Saturday, September 04, 2010

Ideological fail crashes State of Virginia computer networks

The State of Virginia experienced a massive multi-day outage of almost all state computer systems due to contractor incompetence. Northrop-Grumman, the contractor, not only overcharged the State by approximately $2 billion for the IT infrastructure that failed, but did not even include system backups in the system design.

The reality is that the State of Virginia could have saved approximately $2 billion by simply hiring their own IT workers to design and implement the new network. Despite the ideological nonsense about how the free market can always do everything better than government, government employees are cheaper than contractors approximately 99.999999999% of the time -- they're willing to work for less than people with their experience and education would get in private business due to the better job security and benefits of government employment, and because they're eating their own dog food (i.e., their own paycheck is paid by the same IT system that they're designing), they have every incentive to get it right. It's the same reason why, when I was a government employee for a school district, my own curriculum materials that I designed myself for my own classroom were better than the materials developed by government contractors -- I had every incentive to get it right, because I was going to actually be using these materials. I wasn't doing it for a paycheck, I was doing it because I needed these materials and I needed them to be right.

So why didn't the State of Virginia simply hire the employees needed to implement and maintain the new network? Ideology. Simply ideology. Ideology says government is always more expensive than the free market -- despite the fact that in 99%+ of cases, contracting out a government-run function results in spending MORE money. Ideology, rather than pragmatic reality, drove this decision. That, and copious bribes from Northrop-Grumman to various Virginia politicians, of course. Oops, I forgot, they're not called "bribes", they're called "campaign contributions". My bad!

-- Badtux the Snarky Penguin


  1. Ideology says government is always more expensive than the free market.

    There's some really stupid ideas running amok on this rock.

  2. Excellent post. But the problem isn't just in public-private exchanges. My hospital (and I realize that hospitals are so beholden to government reimbursement that they are almost quasi-governmental organizations) instituted a new computerized charting system at the beginning of this year. Because of a number of political factors, and the fact that no one in administration (who made the decision) were ever going to have to use the software they bought one of the most poorly-designed, buggy programs I've seen since the days of Visicalc. The origin date on the software is 1993, clicking on an option will often result in a pull down list of SEVERAL HUNDRED OPTIONS (many of which repeat the same five categories pertaining to a different body part), and (in an obvious Y2K fix) requires us to type in 8 digits for every date. It's slow, it crashes, the GUI interface is straight out of Windows 3.11, and it often just loses whole swaths of data for no reason! It also makes charting take about 4 times longer than it did before! It does everything computers are NOT supposed to do- decreases efficiency, decreases reliability of record keeping, provides less flexibility, and has a needlessly complicated user interface. And since the company the hospital bought it from now controls all information services in the hospital from point-of-care records to billing, they fired all their IT people and hired the software company to sub-contract all their IT services. I can't believe what a poor choice this purchase was. I asked to see a User's Manual and was told that no such thing EXISTED! And the only help we can get from our IT department now is, "Well, it must be a user error". But because we've signed a 5 year contract with this folks- we're married to it!

    In short, having people who can barely use e-mail making purchasing decisions is a prescription for failure.

  3. EBM, yep, I saw that :).

    BBC: Stupid is as stupid does. Meaning there's a lot of folks who, by embracing those stupid ideas, either are the worlds biggest fuggin' idiots or are just venal criminal types out to excuse their crimes.

    Memphisto: Just further proof that private industry is no better than government at this kind of thing. The difference is that generally government employees make a bit less money while fscking up, and thus end up costing less money altogether.

    - Badtux the Practical Penguin

  4. A little vignette from my life illustrating the INefficiency of privatization:

    I work in a big government hospital. The janitorial work has been contracted out to Aramark. When a patient shits all over the bathroom, or pulls their IV out and bleeds copiously on the floor, of if their chemotherapy drug comes unhooked from the IV tubing and leaks, we need to call a cleaner. (Small body waste spills. WE clean them, but if there's feces etc. all over, it needs a proper disinfection.)

    And that means calling an outside number to get Aramark. Even when a cleaner is right there on the unit, we can't just say "Please give us a disinfect in Room such-and-such." Nooooo, the work flow must be managed and accounted for by outside corporate authority. They're usually pretty quick to respond, but it's still another layer of bullshit to deal with, having to dial a phone, talk to a functionary and then wait for THEM to talk to a cleaner.

    Privatization isn't efficient -- it adds middlemen. And middlemen leech money. I remember in the 1970s when I used to believe the propaganda that "corporations do everything more efficiently than government." Now I know that's a crock. The main thing that corpos do better when injected into government services is that they're better at ripping off the public.

  5. Northrop Grumman is all over federal agencies (like the one where I work) including (and especially) anything involving IT. CDC is so riddled with contractors that if there's ever a true pandemic, I figure we should all just kiss our infected butts goodbye.

  6. About half my IT career was in government, and about half was in the private sector. I was the same worker in both contexts (a good one, I like to think). Practically everyone I knew in gov't had worked in the private sector. Many of us switched back and forth depending on who had a contract available to us.

    People don't change the aspects of themselves that lead to quality work just because they change venues, and any ideology that claims they do is pure, unadulterated bullshit.


Ground rules: Comments that consist solely of insults, fact-free talking points, are off-topic, or simply spam the same argument over and over will be deleted. The penguin is the only one allowed to be an ass here. All viewpoints, however, are welcomed, even if I disagree vehemently with you.

WARNING: You are entitled to create your own arguments, but you are NOT entitled to create your own facts. If you spew scientific denialism, or insist that the sky is purple, or otherwise insist that your made-up universe of pink unicorns and cotton candy trees is "real", well -- expect the banhammer.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.