Heard of MNLARS? A year ago, most Minnesotans would have said no. Today, those attuned to state politics would report that they’ve heard a lot about the badly launched new computer system for Minnesota motor vehicle licensure and registration — and maybe add that they wish the topic would fade away.
With sympathy for that sentiment, let us advise that MNLARS likely won’t return to obscurity soon. MNLARS’ flaws and the costs and irritation they have caused both deputy registrars and the driving public have considerable utility for Republican candidates who want to accuse Gov. Mark Dayton’s DFL administration of waste and/or ineptitude. Just as was the MNsure health care exchange four years ago, MNLARS will be a Republican campaign talking point.
That’s so even though MNLARS’ origin traces to the administration of Dayton’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is trying for a comeback this year. And even though remedies for the system’s ills have been slowed by the refusal of the GOP-controlled Legislature to provide the full funding boost that the Dayton administration said corrections require. Minnesota Information Technology (MNIT) Services, an interagency IT service unit, and the Department of Public Safety, which oversees MNLARS, were granted just $9.6 million of the $43 million they sought to fix the ailing system.
Nevertheless, corrections to the year-old system have been made and more will be coming soon. Deputy registrars are reporting “incremental improvements” and a more stable system, said Jim Hirst, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Deputy Registrars Association.
MNLARS lacks sufficient funding to complete the job, said Johanna Clyborne, who took charge at MNIT in January. But there is enough for a scaled-back staff and contract workers to function this year until another funding plea — likely in the $25 million range — can be made to the 2019 Legislature.
That will come with another MNLARS-related plea from the deputy registrars, who operate the mix of public and private licensing centers that issue motor vehicle titles and licenses. Their costs spiked because of MNLARS’ defects. Dayton vetoed a $9 million relief bill in May, saying that he would agree to bail out registrars only if new funding were also provided for MNLARS software improvements. The Legislature responded by authorizing the reallocation of existing funds to MNLARS and including it in a massive omnibus spending bill, which also was vetoed.
All of that will be in addition to the $93 million — well beyond initial estimates — that state taxpayers had already sunk in MNLARS when it rolled out last July 24. The Office of the Legislative Auditor is examining those cost overruns as well as conducting a broader evaluation of MNIT, which was under such heavy Republican fire in the last legislative session that bills to disband the office were launched.
Though campaign clocks are ticking, state politicians would do well to wait to hear the judgment of the legislative auditor before drawing policy conclusions from the MNLARS experience. Clyborne is also worth hearing. A seasoned IT manager, attorney and brigadier general in the Minnesota National Guard, she came to state government with fresh eyes six months ago.
Is state government up to the challenges of creating and operating 21st-century computer-based services? “Yes and no,” Clyborne says.
MNIT’s design as a service provider to other state agencies has a built-in disadvantage. Final control over an IT project like MNLARS resides in the agencies among political appointees, not with Clyborne or the IT professionals in her shop. The result has been a tendency within agencies to set deadlines that are arbitrary and too aggressive, take shortcuts on testing, and downplay the risks of dysfunction until those risks become full-blown crises.
Deeper understanding of what IT development requires is needed within state agencies — as well as the Legislature and governor’s office, Clyborne said. That’s true whether agencies opt to buy new software externally or develop it internally in conjunction with MNIT. In either case, agencies need the flexibility to cope with the unforeseen problems that are endemic to the work — and they should answer to elected officials who appreciate and budget realistically for IT talent. State salaries for IT professionals are not competitive at mid- and upper-management levels, and that’s a problem, she said. Yet many talented people opt to work for state government because they want to do “IT with a mission,” hoping to contribute to improving Minnesotans’ common life.
Clyborne wants Minnesotans to know two things. One: “MNLARS is a mistake, but it is not representative of everything our state employees do, especially on the IT side. There are lots of great state employees doing fabulous work.” And two: “IT is a bipartisan issue. It is not Republican. It is not Democratic.” That latter point might be wishful thinking in this election year — but it’s a wish we share.