What to consider when rolling out big public sector programs

On a Friday night late last year, my home state of Massachusetts formally flipped the switch and converted to no-stop electronic tolling on the infamous Mass Pike.

Everyone who has experienced no-stop electronic tolling appreciates the time savings it creates — and how it eliminates looking under floor mats for that extra quarter while going 50 mph. I still recall stories from 8 years ago about how revolutionary it was to blaze down the US 36 toll road between Denver and Boulder, paying tolls through the mail.

Anyone who has commuted to and from Boston on the I-90 knows that any technology deployed to decrease a stop or brake-pump would be well worth the investment. Little did I know how many moving pieces there are in such a deployment. I learned the hard way — getting personally got caught in the nexus of technology and civic engagement.

To its credit, the State of Massachusetts developed a long term communications strategy that started warning commuters about the program. Drivers could obtain free transponders from EZPass offices and pay normal toll fees, or they could opt out of transponders and pay higher tolls through the mail after the state scanned their license plate. Digital signage was everywhere on the toll roads for months.

But the EZPass division quickly became the victim of their communications team’s success. Lines wrapped around the infamous Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices, tempers flared and a spotlight was shone on the interoperability of the state’s technology (and human) infrastructure.

People (like this writer) who paid toll fines to the EZ pass division found that it was taking over two weeks for the credit card transfer to make it into the license and registration division, thus forbidding residents from renewing their licenses. The delay was due to the “all hands on deck” approach to handling new transponders. Trying to resolve the issue online, on site or on the phone was an impossibility.

Counterintuitively, people who needed to pay cash to pre-load their transponder accounts, as required, were informed they needed to wait 3 days before coming to a physical office since cash processing was not possible before the deadline.

Finally, all drivers who did get new transponders were told that they would likely be charged the higher “retail” toll charged to no-transponder drivers for 30 days, as opposed to the discounted rate that they were promised.

So what can a city or state transportation department learn about the citizen engagement aspects of this rollouts?

First, know that departments of transportation, like any government or business entity, are filled with mini silos. While offices for the EZPass toll violation may be on the same floor as the license renewal cubes, they may as well be in different states when it comes to interoperability. No different than the problems of radiology sharing x-rays with another partner hospital’s orthopedic department.

Second, broaden the channels. In this case, the AAA offices provided a great alternative for their members to pick up transponders, but a deployment of this magnitude needs to take the department to the people, rather than the hoards to the department.

Lastly, consider extending grace periods to account for glitches in the system  — both on your end, and on consumers’. This might keep everyone a little happier as you embark on a big implementation.


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  1. Simple and to the point…


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