had fielded more than 130,000 calls that normally would be handled by customer service workers. The bot alone helped nearly all those callers figure out what they needed, according to DDS.
Since December, thousands of new Georgia drivers have taken their road tests with a dash cam attached to the car and with a parent or another trusted adult sitting in the front seat, instead of a DDS examiner. With virtual testing, examiners watch drivers from a laptop or smart device.
Virtual tests are quickly becoming common. Around 13,200 would-be drivers took tests using dash cams in January, according to DDS. The next month, about 14,200 were tested virtually. That equaled 75% of all the road tests that were taken.
Now, DDS officials are gearing up to install dozens of self-serve kiosks in Kroger grocery stores across Georgia in the coming months. They’ll be able to process license renewals, replace lost or stolen licenses and pull driving records if you need them for a job.
Moore, who heads DDS, said the new technology aims to ease staff concerns over contracting COVID-19 while in close contact with customers, which has worsened turnover. The kiosks especially should help with the agency’s workforce issues, he said.
“If you have a self-service kiosk that is handling that renewal customer coming in, not having to take a break or a lunch or take vacation, it’s going to really offset some of those staffing challenges that we have,” Moore said.
DDS officials haven’t given up hope that they can hire more customer service staff and driver examiners before the upcoming increase in license expirations. They’re banking on $5,000 pay raises for state employees to help slow the turnover rate.
But that’s a lot to ask of low-paid staff whose salaries will still hover around $30,000 a year even with this year’s raises, Moore acknowledged.
“Undoubtedly, the front-line positions at DDS have not been high-wage positions,” he said. “It’s difficult to hire a person when retail is essentially paying the same amount.”
A DDS driver examiner conducts a road test at one of the agency's 67 offices. (Credit: Georgia Department of Driver Services)
Self-serve kiosks also bring security challenges for people plugging in personal information to verify their identities. Sports, the DDS spokeswoman, said the agency is still “working out these details” on kiosk safety and security.
Verifying drivers’ identities before handing them a license is also a key part of the job for DDS customer service workers, said Moore. Fewer staff makes it tougher to keep tabs on potential ID fraudsters.
“Because we know beyond that driving privilege, this is also going to give that individual a whole lot of other opportunities once they have an identity established,” Moore said. “We’re doing everything possible to make sure that the person who is getting the credential is the right person.”
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Judicial circuits get $15 million more to pare down big case backlogs
Georgia courts are getting a $15 million injection to help combat case backlogs accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic. The money will be used to update courtrooms with new audio-visual equipment, cameras, recording devices and other technology.
Nearly half of Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits are getting the new round of money, the second and final round of federal American Rescue Act (ARPA) grants slated to be distributed this year. Two of the 24 circuits awarded grants – Flint and Pataula – are first-time recipients. The rest of the money is going to circuits that applied and were approved for more money.
“The bulk of this round of distributions is to modernize courtrooms and things like that,” Bruce Shaw, a spokesman for the Judicial Council of Georgia/Administrative Office of the Courts, told State Affairs.
For example, according to their backlog response plans, 21 circuits plan to use the money to add newer audio-visual equipment. Approved as a new eligible expenditure by the committee starting this award cycle, over $12 million was requested and awarded to update audio-visual equipment.
Requests also included money for temporary personnel such as senior judges, judges to serve by designation, court clerks, prosecutors, security, investigators, victim support staff and court reporters. There were also requests for supplies, personnel education and training as well as money to rent temporary space to hold court.
“We look forward to the support and efficiencies the audio-visual equipment modernization will provide to move cases faster and without technical delays,” said Supreme Court of Georgia Chief Justice Michael Boggs, chairman of the Judicial Committee.
Why It Matters
Between March 2020 and June 2021, Georgia’s judiciary system operated under a statewide Judicial Emergency Order that placed limits on court operations to protect the health and safety of people working or coming into court during the pandemic. That led to a backlog of criminal and civil cases, especially those requiring jury trials to resolve.
In October 2021, Gov. Brian Kemp allocated $110 million in ARPA money to the state’s judicial branch to deal with the backlog, especially serious violent felonies.
The Judicial Council is administering $96 million of that money to eligible courts, prosecutors and related agencies. The remaining $14 million in ARPA money went to the Georgia Public Defender Council for grants to public defenders.
With this latest round of awards, 45 of Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits will have received grants since the program began on Jan. 1 , 2022.
Challenges still persist. In addition to the backlog of cases, Boggs said there’s a shortage of attorneys during his inaugural State of the Judiciary address in March. And some courts are in need of court reporters.
In addition to dealing with serious felony cases, COVID and court backlogs tied up many civil cases. For example, Atlantans Antonio Fleetwood’s and Lakiela Edwards’ wedding plans were on hold for nearly two years. The couple finally tied the knot in a special Valentine’s Day ceremony at the Fulton County Probate Court.
How successful has the ARPA program been in helping reduce the backlog in Georgia’s 50 judicial circuits? That’s hard to say. There is no statewide clearinghouse, Shaw said, that would give a clear picture of the progress. Or lack of it.
“It’s going to be different in each circuit,” he said. “So a statewide average would be difficult to come by right now.”
State Affairs checked in with Georgia’s 10th Judicial District, which handles civil and domestic cases for 21 counties in northeast Georgia. It has seven circuits and is the third-largest district in the state.
In the first few months of this year, the Augusta Judicial Circuit, the 10th District’s largest circuit, has seen its pending serious violent felonies drop by 37%, District Administrator Tracy J. BeMent told State Affairs.
Alcovy, another circuit in his district, “has done extremely well in prioritizing serious, violent felony trials this past year and has worked down their [cases] quite a bit,” BeMent said.
As of last August, the latest data available, “Alcovy had cleared out 54 serious felonies and was on track to complete almost 49 trial weeks for 2022 amongst their five judges,” Bement added.
In the Toombs circuit, clearance rates are low but they’re prioritizing backlog cases, BeMent said. The Western circuit in Athens continues to have a backlog “as they have a number of cases that have yet to be indicted,” he said.
More work remains to be done.
“The challenge continues to be making sure we have appropriate staff and that we’re fully staffed and that that staff is trained and ready to go,” BeMent said.
The ARPA money has helped add more personnel but it takes time for them to get up to speed, he noted.
So far, the district has received about $8 million in ARPA money, BeMent said, with another $3 million coming from this latest round of ARPA distributions.
Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter recognized The Judicial Council/AOC’s 50th anniversary this year in a Jan. 25 letter. The council was formed while Carter was Georgia governor. The ailing 39th president entered hospice on Feb. 17.
“Now the challenge is considering what is needed from all of you for the next 50 years,” Carter, 98, said in the letter. “What do future generations of judges, lawyers and citizenry need from their judicial branch? What does improving justice look like in the next decade? These are no small questions, but ones I know you will meet with the same spirit that has guided you through the past half-century.”
Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].
Top image: Inside the Nathan Deal Judicial Center in Atlanta (Credit: Judge Stephen Dillard)
$69.4 billion farm-to-table pipeline: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu’
Tammy Joyner and photographer Brandon Franklin hit the road with the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC) for the Black farms tour. There were so many great pictures, we decided to share the tour with you. Enjoy!
And check out our Q&A with Chairman Carl Gilliard and an agriculture perspective on Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget vetoes.
“Make the farm work and serve the community.” — Addis Bugg, Sr., Addis Farm
Joyner and Franklin traveled with the GLBC to several Black-owned farms, including Roberts Vineyard, Addis Bugg Farms, Paul Copeland Farms and Living Waters Farms. They concluded the tour with the “At the Table Roundtable” discussion event with Georgia farmers at Fort Valley State University.
Can you spot the bull?
Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].
Header image: John Deere combine at the state-of-the-art agricultural research facilities at Fort Valley State University. (Credit: Brandon Franklin)
All images and video by Brandon Franklin.
Read more on the ag industry by Tammy Joyner.
Q&A: Even the Energizer Bunny is no match for Carl Gilliard
State Rep. Carl Gilliard has been running at a fast clip for nearly four decades, juggling a ministry, making music and movies, writing books, feeding the hungry, hosting talk shows and performing community activism.
As a teenager, Gilliard founded a local rap group in Savannah to fight gun violence. By the time he was a student at Morris Brown College, the late civil rights activist the Rev. Hosea Williams was his mentor. His activism also put him in the sphere of other influential civil rights icons: the Revs. Joseph Lowery and Ralph Abernathy, and Coretta Scott King.
Gilliard later went on to become a minister himself as well as an author, radio show host and head of a multimedia group that produces documentaries on history. Gov. Brian Kemp appointed the state representative from Garden City to the Georgia Film Commission in 2019.
Gilliard sits on eight legislative committees, including appropriations, creative arts and entertainment, and transportation.
In January, Gilliard ascended to a critical leadership post in the Georgia General Assembly: chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus (GLBC), the largest caucus of Black lawmakers in the nation.
In that role, Gilliard is determined to get Black farmers solidly entrenched in Georgia’s $69.4 billion farm-to-table pipeline. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” the 59-year-old is fond of saying.
Caucus member Sen. Gail Davenport, D-District 44, marveled at Gilliard’s energy. “I don’t know how he gets it all done. He’s busy,” she said. “He has led the caucus very well. He knows South Georgia very well and certainly here in the General Assembly, he has been an effective leader. He works to make sure the Senate understands the position of the House and the House understands the position of the Senate as far as the Democrats are concerned.”
As caucus chairman, Gilliard has made Black farmers and other Black businesses, access to credit, affordable housing and medicine top priorities.
But Black farmers are close to his heart. He recalled years ago when Georgia lawmakers gave millions of dollars to pecan farmers after tornado-ravaged storms damaged their pecan trees.
“We did a bill to give them money. Then we called a special session just to appropriate more money,” said Gilliard, who served on the Appropriations Committee at the time. “Unfortunately, Black farmers were not a part of [getting] that [money].”
State Affairs spoke to Gilliard about his role as chairman, what he intends to do to help Black farmers, and his other top priorities.
How do you see your role as chairman?
As chairman, I’m blessed to be able to walk in the leadership of 74 great senators and representatives from across the state. We represent the melting pot of Georgia.
What has been the biggest takeaway in your first five months as chairman?
Being able to hear from the members and their diverse communities. When we look at the big picture, we have more in common than not in common. That is the reason we did the GLBC rollout in reference to legislation because those are some of the things you hear in communities across the state.
You head the nation’s largest caucus of Black legislators. What are the economic and social issues impacting Black Georgians and how is the caucus poised to address those issues?
The needs of Black Georgians are just like what we went through when the recession hit. Everybody on Wall Street got bailed out while the people on Main Street got left out.
We are constantly playing catch-up. We’ve got to do more: continue education, start more businesses, be able to get a fair share of [state] contracts and be able to deliver services so that we can have generational wealth for future generations.
Black Georgians also have to be included in the top levels of [Georgia’s] $4.4 billion film industry. So the focus is to look at legislation that gives inclusion to levels of opportunity in film.
We must also try to get more Blacks into the business side of film, in reference to the creative opportunities of making and producing films and soundtracks.
Some people feel now that we’re in a post-racial era, there’s no need for a separate caucus for Black legislators. Thoughts?
There will always be a need for a Black caucus in Georgia. There’s always been a need since 1868 with “The Original 33” senators and state representatives who were [initially] not allowed to take office. Fourteen of them were lynched and killed. They had to go through unscrupulous challenges. We still face those challenges when we are in the minority, and we’re trying to get legislation passed for the people who are still facing obstacles. Across the nation, there will always be a need for Black caucuses because of the consensus of the people we represent. We represent over 3 million [Black] people in Georgia.
Who are Georgia’s Black farmers?
When people think about farmers, 99% of the time they just think about those who grow. But you have farmers who have land. You have farmers who have cattle. We even have farmers today [whose business ranges from] cattle to produce to hemp. They just don’t get an opportunity to [publicly] share all that they produce.
Having the resources to upgrade and getting the materials and equipment they need — that’s the biggest need.
They don’t have the workers to help with these farms. And they don’t have the money to hire. They’re just trying to survive. So there has to be a connection to workforce development to help them. The state has workforce development programs that may be able to help some of these farmers. Here again, it’s about us being innovative enough to use what we have to help them.
Have you talked to Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper about your concerns?
Well, we’re going to be talking with the new agriculture commissioner. We’ll give him a chance to get in the door [of his new job] first. We’re giving him the benefit of the doubt to say, ‘Let’s meet.’ This will better Georgia because agriculture is the No. 1 entity in Georgia.
What’s the caucus’ next step as it relates to Black farmers?
We’ll push for a bill that would create the Georgia Racial Equity in Agriculture Act. It would establish an Office of Equity in Agriculture, provide training for farmers of color and other historically-underserved farmers and ensure equal distribution of federal aid from the Inflation Reduction Act and Promoting Precision Agriculture Act. And we are gathering information to establish a Georgia Black farmers directory to list all of the farmers who are currently in the state to get them support from consumers as well.
Aside from Black farmers, what are the caucus’ other priorities?
Health care for all Georgians. Looking at the criminal justice system and people who are unfairly on probation for long periods of time when they have a misdemeanor. Some people are still on probation after 20 years. We’ve got to look at different elements of the criminal justice system to see what is fair and what needs to be updated.
We need to make sure we have a fair shake in the minority participation of state contracts. If we’re 30% of the population, then those contracts need to look like the representation of the 30% of minorities in Georgia.
What are some of the events the caucus has planned?
On June 7, we have the Young Leaders Conference at the Capitol for high school and college students. The caucus’ annual conference will be in Savannah July 21 to 23 and we have several for-the-people rallies coming up in Athens, Augusta, Macon and Valdosta. Lastly, we have a Black university tour the first week of September at several Black universities in Georgia.
The Carl Wayne Gilliard File
- Title: Chairman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus; Democratic state representative, District 162 (Savannah)
- Age: 59
- Hometown: Savannah
- Residence: Garden City
- Occupation: Pastor of Family Life Center in Garden City which operates the Empowerment Center, a program that “gets people on their feet and helps them with everything from housing to credit.” He also has a nonprofit, Feed the Hungry, that has distributed about 1.5 million servings of food in 10 cities in Georgia and four in South Carolina.
- Education: Graduate of Morris Brown College; Doctrine of Divinity from the New Generation School of Seminary.
- Career: While in college, worked as the national youth coordinator for then-presidential candidate the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Became a minister in 1995. Sworn in to the Georgia House of Representatives on May 5, 2016.
- Accomplishments: In the mid-1980s, he founded the Savannah-based rap group Candy Love to combat gun violence. Creator of four national gospel plays. Host of a radio talk show in Savannah as well as gospel TV shows. Founder of Feed the Hungry Inc. in 2009. In 2012, he launched a multimedia communication company called Urban Media and the Gilliard Foundation, which produce documentaries and television specials on history. Author of an upcoming book “Power of the Pen.”
- Family: Married father of four daughters
- What do you do to relax: Watch sports. I am a writer and a filmmaker who does documentaries.
- What’s your ultimate dream? Having a farm.
Have questions, comments or tips? Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @lvjoyner or at [email protected].
Header image: State Rep. Carl Gilliard touring Bugg Farm in Pine Mountain, GA. (Credit: Brandon Franklin)
A default on the country’s debt could cause ‘real and lasting’ damage
The nation’s politicians are considering a voluntary default on the country’s debt. Yes, “voluntary.” The nation’s elected leaders in Congress and the White House could end this today if they wanted. Unfortunately, they are choosing to engage in political brinkmanship in negotiations over the debt ceiling, potentially defaulting on the nation’s debt.
In a straightforward sense, the debt ceiling is created by enacting legislation in which Congress temporarily limits the degree to which federal government expenditures can exceed tax revenue. The shortfall is covered by issuing treasury bills, notes and bonds. On an annual basis, the difference is referred to as the deficit, while the accumulation of the yearly deficit is referred to as the national debt, which is now $31.5 trillion. It fundamentally means that the government needs to take in more tax revenue to pay its bills. The first debt ceiling was created by Congress in 1917, so this is a familiar thing.
The general timing of when the debt ceiling is hit can be forecasted with relatively high accuracy, so this problem is unsurprising. Congress had months and months to address this but instead chose to act like children pretending that some inevitable outcome and day of reckoning for irresponsible behavior is now somehow a surprise. The Treasury Department began using “extraordinary measures” back in January when the usual and customary flow of tax revenue was insufficient to pay the bills. The Treasury Department has some ability to create months of budgetary wiggle room through fiscal creativeness that mostly boils down to suspending the reinvestment of revenue generated in some federal government pension or caretaker accounts.
That wiggle room is now gone. The so-called X-date, when even the extraordinary measures fail to cover the bills coming due, is now estimated to be June 1. This date has been moved forward several months because tax revenue is running about 10% below that of the previous fiscal year. The reason is mainly attributable to the slowdown in capital gains tax revenue from realized gains in the stock and housing markets.
Should our elected representatives choose to voluntarily default on the nation’s debt because of their unwillingness to compromise on political dogma in the negotiations over the debt ceiling, well, let’s say bad things will happen. Extraordinarily bad things. Global financial markets will be shaken to their core. The interest rate on the 90-day Treasury bill is referred to as the risk-free rate of return because, under normal circumstances, the government will not go out of business in the next three months. A vast array of domestic and global interest rates is benchmarked to the risk-free rate of return established by the interest rate on short-term U.S. government debt. When that rate is no longer risk-free, everyone will pay higher interest rates on all borrowings, including credit cards, auto loans, mortgage rates, and multi-billion dollar capital investments like those in Georgia’s budding electric vehicle industry.
At a minimum, the federal government would need to decide which bills coming due would be paid, thereby creating a class of winners and losers regarding who gets paid and when. Fundamentally, the tradeoff is between trying to calm financial markets by paying the interest due on debt versus mitigating the severity of the default-induced recession. The optics are not good if Treasury makes winners out of bondholders, and 25% of that debt is held overseas, and makes losers out of older people relying on their Social Security payment.
In the long run, when a government defaults on its debt, it faces much higher interest rates in the future when borrowing again in global capital markets. Greece in 2012 and 2015 is a case in point. When Greece effectively defaulted, investors demanded higher interest rates to compensate for the increased risk on Greek bonds. The 10-year rate on Greek bonds skyrocketed to 35% from about 4% and remained elevated for eight to nine years.
Hopefully, our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., will acknowledge the real and lasting damage a default of the world’s largest debtor nation would cause now and in the future. We’ll be back at this in a few years when the next debt ceiling cap is again under siege.
Michael Toma, Ph.D., is the Fuller E. Callaway professor of economics in the Parker College of Business at Georgia Southern University in Savannah. He specializes in macroeconomics and regional economics and holds a Ph.D. in Economics from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He joined Armstrong State University in Savannah in 1997 and continues with Georgia Southern University today. He can be reached at [email protected].