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editorial | Registrar to oversee labor dept.

Service lessons from the RMV

In another era, the cordial relationship that Joanne Goldstein enjoyed with business and union leaders in Massachusetts might have been enough to keep her in her post as secretary of labor and workforce development. But her department came under intense criticism this summer over a $46 million unemployment insurance system that came in two years late and made it difficult for hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, to claim benefits they needed.

The troubled system was built by an outside contractor, not Goldstein’s department itself, and the contract was signed by her predecessor. Yet some of Goldstein’s comments seemed to downplay the significance of the information-technology failure. In choosing state Registrar of Motor Vehicles Rachel Kaprielian to replace Goldstein, who’s taking a job at Northeastern University, Governor Patrick effectively acknowledged a major change in how government operates: The public now judges the performance of many government agencies by how well their customer-service websites work.

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Rather than being a model to emulate, registries of motor vehicles are often perceived as an easy punchline; in the public imagination they operate less like Amazon.com than like Patty and Selma, the surly, indifferent DMV clerks from “The Simpsons.” But to cut costs, the Massachusetts RMV pushed many of its transactions online — a process ably supervised by Kaprielian. Today in Massachusetts, many renewals are as simple as filling out an online form and receiving a sticker or replacement registration in the mail.

In contrast, the troubled launch of the unemployment website — like the bungled launch of the federal Obamacare site and its Massachusetts counterpart — underscored how government agencies struggle to oversee complex IT contracts. “The Affordable Care Act,” President Obama insisted last fall, “is not just a website.” Well, not exactly. But the sooner that public agencies recognize that they’re in the information-technology business, the better the results will be.

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