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Editorial: Fixing state’s IT provider proves to be a challenge

The Virginian Pilot Editorial Board - October 18, 2019

VIRGINIA RESIDENTS shouldn’t have to give much thought to the state of the commonwealth’s information technology infrastructure. Their interaction through those systems should be seamless and unobtrusive, reliable and efficient.

And yet, recent years have exposed instability in how the state purchases, deploys and maintains the various systems that enable government agencies to operate online, and by which millions of residents interact with their public officials.

Authority for those systems is vested in the Virginia Information Technologies Agency, which has been trying to repair the system for more than a year. But a review of the agency’s progress released recently by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission shows that it is still plagued with serious problems.

As Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, the vice chairman of the review commission, noted, “It seems to be going from bad to worse.”

Officials at VITA counter that the review presents an incomplete picture because it was conducted when VITA was in the midst of a difficult transition, as many changes were just starting to be implemented, and that things are now headed in a better direction.

Unfortunately, VITA’s long history of problems makes it tough for legislators simply to trust officials there when they say things are improving.

The history goes back to 2003, when Mark Warner, then governor, and the General Assembly created a central agency to oversee the commonwealth’s information technology rather than continue to let each agency handle its own.

In 2006, VITA awarded a 10-year contract to run the IT services to Northrop Grumman, a deal later extended by three years. But major problems developed under that arrangement and VITA moved to end it in favor of a system that uses multiple suppliers.

Lawsuits associated with the split with Northrop Grumman weren’t settled until December 2018, and VITA's slow, rocky start with its new, multi-supplier system is chronicled in the scathing 49-page report prepared by the JLARC staff.

The list of failures is deeply troubling. State offices go without essential services for far too long, including a state agricultural field office that lost telephone service for 27 days. Suppliers have not lived up to their contracts to provide services or equipment, and VITA failed to collect at least $5 million in penalties from them. Offices face major disruptions in email, invoicing and other important functions. Repairs often take much longer than expected or promised, even for problems involving high priorities.

In short, things are a mess. One of the questions Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, the JLARC chairman, asked was whether the staff had analyzed what it would cost to go back to the way things were before VITA was created, with each agency handling its own IT.

Given the way things have gone, that’s a reasonable question. But it’s worth remembering why VITA was created in the first place. The well-founded belief was that a central clearinghouse makes sense and should save the commonwealth considerable money in the long run.

That still should be true, if VITA really can get past its troubled start with Northrop Grumman and its difficult transition to what should be a better multi-supplier system.

Plus, to abandon VITA now and put the burden back on individual agencies could cause another round of turmoil and another difficult transition.

A top-notch reliable information technology system is essential for state government. One of several sensible recommendations in the report is that VITA should conduct a “comprehensive assessment” of whether the agency has the structure and staff it needs to manage the new multi-supplier system effectively.

Despite how scathing its report is, JLARC officials seem inclined to give VITA the benefit of the doubt one more time. Norment suggested that the JLARC take another look at the progress in six months to a year.

JLARC and legislators are right to keep pressing, and right to do all they can to make sure this vital agency is finally going to be functioning the way it should.