The Minnesota DVS Has a $90 Million Problem

By: Bridget Clerkin December 19, 2017
Minnesota rolled out a new driver's license and vehicle registration software system that is costing the state a lot more than it bargained for.
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Computers may be on the verge of achieving artificial intelligence, but a batch of new technology installed for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) has been making some dumb mistakes lately—and it’s really starting to smart.

After investing nine years and $90 million implementing a new licensing and registration system for the Driver and Vehicle Services (DVS) division of the DPS, the state has little to show for the monumental effort outside of a nearly 5-month-old headache.

Dubbed MNLARS—short for “Minnesota Licensing and Registration System”—the new software program simply doesn’t jibe with the 30-year-old machinery it was meant to replace, and the myriad of technological gaps and mishaps have led to everything from hours-long waits at the DMV to months-long delays in issuing essential documents, and even some personnel shake-ups at the state agency.

Most crucially, the conundrum has come just as the state finally seemed prepared to launch a new federally mandated program to update its driver’s licenses. And making sure the computers are repaired in time to comply with the new federal law—and service the hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans expected to upgrade their licenses because of it—won’t be easy... or cheap.

What Could Go Wrong?

Minnesota is still suffering from a botched IT system rollout that officially started this July, but the federal government has been struggling to get the REAL ID Act moving for much longer—and a large part of that lag stemmed from the North Star State itself.

At stake is the ability for Minnesotans to board domestic flights using state-issued IDs. Without the new REAL ID documents, residents will need to resort to other forms of identification—often more expensive or difficult to track down—to make it past airport security starting next year.

The federal edict, passed in 2005, upped the standards for issuing driver’s licenses and identification cards, giving state DMV agencies a full plate of new duties—and a deadline by which to take them on: January 2018. But fearing the legislation would lead to a national ID system, many states balked at the new requirements.

Minnesota went as far as adopting a state law in 2009 banning future legislatures from even planning to adhere to the act. But as the 2018 deadline crept closer, the state changed its tune, and was soon asking for more time to implement the program.

The previous defiance didn’t go unnoticed by the Department of Homeland Security, however; the federal agency refused to grant the extension until late this year.

But in light of the troublesome MNLARS launch, even the eventual awarding of a federal postponement until October 2018 is problematic. The Minnesota system was rolled out in phases, and the DVS is due to launch the final piece of the new IT system, which deals with issuing driver’s licenses, in 2018.

That gives the state 10 months and 10 days to be in compliance with the federal law by the new deadline—but if the technical issues still plaguing the DVS are any indication, that timeframe may be too tight for comfort.

What’s Already Gone Wrong

The Minnesota DVS processes millions of transactions each year, and without the anticipated help of a smoothly running centralized system, thousands of those dealings have been delayed. The result is a domino effect that now has the state running to catch up to a five-month backlog while being forced to fight off persisting issues with its computers.

Tasks that typically took around five minutes started clocking in closer to 15 or 20, and the normally quick lines at the DVS crept up to two-hour waits while the initial batch of bugs were being dealt with. The stress was felt by employees of the agency, too, some of whom reportedly left their desk in tears over frustrations with the system.

But the messy situation is more than a time-stealing nuisance. The delays have had tangible—and costly—effects across the state.

Car dealers and wholesalers in the North Star State have especially felt the burden of the botch. The businesses often must rely on the swift issuance of vehicle titles, registration, and other DMV-related documents in order to receive a bank’s blessing to sell a car. Without those documents in hand, car dealers can’t unload their merchandise or collect money for vehicles sold, and the delay in the system has subsequently set the industry’s bookkeeping—and anticipated revenue—back by months.

That same lag has negatively impacted residents across the state, who have routinely received their renewed vehicle registration long after the registration’s expiration date, despite taking the necessary measures to submit a renewal request on time. While many law enforcement departments around the state have heard of the problem and been more lenient in handing out citations for expired tags, there is no state-wide directive advising police on the issue, and some drivers have still received tickets for expired plates.

All told, more than 450 Minnesotans have sent in formal complaints about the system.

But fixing the issue will cost money, too, and to put the problem in its rearview mirror, the state will have to shell out millions.

What’s Being Done

In response to the technological meltdown, the state has sought out a myriad of solutions—some of which have reportedly helped unclog the system—but the sheer onslaught of required fixes has been a problem in and of itself.

As of last month, there were 111 different “job aids” concocted to deal with the situation, including everything from advice on how to handle delays to brand new procedures. But keeping track of each new change—and training employees on their proper administration—has leeched untold time and money out of statewide licensing offices, some have openly complained.

Change has also been rife at the agency itself, with the DVS making a number of recent personnel moves. Most notably, MNLARS Project Director Paul Meekin was put on a leave of absence, while a stable of others have been brought in to head course-corrective initiatives.

Still, the largest transfer of power will be to FAST Enterprises, a Colorado-based IT company recently contracted by the state to handle the implementation of the coming MNLARS driver’s license program—for a fee of $26 million.

Hopefully in the wake of this expensive lesson, the state won’t be once bitten, twice shy, but instead start to measure twice, cut once.

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