Minnesota’s governor went for private and public sector experience Tuesday when he named Tarek Tomes as the next commissioner of the state’s information technology agency — a job so daunting that it was open for three months while a panel of IT experts searched for someone who wanted to fill the role.
One of the first challenges Tomes will face as head of Minnesota IT Services is the troubled Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, which had a rocky launch when it went live in 2017 and still needs millions of dollars in fixes. Critics question the agency’s ability to deliver on big projects and wonder if it should outsource them instead. Some lawmakers have called for abolishing the agency altogether.
Gov. Tim Walz and Tomes — most recently the chief innovation officer for the City of St. Paul — acknowledged these issues at a news conference Tuesday morning.
“We will make the most prudent decisions, even if they’re difficult decisions, to make sure that the services that are provided by MNLARS, for example, are successful, not just today, but that we also have a vision and a road map for the future,” Tomes said.
A scathing legislative auditor’s report in February found that the more than $100 million and nine years spent on developing MNLARS should have been sufficient, but that MNIT and Department of Public Safety leaders did not take sufficient steps to ensure its success. The system’s flaws have caused headaches for vehicle buyers, sellers and owners. Much of the burden has fallen on registrars contracted with the state to issue license plates and tabs, and transfer vehicle titles.
Tomes said he would wait to study a report expected around May 1 from a blue-ribbon panel before deciding on how to make MNLARS fully functional. While many components work well enough, others still require workarounds.
The auditor’s report said outsourcing would not necessarily be a panacea. The state originally hired Hewlett-Packard to build MNLARS but found the technology giant’s work unsatisfactory, so it terminated the contract and brought the project in-house.
That report also indicated that the failure of large IT projects is not unusual in the public or private sectors.
“We have to make sure that we instill a culture where we’re not scared of failing,” Tomes said, while acknowledging that MNIT has suffered from some very public failures. “For technologists the fear of failure doesn’t mean that you’re going to fail. The fear of failure means that you may not bring forth appropriate solutions that change people’s lives, or a tremendously conservative approach.”
Republican Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, who chairs a committee that oversees the agency and has authored legislation to abolish MNIT and fold its functions into the state Department of Administration, said in a statement that she wants to meet Tomes “to discuss the support he needs to reform this beleaguered agency with a serious history of numerous failures.”
Tomes previously served as the city’s chief information officer. He also served as assistant commissioner at MNIT for six years and spent 13 years at British Telecom. He grew up in an Army family and spent much of his early career in Germany.