Amid all the other weighty issues that the Minnesota Legislature must deal with in 2019, there is a nagging holdover from last year that can’t be put off. MNLARS, the state’s Licensing and Registration System notorious for its botched rollout and cascading glitches, needs a final fix. Painfully, that could mean tens of millions of dollars more invested in a system riddled with problems that now awaits a final legislative auditor’s report.
A September auditor’s report already found MNLARS “plagued with problems, including significant undercharges on various registration, wheelage, and license plate transactions and overcharges on others. Earlier this month it was revealed that MNLARS had a data breach in which it inadvertently released the private information of 1,500 drivers to private companies. Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles had to resort to the first subpoena in his 35-year-career to obtain details. State workers have toiled away at shrinking the backlog of vehicle license and title applications, but they need help. Deputy registrar offices across the state have incurred extra costs — $9 million by their count — in dealing with the MNLARS mess.
A decade in the making, and with costs now topping $100 million — and more to come — MNLARS is not the only problem-plagued system the state has rolled out, but it may be among the costliest.
In order to prevent this being a case of throwing good money after bad, the Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz have an opportunity — and an obligation — to get to the bottom of what went wrong in the collaborations between the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the state’s information technology agency, MNIT, as they developed the program.
A Star Tribune news story last week made important points about the challenges faced within MNIT. The agency, the only one for whom Walz has yet to find a leader, has struggled with aging mainframes, clunky systems and a lack of funding needed to streamline its processes. Walz’s hunt has also been hampered by his inability to offer a competitive salary.
But the problems do not lie solely with MNIT. The agency, created in 2011, was designed to consolidate what had become dozens of IT operations scattered across various state agencies. That consolidation should have driven efficiencies and a tighter security by closing what had become far too many vulnerable points of entry for would-be cybersecurity hackers.
Republican Rep. Jim Nash, whom Walz approached for the MNIT post, said that in many instances agencies resisted consolidation. Lines of authority remain unclear. Nash said DPS failed to clearly articulate what it needed the new system to do and no one consulted with end users, such as the deputy registrars, while MNIT appeared to lack the rigorous checks and safeguards that would ensure a top-performing product. Nash, who works in the cybersecurity industry, said he attended a recent conference at which officials from other states were baffled by the situation in Minnesota. “IT systems are supposed to just run quietly in the background,” Nash said. “We need to get to the bottom of why are we still so bad at this.”
Nash suggested a bipartisan, bicameral group working in tandem with Walz to not only address MNLARS, but also look at the way MNIT and other agencies interact, who takes responsibility, what practices need improvement and even whether private vendors need to be part of the solution. We endorse that suggestion and look forward to legislators working together on solutions. Minnesota needs what other states already have: a more efficient, effective way to do IT. Nobles also has a separate report coming on the structure of MNIT that should help shed more light.
Mike Vekich, another troubleshooter to whom governors of both parties have often turned in such times, echoed Nash. Vekich, a management specialist, said that milestone checks, constant clarifications on outcomes and detailed test runs typically prevent the kind of systemic bungling seen in MNLARS. He said he would consider helping with an assessment if asked. Walz should strongly consider that.
Money is needed to fix MNLARS — that can’t be helped. But it will be less painful if the state uses the opportunity to create the cutting-edge IT systems this state so desperately needs.