Officials say PR campaign may boost Real ID popularity

DMV officials tell colleagues that now's the time to start plotting ways to counteract negative messages about the forthcoming ID cards.

WASHINGTON--As controversy rages over forthcoming federal Real ID requirements, state officials should be plotting public relations strategies to counteract the well-publicized rebellion, past and present state motor vehicle administrators advised their colleagues Monday.

Civil liberties and privacy groups, as well as organizations like the National Governors Association, have attacked the 2005 law as insufficiently protective of privacy and too costly to implement. But that's exactly the sort of message motor vehicle departments need to offset with their own materials trumpeting the plan's perceived benefits, suggested Lucinda Babers, interim director of the District of Columbia DMV, and Betty Serian, a retired Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official who now runs a private consulting firm.

"I think it's a classical textbook case of good communications planning, knowing who your audience is, and working that into your implementation plan for Real ID," Serian said during a panel discussion on the first day of the Government ID Technology Summit here. About 100 state and federal officials and representatives from technology vendors were in attendance at the conference, whose lead sponsor was Digimarc, a company that specializes in "secure identity and media management solutions."

The Department of Homeland Security plans to issue final rules in the fall, but draft rules say that starting on May 11, 2008, Americans will need a federally approved, "machine readable" ID card to travel on an airplane, open a bank account, collect Social Security payments or take advantage of nearly any government service. (States that agree in advance to abide by the rules have until 2013 to comply.)

Largely because of the undertaking's projected cost and what they view as insufficient federal funding to meet it, more than 30 states have either introduced or adopted some type of legislation or resolution that rejects or criticizes Congress's Real ID mandate, which is derived from 9/11 Commission recommendations.

But even those states that fall into the anti-Real ID category should be thinking about how to make their residents feel happier about the requirements, the conference speakers said.

Sample messages could include, according to Serian: "It's an improvement to your existing process, it's a way to do the right things for the right reason, it will help prevent identity theft." (Serian said she is "active" with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and was once the chairwoman of its special task force on identification security.)

The identity-theft defense is a familiar one. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has argued that a Real ID-compliant document will be harder to forge than existing driver's licenses and other state-issued identification cards because DMV administrators will be required to verify the authenticity of birth certificates and other pertinent identity documents against new databases. Opponents, however, argue that unless stricter security requirements are imposed, it won't be difficult for people to swipe personal information from the cards' requisite two-dimensional bar code and use it for unintended purposes.

"Try to get that positive message out about what it can do for us," Babers said. "What this seems to be doing for us is getting us all up to a certain level in terms of technology and processes."

Despite uncertainty about how the rules will look, Serian said "the time is definitely now" for states to strategize over how they'll persuade the public that Real ID isn't a threat. Motor vehicle departments could use the pool of addresses already available to them to send out direct mailings with such assurances, she said. Babers suggested that voluntary e-mail lists that some DMVs already use for periodic alerts could be another method. Another potential vehicle is through public service announcements aired in a continuous loop at DMV locations, where a captive audience of customers has little choice but to watch.

To reach an even wider audience, Serian suggested DMVs also consider using some of the federal taxpayer-funded grants set aside for Real ID--which many states argue are inadequate--to take out paid advertising. She and Babers said states may also want to approach vendors of the technology they plan to use to come into Real ID compliance for help.

But such a marketing campaign may be less than realistic given the current funding climate for many states, countered one audience member who said he represented the Rhode Island Department of Motor Vehicles. He said his state's initial cost estimate for getting the program up and running is $12 million, and the state already is expecting a $200 to $300 million deficit. Homeland Security projects the cost of Real ID for states and taxpayers over the next 10 years will surpass $23 billion.

"Your mailing list isn't going to be free," the audience member said. "You're going to have to prepare the document, mail it out, that's a million dollars if you're a state of a million people, which we are."