IF YOU think your job can feel
daunting, go talk to the Virginia
Information Technologies Agency. The beleaguered organization, tasked with keeping the state government’s computer infrastructure up and running, is once again having to explain itself after a scalding report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.
To say that Chief Information Officer Nelson Moe, the top VITA executive, has found himself in the hot seat is a gigabyte of an understatement. He’s acknowledged that the agency has been unable to keep pace as the state has reorganized its computer operations.
VITA was established in 2003 when state officials determined that an over-arching agency would be needed to assure efficient operation of the computer systems used by myriad state agencies. Each department would have a system tailored to its needs, but they would also need to share information in a common way, such as for state budget purposes.
This is an enormous and expensive undertaking. In 2006, VITA initiated a 10-year, $2.4 billion contract with defense contracting giant Northrop Grumman to run state government IT services.
In 2010, two key events occurred. The General Assembly approved legislation that called for VITA to report to the executive branch, headed at the time by Gov. Bob McDonnell, rather than to an independent board. At the same time, Northrop Grumman was granted a three-year contract extension from 2016 to 2019.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear—other than ongoing, debilitating computer issues—VITA’s and Virginia’s relationship with Northrop Grumman deteriorated. An independent audit in 2015 found the arrangement dysfunctional, recommending that the state transition to a multi-vendor approach.
Once Northrop Grumman saw the handwriting on the wall, any remaining hint of cooperation gave way to confrontation. Despite indications of reconciliation in 2017, Northrop Grumman sued Virginia for $10 million, citing VITA’s failure to live up to the contract. The state countersued for $300 million, ensuring what would be an acrimonious and costly divorce.
Most of the legal disentanglement between VITA and Northrop Grumman was accomplished by the fall of 2018. In December, VITA agreed to pay the company nearly $36 million for ending the 13-year contract 10 months early, plus another $4 million in withheld fees.
Meanwhile, Gov. Ralph Northam had issued an executive order requiring all state agencies to shift IT services to cloud-based platforms as VITA began its multi-vendor IT services initiative, entering into contracts totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the transition since December has not gone well, culminating with last week’s JLARC report that cited VITA for failing to implement the multi-vendor plan in a timely fashion. The report found that VITA is leaving IT problems unresolved for too long while letting its new suppliers off the hook for missing deadlines. Penalties in each instance were to be around $2 million and have reached $6.7 million—unpaid.
The report adds that agencies are using old, outdated equipment and that 40 percent of new equipment and services were still MIA in July 2019. On a day-to-day basis, only about 1 in 5 issues rated critical were fixed in the mandated two-hour window.
JLARC also found that the $49 million in annual savings VITA promised in the first year by making the switch to multiple vendors will be eaten up by transition costs. Part of the problem, the report said, is that VITA failed to reconfigure is own personnel to adapt to the operational change.
To the average taxpayer who simply expects state government to do what it needs to do in a relatively efficient manner, this entire saga is an outrage and a waste of millions of taxpayer dollars.
Nevertheless, JLARC’s bottom line is that VITA’s problem appears to be a lack of funds and personnel, and that the agency needs to be upfront about what more it needs in order to do the job it is assigned to do.
While they may find the massive scale of their government’s technology structure hard to fathom, many Virginians can relate to the frustration state workers must experience when flawed and non-functioning technology derails them from meeting the taxpayers’ demands for services.
VITA’s job is to solve those problems, not exacerbate them.