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Fired state IT official speaks out about MNLARS computer system

Paul Meekin, former chief business technology officer for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Courtesy of Minnesota IT Services

ST. PAUL—A longtime state official overseeing Minnesota's beleaguered new computer system for vehicle tabs and titles has been fired.

But Paul Meekin isn't going quietly.

On Monday, March 12, he cast himself as a scapegoat for a project that he characterized as the victim of a state agency saddled with too many bureaucratic restraints and not enough money in a tech sector that is leaving it in the dust. And lawmakers, he said, are too busy pointing fingers instead of learning what happened in an effort to prevent a repeat.

Meekin, whose title was chief business technology officer for the state's information technology department, served as the executive lead for IT on the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System, or MNLARS, for years.

He was fired Friday.

The move followed a period during which Meekin had been "on leave" within MNIT leading to speculation that he was to become a casualty of the myriad problems associated with MNLARS since it was rolled out in July.

'Head on a spike'

In his first public statements since being reassigned, Meekin on Monday provided the following statement:

"I disagree with the Commissioner's decision and am considering all my legal options. The success of a government project — and especially a large-scale IT project like MNLARS — never rests in the hands of just one person. It's a disservice to the people of Minnesota to give the impression that by putting a head on a spike, the problem will be solved. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"The Legislature's and the Governor's office failure to do the real work required here — conduct a full audit and use the expertise and experience of everyone who contributed to MNLARS to identify the real and serious systemic problems — should concern every citizen of Minnesota. They have been distracted with finger pointing and blame assigning and have missed a critical opportunity to learn what works, what doesn't and how to do better. Tearing apart MNIT and its people is not the answer.

"I am proud of my 11 years of service to the State of Minnesota. I care deeply about MNLARS and its ability to serve the people and businesses of Minnesota. I will always be grateful to have served alongside some very dedicated, intelligent and hard-working people. Their dogged effort and commitment to the state is to be applauded."

Officials at MNIT declined to comment Monday other than to confirm Meekin is no longer employed by MNIT.

Funding crisis continues

Meekin's ouster comes as lawmakers, especially a number of key Republicans, have grown so skeptical of MNIT's credibility, they are pushing proposals that range from disbanding the agency completely to requiring major projects to be bid out to the private sector before allowing the state to take on the work itself.

MNIT's top brass on Monday continued to press lawmakers for $10 million in emergency funding before month's end to continue to pay some three dozen contract software consultants who are working to fix the computer system's shortcomings, which range from the inability to transfer disability plates to incorrect fees being collected for tab renewals.

MNIT Commissioner Johanna Clyborne told senators that a top software developer and "scrum leader" has given notice, and she fears more will leave.

On Monday, a Senate committee approved part of that money — $7.3 million — in a proposal that also demands continued legislative oversight.

Who green-lighted MNLARS?

Everyone now agrees that when MNLARS went live in July, it wasn't ready. But they launched it nonetheless. So one of the most frustrating questions for many involved, from lawmakers to license center workers, is "Who gave it the green light?"

According to Meekin, a lot of people did.

"The final decision was made by a committee of more than 20 people from all aspects of the project: business and technological directors and senior project staff, along with the executive business sponsor and the executive IT sponsor," he said. "After weeks of ensuring that all criteria were met, the committee unanimously voted that the system was ready to go live."

To be clear, Meekin isn't defending the decision today. But he said it reveals underlying problems that can't be blamed on one person.

What needs to be done?

For his part, Meekin believes the last thing MNLARS and MNIT need is heavy oversight from lawmakers, few of whom have experience in IT.

The "Legislature should not dictate organizational structure and should not micromanage IT since this hampers MNIT's ability to best serve customers' needs," Meekin wrote in a briefing document.

In the document, Meekin lays out some of the obstacles he sees to success at MNIT — previously and in the future. Many of his points are supported by other senior officials in MNIT but appear to be at odds with positions some lawmakers are taking.

Here are a few highlights of what Meekin provided:

  • MNIT and the state's IT efforts have been underfunded for years. When the state established MNIT in 2011, it was never given the necessary funds to really get rolling.
  • State contracting regulations need to be more flexible. The rules prevent MNIT from operating like a similar operation in the private sector: having frank conversations with private software developers trying to figure out how much a project will cost. As a result, Meekin said, taxpayers pay more than they should on many IT contracts.
  • Minnesota needs to pay its IT workers more and hire them faster. IT skills are in such high demand that code writers can quickly earn up to $100,000 a year in the private sector, but for the state, they would be hard-pressed to earn more than $50,000. And during the months it takes for the state to complete the hiring process, they can easily pick up a better paying job at a private firm that can make an offer in a week.

Without these and other changes, Meekin said, "a MNLARS-type result will — guaranteed — repeat itself over and over again on future large-scale IT projects."

Joan Redwing, MNIT's chief enterprise architect, has been named as an interim replacement for Meekin as chief business technology officer.

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