The first bill Gov. Tim Walz signed into law, on March 5, provides stopgap funding to continue work on information-technology systems that support a fundamental state government function — driver and vehicle services.
It was a hopeful sign to see legislative leaders and the governor come together around a pragmatic, bipartisan compromise to support continued work on the MNLARS vehicle services system. It’s been more than a year and a half since the initial botched rollout of this system.
Critics have used the MNLARS system as a hammer to pound political messaging about the effectiveness of state government and the capabilities of the state’s IT workforce. In the absence of successes, they were right to do so.
That said, since that rollout, both the Department of Public Safety and Minnesota IT Services (MNIT) have completely transformed the project’s management structure, and the state has completed seven upgrades to address most of the deficiencies from the rollout. Our legislative leaders and the governor have recognized this progress, and we’ll deliver more improvements, thanks to this funding and bipartisan support.
The state is going to need a lot more of that kind of Minnesota pragmatism if we are to address the larger set of IT challenges we face in the years ahead. Those challenges include modernizing a host of 20- to 30-year-old legacy IT systems and addressing pervasive and growing threats in the area of cybersecurity.
Modernizing state government is about transforming how we approach delivering government services — this is much more than simply implementing new technology. Some of our laws and business processes are as antiquated as our legacy IT systems, and we must examine these before massive investment in modern technology — or we’ll simply pave the government cow paths that have been worn into the ground over decades.
It’s also high time we break down the silos that separate the work of state agencies and the work of state vs. local government. Frankly, Minnesotans don’t see any difference; it’s all the government.
Going forward, we need to meet Minnesotans where they are, using the tools we have all come to rely upon in the digital age — the phones and computers that are now ever-present in our daily lives.
But none of this work will be possible if, rather than coming together, we revert to using government technology challenges as a tool against political opponents. As business columnist Lee Schafer’s Jan. 26 column made clear (“IT woes also plague businesses”), these challenges are not unique to government, and there’s no simple solution to prevent big IT failures. Rather, a host of strategies must be employed to reduce risks and maximize the chances of success.
Fully implementing these strategies will require a disciplined and sustained effort by leaders in both the Legislature and the executive branch. It’s the kind of quiet, deliberate work that rarely scores political points but ultimately yields stronger public policy and real value to Minnesotans.
The governor’s assembly of the Blue Ribbon IT Council composed of legislators, state agency heads and private-sector IT professionals was a first and important step forward. The Legislature’s willingness to set aside the politics around MNLARS to come together around a compromise funding proposal was the second step. Moving forward, it will be incumbent upon Minnesotans to demand from their leaders a bipartisan, cooperative approach to IT.
In the absence of such an approach, Minnesota will likely continue to kick the can on modernizing and securing its IT systems and the government services they support. That’s an approach we all should find unacceptable.
The state’s IT challenges are not the challenges of a single agency or a single branch of government. All elected state officials and every state agency have responsibilities and skin in the game, and we will need everyone to step up to the plate if we are to be successful in delivering the digital government experience every Minnesotan deserves.
Bill Poirier is acting commissioner of Minnesota IT Services.