Minn. CIO Tarek Tomes Tackles Modernization, Citizen Services

In the role of chief information officer since April, Tarek Tomes explains the importance of human-centered design, how the CIO should approach emerging tech and why moving away from MNLARS was the right choice.

by / December 2019
David Kidd/Government Technology

Tarek Tomes came to Minnesota IT at an interesting time, just when Gov. Tim Walz declared an end to the state’s long-troubled in-house vehicle registration system in favor of contracting with a third-party vendor. But Tomes, formerly CIO and chief innovation officer of the city of St. Paul, has taken it in stride. He is focused on citizen services, and how the state IT organization can impact the daily lives of Minnesotans.

1. What’s your approach to IT modernization?

Modernization really isn’t a technical thing — it’s a new way of delivering a service. It starts with understanding and reviewing the opportunities related to a new service delivery model and then fitting in whatever technology components could support that. It’s recognizing that organizational change, changing the way people have done their jobs every day for 10 or 15 years and disrupting it. But the opportunities are immense to deliver services differently. The largest modernization challenge is systems that were designed and created from scratch in a large, monolithic manner, breaking them down into the components that have evolved in the marketplace, and taking a human-centered design approach to the people that those business services are serving. 

2. Why did the state ultimately opt for an off-the-shelf solution for the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS)?

Our driver and vehicle system has been an ongoing process related to a modernization initiative. It currently is a custom-developed solution that had a much-publicized, unsuccessful launch initially that caused a significant amount of customer satisfaction issues just in providing rudimentary services, not the least of which is the taxpayer dollars that went into developing a system that when it was launched was incomplete. Since that time, the team has done an amazing job continuing to build on that custom development to the point where it is very functional. The decision to move to the vendor-based solution is not necessarily because we couldn’t get to the finish line with a custom solution, but we joined an ecosystem of 10 other states with a vendor solution that has the prerequisite of research and development that will future-proof us going forward

3. How do you characterize the role of the CIO relative to emerging technology?

One of our largest responsibilities in this space where the rate of innovation is changing so fast is to continually bring opportunity to our business partners in a way that they understand, to make the various technologies that are emerging in the marketplace relevant to a particular business unit. That translation is one we can do in a completely unbiased manner as a trusted adviser. Our responsibility is making sure we have a marketplace of technologies that is continually open to new vendor solutions coming in, and we’re also actively looking for vendor solutions to exit when they’re no longer strategically aligned with our direction. As CIOs, one of our largest roles is really that role of influencer,  of helping people understand that there are opportunities to do things differently. 

4. How does being an influencer relate to citizen impact?

One of the things that we’re working on right now is establishing a culture that connects us with the people that we serve, that allows us to be intentional about the relationships that are required, to really become practitioners of a culture of human-centered design that understands the importance of connecting with the people that we’re providing solutions for before we go into the solution space. We want to create an innovative culture that is bold, that is forward leaning, but that never forgets the impact on people. It’s making sure all of our technologists understand that there are 11 sovereign tribal nations that are a part of Minnesota’s culture, that there are cities, counties, residents, visitors, businesses, that we really understand the impact of services and the role technology plays in delivering those. That connected culture is essential for us. 

Lauren Harrison Managing Editor

Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 10 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.

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