As most of you who have listened to the recent news have heard, the much-maligned MNLARS (Minnesota License and Registration System) program has been front and center of many horror stories that speak of how technology has gone awry at the State of Minnesota.
How could this happen, many ask. As someone who was deeply involved with the MNLARS program for 30 months of its 10-year history, I have considerable insight to share. Basically, there are three reasons, most of which are not obvious or outright hidden from the general public.
- MNLARS, the state’s vehicle and titling system, is wicked complex! It is responsible for handling more than 1.8 million title transactions, issuing registrations for 6.5 million vehicles and collecting and carefully distributing more than $1.6 billion for the State of Minnesota each year. In addition, the State of Minnesota has passed laws resulting in more than 1,200 unique fees which can be validly combined in tens of thousands of ways. MNLARS is also queried by law enforcement officials more than 100,000 times per day to retrieve plate, registration and owner information. Although those are big numbers, they only account for a small part of the complexity of the entire system. That complexity is not unique to Minnesota. California, New Jersey, Vermont, Michigan, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Colorado, New Mexico and Connecticut have all experienced rough implementations to total project failures for replacement DMV system projects.
- Second, the State of Minnesota, like many states, has limited technical experience in large, custom-built software development projects of this scope and scale. I came from the financial services industry information technology area, which has a very mature software development process. When I arrived at MNLARS at the Department of Public Safety in April of 2015, there had not even been a rough sizing of how big this development effort would be, yet a due date was already set. The project had adequate funding but not adequate employee expertise. There was intense pressure to quickly move the project ahead towards a predefined due date. However, at the time I was involved, the Department of Vehicle Services staff could not even tell the software developers exactly how the system needed to work, which made a successful launch difficult at best.
- Roughly 80 percent of all vehicle registrations and close to 100 percent of vehicle titles are processed in person at something called a Deputy Registrar’s (DR) office. Most people do not know none of these DRs are state employees, but a combination of city, county and private employees who are paid approximately $38 million in fees each year. They have an association and an active lobbyist at the state Legislature to ensure these fees are not diminished and instead annually lobby to increase those fees. The Deputy Registrars barely prepared for the MNLARS launch, perhaps because they simply did not want this to happen and in many cases feared losing a lucrative business.
This is an issue that cannot be addressed by information technology professionals, but by the policy leaders of the State of Minnesota.
Sue Rohde has worked in Information Technology senior leadership for over 25 years in private sector financial services firms, devoting the last 12 years to leading large, complex Agile software development organizations. Although MNLARS started in 2009, Rohde’s involvement from April 2015 to September 2017 provided a unique opportunity to gain insight into the program. Currently Rohde acts as an Enterprise Agile Coach for public sector and Fortune 100 organizations.
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