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Legislators who say the lines of authority are too strict for technology services should heed past mistakes.
Monday, September 16, 2013
State leaders need to answer a host of questions as they confront changes in technology and the expiration date on their computer contract with Northrop Grumman.
But one question that requires no serious discussion is this: Is there too much accountability built into the current management model?
Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico, wondered aloud last week whether an independent board should be established to serve as a “buffer” between the state’s chief information officer and the governor.
The question was posed during a legislative commission meeting to CIO Sam Nixon, who’s helped silence headlines about six-figure billing errors, missed deadlines and leadership flux. Nixon has made the best of a challenging situation. His successor may not be as adept at crisis control, but an incompetent tech chief can be fired by the governor, and that’s the point, one that has legislators chafing.
A brief history lesson is necessary to jog their memories. Former Gov. Mark Warner originally proposed consolidating IT departments scattered among state agencies under a single umbrella, the Virginia Information Technologies Agency. Legislators embraced the concept but objected to his plan putting an oversight board and the CIO under executive control. Instead, the legislature created an independent board that hired its own CIO.
Lawmakers feared that term-limited governors can’t provide adequate long-term planning and may be influenced by campaign donations from technology companies seeking contracts. But the board devised by lawmakers had sweeping powers and a responsibility to no one. The result was a flawed and disjointed management system overseen by a board of technology executives more attuned to the concerns of their industry allies than the taxpayers of Virginia.
Dissatisfaction with the board’s oversight of the 10-year, $2.3 billion contract with Northrop Grumman led to reforms in 2010, including a chief information officer directly accountable to the governor. It was a necessary course correction, and the wisdom of the decision has been reinforced by a noticeable reduction in digital drama and technology meltdowns.
While there’s no reason to revisit that reform, state leaders have many other matters requiring their attention. Nixon is preparing a report assessing whether Virginia is paying a competitive fee under the Northrop Grumman contract and laying out options available when that contract expires in 2019. Cloud technology, smart phones and social media require the state to consider what it’s getting from VITA and the private vendor, and the relationship that exists between the two.
Billions of tax dollars, the security of sensitive data and proper functioning of virtually all state services rest on good decision-making. Clear-cut accountability should be a given.
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