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August 2017

AAMVA’s System Modernization Best Practices Guide helps jurisdictions navigate complex projects

Large-scale system modernization projects are a necessary part of the evolution of motor vehicle departments. Technology that was built to service the needs of DMVs decades ago becomes obsolete and eventually bogs down key processes. Meanwhile the needs of DMV customers continue to expand, with demands for more user-friendly systems offering capabilities that the original builders of these older systems couldn’t have anticipated.

In 2014, after seeing several system modernization projects fail, AAMVA put together a working group to create a best practices guide that would address these types of large-scale information technology (IT) infrastructure improvement projects.

“Jurisdictions were receiving bad press and throwing good money after bad [work],” says Patrice Aasmo, director of member services for AAMVA Regions I and II and co-project manager for the working group. “We felt it was imperative to give them the tools they need to sit down with a team of professionals and [ask] ‘Where do we start, and what should we be aware of on the way?’”

The fruit of the working group’s labor, AAMVA’s System Modernization Best Practices guide, was released this summer and features input from AAMVA members with experience—both good and bad—in large-scale system modernization projects. MOVE talked to some of these members to find out what went right, what went wrong and what lessons they learned from the process.

First Moves

As the System Modernization Best Practices guide describes, modernization for DMVs is usually a foregone conclusion. So the main question becomes not whether modernization will happen, but when it will happen. At the inception stage, establishing a strong vision for your project’s end goal is just as crucial as developing the steps to meet that goal.

“You can never take enough time to plan,” says Rebekah Hibbs, senior manager of systems integration for the driver license division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. “When you skip planning, you end up doing a lot more work later on, potentially delaying the completion of your project. If resources aren’t available when you need them, you have people [waiting].”

Hibbs explains that taking extra time to plan enabled Texas to simultaneously complete two modernization projects in less than a year that previously would have taken 12 to 18 months each. Planning for these projects—deploying REAL ID and upgrading to CDLIS 5.3—took many different forms, such as speaking to stakeholders and determining their vision, as well as combining the business and functional requirements into one document.

“If you haven’t properly documented your current system, the system modernization team will need to start all over, and requirements become a time- consuming part of the project,” Hibbs says. “By the time we got done with updated requirements for the REAL ID and CDLIS 5.3 projects, the development team knew exactly what we wanted, and they could start development while we completed the business approval. Because we only had to update existing system documents, we were able to get everything done on a very tight timeline.”

Of course, all of the planning in the world won’t help if you can’t secure funding for your project. While planning is key to a project’s success, funding is vital to ensuring the project happens at all.

“In state government, your business case is going to help you get funding,” says Pat Kohler, director of the Washington Department of Licensing. “With each system, the legislature is making a significant investment. If we can demonstrate that the new system will help us to implement changes sooner so that the revenue comes sooner, things get done quicker and more accurately, and we serve the customer better, we are more likely to get the funding needed.”

Along the Way

Once a large-scale IT project is moving, there are innumerable ways it can go wrong. Because of this, the System Modernization Best Practices guide covers many of the common pitfalls jurisdictions run into, and it also features general advice that can be applied to more unique situations.

Terrence Samuel, director of the office of motorist modernization for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, explains that oversight of a modernization project can be key to keeping it under control. After a successful proof of concept, Samuel’s team is now working on phase I of a three-phase plan that will eventually update Florida’s driver license, motor vehicle titling and registration, and business support system.

“We have a good governance structure in place with an advisory board made up of internal and external stakeholders,” Samuel says. “And that advisory board meeting is open to the public so anyone can come in [and voice an opinion]. Then we also have our Executive Steering Committee [ESC] meetings once a month where we give a project update.”

In addition to these meetings driven by Samuel and his team, Florida also has an independent vendor doing a monthly assessment of the project to ensure it stays on track. “They initially reported nine project deficiencies [that constituted] 76 recommendations,” says Samuel. “Each deficiency concentrated on different aspects of the program. One was we didn’t have enough human resources—they recommended I hire a deputy because I was trying to manage all aspects of the program and attend every meeting. So we had to work through addressing all of the deficiencies after the baseline assessment of phase I of the program. Within a matter of months, we were able to clean them up and we showed everyone that we could work through [issues like] that.”

For Rose Jarois, director of Department Services Administration for the Michigan Department of State, oversight was a key component of the administration’s plan to modernize Michigan’s driver and vehicle mainframe system. This was after a 10-year project with the same goal failed and ended in a settlement between Michigan and its vendor.

“I helped write the [best practices guide] chapter, ‘Signs of a Troubled Project,’” Jarois says. “And we hit many [in our initial attempt]: turnover, problems with the contract scope and change controls, frequent changes from the vendor, missed dates and others.”

In order to get this project moving in a different direction, Jarois and her team rewrote the RFP with the same goal, but with their lessons learned from the failed project in mind. They made sure the contract terms were more favorable to Michigan and also conferred with colleagues in other jurisdictions to discuss their experiences with specific vendors. They also realized they needed to set up contract oversight differently.

“We created the role of contract compliance officer,” Jarois says. “This is to ensure the contract is followed and changes are added to the contract, versus doing it ad hoc. For example, if someone is removed from the project and the contract says you have to follow a certain process to onboard a new person, the compliance officer will make sure that happens.”

Jarois also explains that, similar to Florida, Michigan will have an independent entity overseeing the project to make sure everything is working like it should, and to give ESC reports on both the vendor’s and the state’s performances.

Finding the Answers

While many members of the best practices guide working group learned how to manage system modernization projects through experience, they all agree that having this resource will make projects like these easier for everyone who uses it. Lisa Wanke, business system architect for Montana’s Motor Vehicle Division, brought her experiences with overcoming system modernization issues to the working group.

“We had a rocky road when we first went live with our vehicle title and registration and dealer licensing systems,” Wanke says. “A lot of our converted data was not getting through the system. We didn’t have knowledge at the time of the data rules that were built into the application system as opposed to the database.”

Wanke and her team were able to work through the issues, but they had to put a plan to bring their legacy driver services system into the new, modernized environment on hold. One big lesson they learned was the importance of testing and training.

“Now we have a test case software product where we can build test cases and rerun them,” she says. “We also realized we needed to have more training. We now have online training, and we’ve been able to integrate that online training with our face-to-face training, so [employees] can learn from their home offices and then come in for more intensive training.”

While Wanke brought her own knowledge to the working group, she also notes how much knowledge her colleagues brought to the table. “That team from the working group has a wealth of information on system modernization,” she says. “We had people in so many different project phases going through so many different things—the group was awesome.”

Sheila Prior, former director of member support for AAMVA Regions III and IV and co-project manager for the working group, explains that this was always the goal for the guide. “We felt it was important to have members with different kinds of experiences and experiences with different vendors to ensure we included the broadest perspective possible,” she says. “System modernization projects are expensive, and they are both time- and resource-consuming. I believe that if jurisdictions follow the guidance provided in the best practices document, they will significantly increase their chance of success.”