Benson: No regrets on 30-minute Secretary of State office guarantee

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, May 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

After uncovering considerable problems at branch offices and struggling with computer problems since taking office, does Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson regret making a 30-minute customer service guarantee on the 2018 campaign trail?

In a word, no.

The Mackinac Policy Conference at the Grand Hotel, May 29, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

“I’ve spent my whole life setting goals and reaching them,” she told the Michigan Advance on Thursday at the Mackinac Policy Conference. “And so it really originated in my view, saying, ‘How would I define my success as a secretary of state for myself?’

“And that would be in decrease wait times and increase [voter] turnout. And then, what does that mean? Well, wait time should be consistent throughout the state and 30 minutes in or out I think is, is what citizens deserve and should expect them. And so that’s where I started from. And to me … it can be presented as a campaign pledge or promise, but it’s really my own internal metric of success for doing this job.”

Benson touted the announcement that her office would soon allow Michigan residents to make appointments in advance at every branch location in the state.

The program’s expansion will begin in mid-June. Benson spokesperson Shawn Starkey told the Advance that the department will be “rolling it out in phases” and that all branches will have appointment capability by the end of this summer.

Currently, 43 of the state’s 131 branches allow appointments to be made ahead of a visit.

A Secretary of State office in Lansing, Michigan
A Secretary of State branch office in East Lansing, Michigan | Susan J. Demas

Last month, Benson completed a tour of each one of the state’s branch offices in her first 100 days in office, fulfilling another campaign promise. The Advance reported in March on the Secretary of State’s efforts to revamp another troubled program in its branch offices, the MI-TIME system that until February allowed visitors to virtually take their place in line ahead of a branch visit.

At the time, Starkey said that “taking [MI-TIME] down so we could reconfigure and recalibrate … is certainly one piece of ensuring we can get to the 30-minute guarantee,” but declined to offer an estimated date by which the system might return.

That sparked criticism from Michigan Republican Party Chair Laura Cox, who declared that “[v]oters will remember when Jocelyn Benson failed to keep her promises.”

Asked by the Advance on Thursday if the department was concerned about implementation of the new appointment system given the previous difficulties with MI-TIME, Benson said they had given considerable thought to the matter.

“We’re the last state that still has this MI-TIME queuing system,” Benson said. “It’s one of the reasons we took it offline to recalibrate, because even though people appreciated the convenience, it just wasn’t working effectively.”

“We’ve actually developed [the new appointment system] internally, we did not have to go to an external vendor. … I said, ‘What if we just did it ourselves?’ And we did, so it’s budget-neutral, and effective, and it’s an improved system.”

Jocelyn Benson in Detroit, April 11, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Benson said she’s “confident” that the 30-minute guarantee will become a reality for customers.

“I love a challenge,” she said. “I’ve never backed down from them my whole career and I love creating them.”

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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.
Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson is a former associate editor of the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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