Many state departments of motor vehicles (DMVs) still rely on
"mainframe computers" as part of their legacy system
environments. Visions of 1950s era cabinet computers filling a room
may not be far off. As DMV systems continue to age, and increased
demands are placed on them, a number of states are contemplating
modernizing their license, vehicle registration, and vehicle title
systems. Because some states have recently modernized their
mainframe environments, their experiences and lessons learned may
be beneficial to those states just beginning the process of DMV
Buy or build?
With DMV modernization, many states are coming from a custom,
"home-grown" environment, so the first question might
well be "build or buy?" The new trend in IT shows that
many state government agencies are leaning toward commercial
off-the-shelf (COTS) products versus developing and supporting a
custom-developed system. The prevailing wisdom is that a turnkey
solution minimizes system customization, coding, and reliance on
state staff who are trying to get out of the programming business.
But a COTS solution may not be right in every situation. Mainframe
computers and their customized code are specially designed and
programmed to accommodate DMV process, such as vehicle registration
application processing, which rely on batch processing. An article
in GovTech reveals certain skepticism of turnkey
solutions in the DMV world, citing California and Oregon's
reluctance to embrace an off-the-shelf product that supports the
licensing of drivers because of the number of transactions done by
DMVs, stating "It's just too big." An RFI issued by
New Mexico in 2011 said that an effective COTS system that can be
configured for DMV driver and vehicle systems in more than one
state may not exist, although the COTS market is becoming
Cautionary tales from cancelled DMV projects
Once a buy-or-build decision is made, modernization cautionary
tales abound, due to the complicated nature of DMV systems and the
costs associated with managing such large-sized projects.
California's DMV cancelled its modernization project in
February for the second time in about 20 years, after spending an
estimated $134 million. Vermont's DMV VT Drives project was
designed to replace the state's driver license, registration,
and title systems and had to be cancelled in 2011. The state was
able to reach a settlement with Hewlett Packard (HP) in 2012 for
approximately $8 million for the cancelled project. New Mexico
cancelled a modernization effort in 2010 even after a thorough
systems needs analysis was conducted.
States moving forward
Despite setbacks and lingering questions among states about best
practices, systems modernization moves on. Minnesota signed a
$41-million dollar contract with HP (the same company that gave an
$8-million settlement to Vermont for VT Drives) for a modernized
licensing and registration system. Massachusetts Registry of Motor
Vehicles awarded a $76-million contract to Deloitte in November
2012 to modernize its license registration and titling systems. The
question now becomes: Will these endeavors succeed, and what have
these states learned, if anything, about pitfalls to avoid?
Achieving the impossible
Let's end on a positive note. The Ohio Department of Public
Safety has recently published an article on a successful project.
Their project wrap-up paper reflects on the enormous obstacles they
overcame—with a healthy sense of humor. The report, perhaps
fittingly, is called "Pigs Really Do Fly!"
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