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The woman at the center of Minnesota’s biggest political fight doesn’t really have time for a political fight

Gov. Mark Dayton brought in Johanna Clyborne, who most recently served in a top post in the Minnesota National Guard, to fix MNLARS, a job that’s proving monstrously difficult. 

After months of little to no progress, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton brought Johanna Clyborne in from the National Guard in late January as a fixer, a job that’s already proving monstrously difficult.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

Johanna Clyborne has been making the rounds at the Minnesota Capitol building over the last several weeks, and she’s committed her opening lines to memory. 

Nearly every day, she sits in front of a different group of lawmakers in legislative committees, where she briefly runs through her résumé: a law degree, a partnership in her own firm, 28 years of military experience, including a combat tour in the Iraq War. But it’s her newest job — the commissioner overseeing all Minnesota government IT services —  that brings her here.

“While I do not have experience coding or running the software personally, I do have experience in leadership operations in high-pressure environments,” Clyborne told legislators at a recent hearing, peppering phrases like “on the ground” into her testimony and regularly referring to her “mission.”

“I don’t sugar coat.” 

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It’s a strange position in which to see Clyborne, who most recently served in a top post in the Minnesota National Guard. But — as long as we’re not sugar coating things — the state’s IT department is in a state of crisis.

Minnesota’s new computerized Licensing and Registration System —now commonly referred to in and out of the Capitol as MNLARS — has been inundated with technological problems since it launched last summer, with massive delays for transactions related to vehicle titles, registrations and licenses. The glitches have impacted everyone from drivers to local governments to the deputy registrars who run their own licensing offices across the state.

After months of little to no progress, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton brought in Clyborne in late January to clean things up, a job that’s already proving monstrously difficult. Republicans and the administration are in a fight over the money needed for fixes to the system, while some legislators are proposing eliminating the state’s IT department in it’s current form — and Clyborne’s new gig.

If that wasn’t enough: fixing the MNLARS debacle is just one part of her job. In the final nine months of his administration, Dayton has also directed Clyborne to also advocate for more funding for cybersecurity protections and oversee the rollout of Real ID — yet another complex licensing system.

From the Netherlands to the National Guard

Nothing in Clyborne’s early life suggested she would end up in IT — much less in the midst of a political fight. She spent most of her childhood in Holland, where her father was a service member assigned to Germany and her mother was a Dutch citizen. She attended public schools there (and still speaks fluent Dutch) until her father’s service brought the family to Waynesville, Missouri when she was 13 years old. Differences between the United States and European school systems meant she finished high school early, at age 16, and started college the same year, taking night classes at a local university while working as a waitress during the day. She initially started studying business and psychology.

“I was convinced I was going to be the one basically on a corporate jet and all my husband would have to do is balance the checkbook and work out,” she said. “I was going to rule the international world.”

Initially, she didn’t want to be in the military, like her dad. “I swore I would never join the military or marry anyone in the military, because I’ve seen the military life and the lifestyle, and it’s not at all glamorous,” she said.

She ended up doing both. She enlisted in the Army National Guard as a private at 17 years old and met her husband, Duncan, a West Point graduate, while she was waitressing. They were eventually married and traveled the country together as part of their service. It wasn’t common for women to serve in officer roles back then, but Clyborne ultimately enrolled in what was being called a “gentleman’s course” officer training.

“I wound up in a parking lot in a class A skirt and heels doing pushups and I was wondering if they’d gotten the agenda wrong,” Clyborne said. “I was still looking for the gentleman’s course.” 

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She first came to Minnesota in 2001 with her husband, who grew up in the state. They were looking for a place to raise their daughter, and Clyborne saw an opportunity to get a law degree. She enrolled in St. Thomas School of Law and got her J.D., starting up a practice that works on family, veterans and other legal issues.

She was eventually deployed to Iraq, where she received the Bronze Star for service. She became the first woman in the Minnesota National Guard to command a brigade and earn the rank of Brigadier General in the Army National Guard, something she never imagined when she first signed up as a private at 17. “You never say never,” she said. “I’d like to think life isn’t as scripted as we think it should be.”

After she came home, she continued her work with the National Guard, serving as the Director of the Joint Staff, a job that required her to advise higher-ups on matters related to the more than 13,000 soldiers in the guard. It was in that role that she started working in cybersecurity issues related to military, specifically, in making sure the Guard was protected against hackers and other attacks to their systems.

Still, when Dayton asked her to take over MN.IT — the state entity that provides tech services to the state’s more than two dozen government agencies — it wasn’t a turn she was expecting. Tom Baden, the former commissioner, announced his retirement in the midst of the MNLARS controversy, and Dayton needed someone to come in and turn things around. Quickly.

A political mystery

But the appointment has put her at the center of the biggest political debate of the early legislative session. Dayton’s administration is asking for $10 million in emergency funds to keep paying contractors working on a fix to MNLARS. Republicans have pushed back, saying they need answers about how the funds are going to be spent. House Republicans are moving forward with a bill that would require the state to find those funds in existing agency budgets, while senators are advancing a bill that would allocate more than $7 million from an a Division of Vehicle Services revenue account and add a new layer of oversight in using the funds. Some contractors have already been given layoff notices, and the emergency funding doesn’t include the entire $43 million the department is asking for this session.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, is also proposing a bill to eliminate the state’s current IT department and restructure it into an agency that allows for competitive bids. Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, doesn’t want to dismantle the current department, but he does want to require competitive bids for any major future software development, which would mean that MN.IT would have to submit a bid to work on a project.

“We just want to know that the money that we spend for the software that we need at the state level is going to work,” Nash said. “And that we don’t spend extra money building it internally if there’s a commercially available piece of software in existence.”

Clyborne said there are some politics in every job, including the military, but nothing like the level she’s experiencing in her new role. It doesn’t help that everyone is trying to figure out where she falls on the political spectrum, she said. 

“I am bipartisan,” she said. “I know people are still trying to figure that out, but that’s the reality of it. I don’t care who’s in charge, I care that I accomplish the mission that’s been given to me, and that means working with everyone to do what we need to do to fix the situation at hand.”

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Caught ‘in a loop’

On top of dealing with MNLARS and new proposals to undo the agency, Clyborne also has to juggle several other big asks from the governor. Dayton wants funding this year to beef up the state’s cybersecurity systems, which are scanned millions of times a day for potential weaknesses. And she is also working to meet an October deadline to implement Real ID, a new system to issue driver’s licenses to Minnesotans with new federally-required security enhancements.

Her experience in the military has commanded respect some from Republicans, who have been otherwise livid about the MNLARS situation. “Somebody doesn’t get to that level of service in terms of putting on that star without knowing something about leadership,” said Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake. 

But her lack of experience in IT has others asking if she’s up to the task. “My concern would be, straight up front, if we want to be honest with each other, you don’t know code and neither do I,” Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, asked her at a recent hearing. “How can we be sure, with you not knowing — like me — how to run a system, how will you not make the same mistakes?”

Clyborne has heard this a few times already, and she has a consistent response: She’s trying to use her experience in the military and in large organizations to bring more disciplined and organized culture to MN.IT, which will help put MNLARS on track in the short term and prevent future mishaps down the road.

She is the first to admit there was a failure in leadership on the MNLARS project and a failure in process. But so far, she’s felt like her new job has been running around “putting out a lot of fires” — and she’s not getting the chance she needs to show she can fix the problem. 

“The reality is, right now, all they hear from me is words, and no matter how forceful you say things, and no matter how wonderful the credentials are and now matter how many stars I wear, at the end of the day, you need results,” she said. “It’s a tough position for the Legislature to be in, it’s a tough position for the administration to be in, it’s a tough position for me to be in, but I knew what I was getting into when I signed up. It will be OK and I’m confident we will figure it out.”