Opinion: Secretary of State Benson doesn't care about customer service

This column originally appeared in the Detroit News.

Customer service still matters, no matter how little some politicians care.

The pandemic has changed the way businesses and their team members interact with customers. We’ve seen companies and creative workers pioneer new and dynamic ways to meet needs: curbside pick-up, touch-free delivery, customized experiences. Michigan residents in the private sector have quickened, simplified and improved the experience for customers over the last year, in many cases delivering more for less.

Michigan government? They know those who don’t flee the state are stuck, so they’re in no hurry to help.

The state’s unemployment insurance agency has spent the last year and a half mired in failure and delay. Men and women forced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to give up or lose their jobs have gone months — or longer — without getting the benefits they earned and deserved. Forget ever receiving a reasonable explanation.

Now comes the latest dizzying news for customers from what is easily the state’s most customer-facing department — the Secretary of State.

Last month, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson broke the news that she’s permanently done away with walk-in visits to branch locations across Michigan. Have business to do at the Secretary of State? Make an appointment.

Here’s the catch. According to a report in The Detroit News, getting an appointment can require up to a three-month wait. Three months.

Benson gave voters a “30-minute guarantee” at branch offices statewide. Within 30 minutes, she pledged, you’d hear that number called, and you’d get on with your business. She’s failed.

“We want to value citizens’ time,” Benson told the media as she unrolled the pledge. “The 30-minute guarantee is … geared towards decreasing wait times. … It’s also a standard I believe citizens should expect from the state government.”

Half an hour? Pizza chains don’t even offer that kind of promise anymore. Benson was going to be different. She told us customer service mattered.

So much for that.

We’re only a little over halfway through her term, and 30 minutes has turned into 132,480. Secretary of State Benson expects you to wait 4,400 times longer than candidate Benson promised. From appearing to care to apparently caring less is the Secretary of State’s new norm.

Typical wait times are three months in communities across metro Detroit. Some claim they’ve stretched to 4 months in places like Traverse City and Muskegon.

It probably won’t surprise readers that Benson’s scrubbed her campaign website of any reference to her 30-minute promise, too. Transparency has gone the way of caring for people — deleted.

Don’t like it? Take a number.

Under withering pressure from frustrated motorists, would-be voters and other Michiganians who are tired of waiting, Benson announced that she’d be adding hundreds of thousands of new appointment slots to the system.

Here’s the kicker. She added the slots without spending a single additional dollar. In other words, Benson’s department has either been operating at far less than full capacity for over a year — forcing customers to wait months for simple transactions when they didn’t have to — or 350,000 new appointment slots will create another massive traffic jam in branch offices.

It’s one or the other.

Branch inaccessibility is a big deal, and not just for motorists. Residents rely on branch offices to register to vote and to update their state identifications. Blocking residents from accessing those services is an attack on voters’ rights, and it’s an attack targeted specifically on poor and at-risk communities where the internet access needed to make an appointment is harder to come by and more difficult to afford.

There’s good news for the secretary’s customers, though. They soon get a say so on who runs that department.

Exasperated voters with business to do at the Secretary of State’s office this summer will have plenty of time to sit around and think about putting Benson at the back of the line.

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.

Join the Frontlines

Subscribe to receive email updates!