IT disservice in Virginia

Published 10:24 pm Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A week ago, the first announcements began to appear in the email inboxes of journalists around the state. Some computers were down at the commonwealth’s Department of Motor Vehicles, and Virginians needing to get their licenses renewed would be unable to do so the following day. Check back again later, or look online for updates, the press release advised those who needed to get some specific — and temporarily unavailable — in-person DMV services.

A week later, the system is still down, and it’s now clear that the outage has affected more than just a few DMV transactions. Virginia’s Department of Taxation and Board of Elections, along with other scattered state agencies, were all affected by a failure at a storage center operated for the Virginia Information Technologies Agency by Northrop Grumman. To make matters worse, VITA has offered no estimate of when the repairs to the system should be complete.

Meanwhile, driver’s licenses and identification cards are expiring and tax deadlines have come and gone. State agencies are making adjustments to accommodate those who have been affected by the breakdown. State police, for example, have announced they will not write tickets for expired licenses carried by drivers whose licenses expired Aug. 25 through Sept. 30. And the Department of Taxation has announced that any filings or payments that are late because of the protracted computer glitch will not be assessed penalties.

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It’s good to know that Virginia’s government agencies are sensitive to the situation and willing to adjust their penalty schedules to accommodate those citizens who have been hurt by the problem. However, there’s more required by the situation than sensitivity. Especially in light of the reports by the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission that have showed major problems with VITA even before the state’s computers crashed, it’s time for a shakeup in the way the state contracts and manages its IT services.

With a computer network as vast as that of the state agencies affected by the recent outage, any problem afflicting those computers is also likely to be complex. Clearly, fixing the problem is a bigger job than hauling the PC down to Best Buy and asking the pimply 17-year-old behind the counter to remove the viruses. But a week later, Virginians can be forgiven for wondering if maybe the state just should have gone out and bought a few hundred Macs.