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Minnesota Real ID Launch Reflects Well on IT's Ability, CIO Says

The launch of Real ID in Minnesota is a positive for state IT, the chief information officer said, and points to progress made since the troubled 2017 debut of a new vehicle license and registration system.

The successful launch of a federally mandated Real ID program would be a cause for celebration in any state, but Minnesota’s IT leader said her agency’s deployment reflects positively not only on technologists but on the recent and troubled arrival of its vehicle licensing and registration system.

Minnesota residents will have until Oct. 1, 2020, to obtain the Real ID-compliant driver’s licenses and IDs that will enable them to board domestic flights without a valid U.S. passport. After experiencing significant problems with the deployment in July 2017 of the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS), the state inked a $26 million contract with Colorado-based FAST Enterprises to spearhead its Real ID efforts.

That program launched Oct. 1 and experienced no major issues, Minnesota IT Services (MNIT) Commissioner Johanna Clyborne said in an interview — due in large part to changes to business practices and actively convening the stakeholders whose offices handle transactions to work through concerns.

“We took our lessons that we learned, or should have been learned from previous mistakes, and [did] rollback testing across the state. We worked with … the deputy registrars and listened to their concerns in weekly conference calls,” Clyborne said, indicating the state also engaged the registrars in sandbox training and had reaction teams poised to intervene during launch should issues develop. The results, the commissioner said, could shed new light on MNLARS.

“I think the positive piece to this is, as much of a black eye as we’ve taken over MNLARS, it shows that we very much are able to project, oversee and bring to a successful completion a project that is as extensive as Real ID was. I think what that shows is, we can, with the right structures, do what needs to be done to deliver a successful IT project for the state of Minnesota,” added Clyborne.

In September, however, funding for the two programs came into question as MNIT indicated in its most recent MNLARS Quarterly Update that system development is only funded through February 2019. Two upcoming MNLARS updates, numbered 1.14 and 1.15, would address “nearly 50 percent of the stakeholders’ top priorities,” MNIT said in the quarterly update, mandated by law, calling it “critical to ensure a ramp-down does not occur on MNLARS … prior to these releases being built in the system.”

These releases would include the ability to transfer special plates, and would update key performance measures, Clyborne told Government Technology. But only 1.14 is underway. Update 1.15 — which would resolve the specialty plates issue — hasn’t been started yet, the agency said in the quarterly report.

The solution, Clyborne said in September and reaffirmed earlier this month, was to “rearrange some of the budgeting funds” and utilize $5.5 million targeted at Real ID on MNLARS instead. The commissioner said renegotiations with FAST Enterprises are underway and given the good relationship between the state and the company, she doesn’t anticipate any issues. Shifting funds didn’t affect Real ID’s debut, but would impact its second phase, which would optimize some existing components and include integration with the state court information system. The move also doesn’t require approval from lawmakers, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported, but Clyborne acknowledged the Legislature will ultimately have to set the program’s future course.

She’ll be advocating to the new governor, following the Nov. 6 election, for full MNLARS funding and $5.5 million for phase two of Real ID, the commissioner said.

MNLARS’ costs “are still growing,” a report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) found in September, and the system has cost more than $90 million to date. The report, on MNLARS Transaction Accuracy, found the system “appears to have generally calculated certain types of transactions correctly,” including wheelage and sales taxes and most license plate transactions, but identified “significant inaccuracies” elsewhere, including in registrations of newly registered passenger vehicles and for heavy non-passenger vehicles.

Among its findings, OLA examined a sample of 300 passenger vehicles registered via MNLARS and 300 registered before its arrival and determined between 36 percent and 46 percent of transactions involving vehicles with base values established in MNLARS had errors. Elsewhere, the agency also found roughly 97.6 percent of registration transactions for vehicles charged “variable tax rates based on gross weight” were accurate according to MNLARS data. And OLA found more — MNLARS had undercharged residents by more than $2.5 million from July 24, 2017, to Feb. 28, 2018, for registering passenger vehicles with base values set in MNLARS; and for registering other vehicles based on weight.

In a joint statement, MNIT and the state Department of Public Safety said the agencies are “committed to making enhancements to MNLARS” where gaps remain, but said most inaccuracies identified in the report aren’t the result of the system malfunctioning. Rather, the agencies said these derive from “differences in interpretation of statute, human error in data entry, and the misalignment between unique Minnesota laws and automotive industry practices.”

“We at Minnesota IT Services and the Department of Public Safety stand ready to work with the Minnesota Legislature to clarify and manage the complexities that underlie motor vehicle laws and industry practices in Minnesota,” the agencies said.

Clyborne said changes in August that let deputy registrars print duplicate titles helped the process, noting the average production time for a new title is now down to 33 days, compared to seven days for a new registration and five days for a title transfer. MNIT is still examining business processes, she said, praising improved partnerships with stakeholders and indicating IT should play an enhanced role as more forward-looking and proactive.

“No matter how great of an IT system is developed, if the business processes are not in line with the system being developed, or not changed as part of the modernization, you’re going to struggle. I think there’s a role for some transformative IT processes here that could help across government if we take that shift and we take a different approach to it,” Clyborne said.

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.