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Minn. Governor Wants to Abandon MNLARS, Buy Software Instead

It's the first week at work for the state's new CIO, and the governor wants him to freeze work on the troubled vehicle licensing and registration system in order to buy a software package as a replacement.

It’s trial by fire for Tarek Tomes.

In Tomes’ first week as CIO of Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz has decided to scrap the decade-long, troubled project to build a new vehicle registration and license system and asked the technology chief, along with other stakeholders, to procure a software package instead.

“[It’s] fantastic. I think it’s been a tremendous introduction to the state,” Tomes said.

The system — the Minnesota Vehicle Licensing and Registration System, or MNLARS — was first under contract with Hewlett-Packard before the state ditched the vendor and decided to build it in-house. When the state started rolling out the system in 2017, it ran headlong into a wall of problems: People were charged the wrong fees, there wasn’t enough support available for all the questions and downtime was high.

Under the governor’s decision, which is subject to legislative approval, work on the system will stop in June this year and the only work on it will be maintenance and bug fixes. Instead the state will focus on rapidly finding and buying software to replace it.

The state’s former CIO, Tom Baden, ended up resigning at the beginning of 2018, citing health issues. His replacement, Johanna Clyborne, inherited the project, only to face a governor change when Walz was elected later that year. She stepped down in January, and Walz formed a commission to study MNLARS, among other things.

The governor’s decision to pursue commercial-off-the-shelf software for the system, rather than continuing to build MNLARS, comes from that report. Central to the decision was the weighing of risks between buying and building.

The commission found that the system had improved significantly since its initial release: Downtime was reduced, data was cleaned up and many problems were fixed. The team working on the project believe it to be about three-quarters finished, on track for completion in 2021.

But the commission anticipated a need for a surge in hiring in the future to keep MNLARS running, as well as ample opportunity for unexpected problems.

“As new features and functionality are released, stakeholders will continue to discover issues that will add to a never-ending list of unranked backlog items,” the report reads.

Failures of large IT projects are common, both in and outside of government. As the rental car company Hertz is taking Accenture to court over a website redesign, the state of Rhode Island is trying to salvage an effort with Deloitte to deliver on a benefits eligibility system.

Speaking independently of the report, Tomes said he sees a lot of risk in “future-proofing” the system — ensuring that it’s flexible enough to meet needs the state can’t see yet.

“It would have likely been more risky than being part of a marketplace where multiple customers … provide input into the roadmap,” he said.

There’s also work to be done on the policy side that the state’s Department of Public Safety, the governor and legislators will likely have to take on. According to the report, many of the problems with the system, like incorrect fee calculations, come from the way rules for vehicle licensing and registration were written.

Tomes sees it as an opportunity for everyone to step back and think about more than just the technology.

“One of the unique perspectives that we can bring to our partners as trusted consultants and advisers is to kind of re-look at how we’re actually doing things,” he said.

As a stand-in for pre-packaged software in general, the report looked at a single vendor that has worked with 12 other states on similar systems. But it didn’t identify which vendor it was.

“I wouldn’t want to speculate on who they intended to use,” Tomes said.

So it will most likely fall to Tomes and others to open a competitive procurement and buy a new system — which he anticipates will be one with many configuration options, given the size of the state — as fast as they can.

“I think anyone in my role will say that we can’t procure fast enough,” he said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.