There’s Always Time to Do It Over

November 24, 2009

Some of us who have worked in technology for a few years, or more than a few, sometimes think that the expression “penny wise and pound foolish” must have been invented just for our line of work.  It is all too easy for the allure of some near-term cost reduction to override sensible planning and design work that would make a development of considerably greater value over its lifetime.  (A related phenomenon is captured by the expression, “There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.”)   Fred Brooks wrote about this back in the 1970s in his classic book on project management, The Mythical Man-Month, so it is hardly news.

A recent story in the Richmond [Virginia] Times-Dispatch indicates that the problem is alive and well.  It seems that, in 2005,  Virginia entered into a service agreement with Northrop Grumman to run many of the state’s computer systems:

In a unique public-private venture, Virginia agreed in 2005 to let the giant defense and information contractor Northrop Grumman run nearly all the state’s IT systems.

The 10-year, $2.3 billion project aims to modernize 85 state government agencies’ computer networks, PCs, phones, servers and e-mail systems, while holding down costs.

Now there is nothing wrong with this kind of deal in principle, and it is a good thing that the state government is considering creative ways to provide the services that it requires.

The actual deal that Virginia got, however, seems to leave something to be desired.  Part of the system, used by the state Department of Transportation [DOT] and the Division of Motor Vehicles [DMV, responsible for licensing drivers and vehicles], relies on a computer network linking offices all over the state, including many in relatively rural southern and western Virginia.  Unfortunately, the new agreement apparently did not provide for any redundancy in communications facilities, even though the previous facilities did have such redundancy, and network outages have been a big problem:

In just five weeks this fall, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles suffered 12 computer system outages, putting individual offices out of business for a total of more than 100 hours. One outage lasted 29 hours, another 17.

“The problem of no-redundancy . . . accounts for 90 percent of our outages,” said David W. Burhop, the DMV’s chief information officer.

During the first six months of the year, state Department of Transportation workers faced 101 significant IT outages totaling 4,677 hours: an average of more than 46 hours per outage. One took 360 hours to fix.

Given that six months is roughly 180 days, and given that the average outage lasted more than 46 hours, this means that, to a first approximation, there was on average a service outage somewhere all the time.  That this interferes with the state’s employees’ work is obvious; and going to the DMV is enough of a hassle for the average citizen without adding computer-induced problems to the mix.

The problem here is not that a function previously run by the state was outsourced to a private-sector firm, but that a cost saving was apparently achieved, at least in part, by providing a service of considerably lower quality.  Buying a complex technological product like a state computer system is a different sort of problem than buying a loaf of bread.  Comparing the costs is the easy part; making sure that you understand and have properly specified what you are buying is what makes the difference.

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