Minnesota lawmakers questioned the capability and structure of the state's information technology agency this week, as they dug into a report that describes what led up to the disastrous rollout of the state's vehicle licensing and registration system.
An outside investigation of a former state staffer who helped oversee the creation of the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS), as well as a report on the IT agency's office space spending, added fuel to legislators' concerns about Minnesota Information Technology Services. Legislators considered proposals Wednesday aimed at putting "guardrails" on the agency.
One proposal would require the IT department to focus on providing centralized support for state agencies, not on the development of projects. It would require the agency to contract with private vendors for future projects like MNLARS. If IT officials wanted to do a major project in-house, they would have to seek state funding specifically for that purpose.
The agency initially contracted with Hewlett-Packard to design MNLARS, but took over after the company failed to meet deadlines.
On Tuesday, lawmakers reviewed the external investigation into then-Chief Business Technology Officer Paul Meekin, who was fired earlier this year. The report showed general problems with the agency. Witnesses interviewed as part of the investigation said there was poor communication between top officials and employees, insufficient testing was done before MNLARS debuted in July and there were not enough support staff handling communications and customer problems.
Johanna Clyborne, who took over as Minnesota IT Services (MN.IT) commissioner in February, told the panel she is improving communication within the department and requiring rigorous testing before debuting new MNLARS features. She assured legislators they could fix the system, which has had a multitude of problems. It has prevented Minnesotans from transferring specialty license plates and delayed car titles and tabs. The system has created costly headaches for people who run the state's licensing centers, as well as auto dealers, insurers and customers.
"The lingering question for me is: Can MN.IT really do it?" said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska. "They tell us today they are, but the proof will be in the pudding, and how patient can we be? How long can we wait?"
Legislators also quizzed Clyborne about the agency's $2.5 million redo of office space, initially reported by KSTP. The reorganization occurred around the time the agency was seeking additional cash from the Legislature to work on MNLARS repairs. Clyborne said the funding they used for changes to office space legally could not be applied to MNLARS. She said they saved money by buying smaller cubicles so they could fit more people in one area instead of leasing additional space elsewhere.
Lawmakers agreed in March to devote an additional $10 million to continue fixing MNLARS. But that money will not last long, and Gov. Mark Dayton has asked for the Legislature to approve another $33 million before the end of the session. Those requests are in addition to the more than $93 million already spent to develop the system, which had been in the works for a decade.