Gov. Tim Walz appointed Tarek Tomes to be commissioner of Minnesota IT Services, ending a lengthy search to lead one of state government’s most important and beleaguered agencies.
Tomes, 50, brings more than two decades of private and public sector technology experience to the job, most recently as the city of St. Paul’s chief innovation officer.
“This job is critical, and it comes at a time when the rate of innovation in technology is transforming the expectations that Minnesotans have every day,” Tomes said in a Star Tribune interview this week.
Tomes is Walz’s final cabinet appointment, arriving more than 90 days after the governor’s inauguration, though all the others still await Senate confirmation.
“Making sure Minnesotans can trust the technology in their government is paramount,” Walz said Tuesday at a news conference announcing the appointment. “We were very deliberate because of the impact — it touches every single Minnesotan,” he said.
The delay in finding a leader for the agency, known as MNIT, underscores the state’s security challenges. State government computers run thousands of applications that help deliver services — often collecting sensitive, private data that organized criminals could try to steal. Many of these programs rely on software that was developed decades ago and run on aging hardware. The risks of failure — including a catastrophic data breach that could expose Minnesotans to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages — are significant.
Tomes, who worked at a previous version of MNIT for five years before his job with St. Paul, said cybersecurity is at the top of his priority list.
“Cybersecurity is a huge challenge. Public sector entities are targeted heavily,” he said, citing a March 2018 attack on the city of Atlanta estimated to have cost the city $17 million while disrupting city services for months.
Walz established a Blue Ribbon Council on Information Technology this year with the aim of improving the agency, which employs about 2,300 people and has a budget of $623 million. Nearly all of the money comes from other state agencies that are billed by MNIT for technology work. That arrangement can sometimes create tension between MNIT and state agencies it serves and then bills.
MNIT shared the blame with the Department of Public Safety for the troubled rollout of a new vehicle licensing and registration system known as MNLARS, a project that spanned more than 10 years and cost well over $100 million. The Legislature passed a measure that Walz signed in March for $13 million in MNLARS technology improvements, maintenance and customer service. Lawmakers are expected to authorize another $10 million to compensate users of the new system for its failed rollout.
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, chairwoman of the State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Committee, called MNIT a “beleaguered agency with a serious history of numerous failures.” Of Tomes, she added, “It is a daunting task he has in front of him.”
Tomes emphasized that modernizing the agency means more than just finishing projects on time, stopping threats or preventing outages. It’s also an opportunity to help state government improve how it delivers services. Under his team’s direction, for example, St. Paul used technology to examine traffic stops and snow removal to make sure neighborhoods were receiving the right amount of attention.
Former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who worked closely with Tomes, called him an “excellent choice.”
“He’s a visionary and a strategic thinker, but he knows how to make IT accessible for non-IT people,” Coleman said. Tomes also inspired loyalty among his workers, Coleman said.
Walz had tasked public relations executive Kathy Tunheim with helping lead the search for a new MNIT commissioner.
Tomes “brings technical experience and competence, but also a management style that you need in this very challenging role,” Tunheim said. The panel she convened met with a dozen candidates, she said.
Before moving to the public sector about a decade ago, Tomes was at British Telecom, where his customers included Fortune 100 companies, he said.
Tomes is accepting a pay cut of about $10,000 to take the new job.
He grew up a self-described “Army brat” and was a systems engineer in Germany after college. He and his wife came to Minnesota so she could attend medical school. They have five children ranging in age from adults to a 3-year-old.