For employees at the beleaguered Virginia Information Technologies Agency, it sounded like more of the same. At midnight on Dec. 6, its intranet SharePoint database shut down and didn't come back up until 3 a.m. on Dec. 10.
The agency's workers use the system to post documents internally, but in this case, if they didn't have copies on their own hard drives, the information went permanently down the data hole. “This only affected VITA workers and no other state agencies were affected,” says spokeswoman Marcella K. Williamson.
That's only partly good news. The agency was created in 2003 to oversee the state's information technology and computer systems. Its continuing problems securing state computers have been the scourge of other state agencies they serve. This fall, for example, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles suffered 12 computer outages. One lasted 29 hours, annoying DMV employees and state drivers alike.
The common denominator with the problems is Northrop Grumman, the huge defense contractor with a big footprint in Virginia, including its shipyard in Newport News. Riding the popularity of outsourcing public functions to private companies, in 2005 then-Gov. Mark Warner, who made millions in the technology sector as a private citizen, entered into a unique arrangement that let Northrop Grumman manage most of the state's IT systems. VITA is supposed to monitor Northrop Grumman for the life of the state's $2.3 billion, 10-year contract.
Northrop Grumman's legacy has been nothing short of disastrous. Complaints about the company have cost one top official his job. Lost documents and mislaid e-mails have been the norm.
Frustrated, state officials have threatened to terminate the contract, although the latest word is that reconciliation is in the air. The case, however, shows that outsourcing state work to private firms isn't always the panacea that some make it out to be. Just ask a VITA worker who lost her work forever on Dec. 6.