Minnesota CIO Drills Down on Vehicle Licensing, Cybersecurity

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On the job a little more than three months, Minnesota’s new head of  IT has made a quick start, beginning with key changes to the agency’s organizational culture and management of large tech projects, while monitoring cybersecurity and testifying “a tremendous amount” to lawmakers.

Members of the state’s 90th Legislature have had numerous questions for Minnesota IT Services (MNIT) Commissioner Johanna Clyborne, the state’s chief information officer, many surrounding ongoing improvements and updates to the new Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MNLARS), which has had difficulty with the timely processing of vehicle paperwork.

Clyborne, who was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and started on Feb. 2, after the departure of CIO Tom Baden, is a founding partner of the Shakopee, Minn.-based law firm Brekke, Clyborne and Ribich. She’s also a brigadier general in the Minnesota National Guard and its director of the joint staff.

In an interview with Government Technology, Clyborne repeatedly praised the work of MNIT staff, months after one state senator proposed reorganizing the division over MNLARS woes, and cautioned against expecting quick fixes to potentially deep-seated technology issues.

The commissioner said she is still assessing state IT, but has already set in motion several changes to how MNIT operates — at least one of which includes improving the environment that may have led to the troubled launch of MNLARS in July.

First funded by the Legislature in 2008, the troubled system had a narrow, first-phase rollout in 2014 after the state terminated work with vendor Hewlett-Packard. Minnesota subsequently took the project in-house and MNIT and the Department of Vehicle Services (DVS) completed it at a cost of at least $90 million.

Since taking the helm at MNIT, Clyborne said she has held townhall meetings and has created an anonymous reporting process that gives email users the option to include their contact information when identifying an issue or remain unknown. Responses, she said have included everything from praise to questions about methodology and recommendations about program development.

Clyborne described her leadership style as "you are free to disagree,” but said that “if you do not speak up when you see something going wrong or something is being done that’s not kosher, you’re just as at fault for not speaking up.”

The new CIO is now requiring status reporting and logging of issues, decisions and associated risks from team members working on IT projects. MNIT has also clamped down on testing shortcuts and is requiring “full regression testing” on all releases.

In an effort to ensure information on project status and issues flows freely, the agency has implemented “skip-level” meetings to facilitate communication. The new CIO said she has emphasized that state employees must acknowledge their actions impact all Minnesotans and has worked to ensure that her chief business technology officers are “comfortable” informing her when they’re pressured by other agencies or by the Legislature to take shortcuts.

The CIO said that type of pressure may have informed the MNLARS rollout, which was revealed to have cost residents, the state and dealers significant amounts of money by inhibiting the sale, license and registration of vehicles. In late November, the state announced that it would spend $26 million to hire FAST Enterprises of Colorado to create software, implementation services, conversion and training for Minnesota’s driver’s license IT system.

“Inability to challenge thinking — the inability to challenge your peer, through peer review, and the inability to say ‘This isn’t right,’ ‘I don’t agree’ — those are leadership failures that led in part to MNLARS. Not the sole reason, but a lot of it can be chalked up to leadership,” Clyborne said.

MNIT has “formalized the governance process” around MNLARS, it and the Department of Public Safety said in the first quarterly update on the system, delivered to the Legislative Oversight Committee April 30.

The MNLARS Executive Steering Committee — a 25-member group including Dana Bailey, MNIT executive director of projects and initiatives; Scott Lambert, president of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association; as well as auto auction and registrar representatives — meets weekly to discuss improvement and process timelines. Smaller project management, senior and executive leadership teams also meet weekly.

But the state vehicle licensing and registration system is just one of the higher-profile responsibilities for Clyborne. The CIO pointed out that she is also charged with making the organizational changes needed to ensure MNIT continues to be the "premier centralized" IT service provider for state agencies and business partners, as well as identifying strategies for improving the state’s cybersecurity posture.

That cybersecurity stance has been a discussion topic during Clyborne’s testimony to the state Legislature, however, it remains unclear whether lawmakers will fund all or a portion of the governor’s proposal to invest $19.7 million to minimize “risk exposure,” replace and upgrade “unsecure” equipment, deploy more sophisticated software to prevent attacks and fund “continuous security monitoring.”

“The investment that we’re proposing would enhance our position to fight against malicious cyberactivity. But I’m also very cognizant — I don’t want to grow government for the sake of growing government. So, we want to work efficiently with the resources we have,” Clyborne said, stressing “the one thing I can’t buy back is trust” from residents should a cyberattack compromise their data.

The state’s Real ID-compliant driver’s license and ID card effort is also on track, the CIO said, and will deploy Oct. 1. That positive progress earned the state an enforcement extension earlier this month, to Oct. 1, 2020 — giving residents nearly two-and-a-half more years before the licenses and ID cards are required for domestic air travel or access to federal facilities.

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