Virginia's IT Systems Lack Backups -- Northrop Grumman to Blame?

Computer network

According to a recent report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the state’s extensive IT systems are without any kind of sufficient backups or redundancy measures. As a result, various state agencies are suffering numerous outages. Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles alone experienced 12 major network outages over just five weeks this fall.

Virginia's new CIO George Coulter immediately discovered this rather glaring deficiency when he arrived last August. To make matters worse, Coulter also found that network backups weren't explicitly called for in the outsourcing deal. As a result, Coulter called an emergency meeting for Virginia’s Information Technology Investment Board next month to resolve the matter.

It won’t be an easy fix, especially since the roots of the problem run back several years. Northrop Grumman was commissioned by the state in 2005 to update Virginia's outdated technology, which includes everything from PCs and servers to cell phones. In a historic 10-year deal, Virginia agreed to outsource its IT systems to Northrop Grumman for $2 billion. The agreement was unique in that a private company was basically taking over a state government's IT infrastructure; Northrop Grumman even planned to hire nearly 1,000 Virginia state IT workers. At the time, the deal was seen as a potential model for other states grappling with IT upgrades and budget constraints. But it didn't take long for the agreement to start spiraling out of control. The project was hit with delays, and doubts about Northrop Grumman's ability to get the job done started to surface; the company had made its name as a defense contractor rather than a systems integrator, and this was by far the biggest IT outsourcing deal it had ever won.

This past June, Virginia fired its CIO and began a probe of the outsourcing deal. The Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission (JLARC) of Virginia's General Assembly issued a report this fall, and the findings of the probe were not flattering for Northrop Grumman. "The JLARC report found that inadequate planning by the integrator "largely led to delays," though some blame fell on state agency employees who were slow to adopt some of Northrop Grumman's changes.

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Delays and technical issues are common for outsourcing deals and large-scale IT upgrades, but forgetting to put adequate backups in place for such a big project is an oversight of historic proportions. According to the Times-Dispatch article, Virginia did have network backups for its old, outdated system prior to Northrop Grumman taking over.