Behind the Northrop Grumman, VITA Scandals

The continuing woes of the Virginia Information Technologies Agency and the state’s $2.4 billion IT contract with Northrop Grumman raise questions about some particularly “Virginian” conceits. One has to do with the state’s self consciousness about being a “tech” state and its propensity for privatizing public operations.

Northrop Grumman has been accused of cost overruns, delays and sloppy service with the 10-year contract it won in 2005 under Gov. Mark Warner to take the state’s antiquated computer system and turn into something that is “state of the art.”
VITA was created in 2002 to oversee state IT work and it, too, has been racked by controversy. Its programs were hacked in April and a few weeks ago, its chief, Lemuel Stewart was cashiered for allegedly questioning the high costs of the Northrup Grumman contract. Now it appears that Northrup Grumman is at least six months late in its work upgrading state computers.
Legislative watchdogs are starting to bark. This is bad news for outgoing Gov,. Tim Kaine, who is doing double duty as head of the Democratic National Committee still basking in the honeymoon glow of the Obama election.
First, some perspective about the players:
  • Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumann is a major defense contractor with a huge footprint in Virginia. It operates many offices in Northern Virginia that serve the Pentagon and other federal agencies. Northoup Grumman is a specialist in federal IT and defense IT work. What’s more, it owns Newport News Shipbuilding, one of the largest employers in the state and the only shipyard in the nation that can build and service surface nuclear-powered vessels such as Nimitz class aircraft carriers and the next generation.
  • U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who let the Northrop Grumman contract as governor, is a rising Democtratic star who cut his teeth on IT and related ventures. Back in the 1980s, Warner, not long out of Harvard Law, built a fortune estimated at the time of $400 million by brokering deals among nascent cell phone companies. The Federal Communications Commission had held auctions for band with needed for cellphones but the auctions sold off radio waves haphazardly. Ever the entrepreneur, Warner worked out private swaps among companies wanting to put togther cell networks in specific markets, thus earning himself a rep as a tech savvy guy.
  • Tim Kaine, Warner’s Democratic successor, has also positioned himself as a business-friendly, tech savvy politician.
  • The Republicans, notably former Gov. Jim Gilmore, first rode the tech wave back in the 1990s when the World Wide Web was exploding on the scene and NOVA became home to America Online, other Net-based firms and many telecoms. In 1998, Gilmore introduced the concept of the Secretary of Technology, the first ever in the U.S. Then, and now, half of the U.S. Intenet traffic still passes through NOVA. A lot of the telecoms and Net firms, however, went bust around 2001.

Add it all up, and you have a state that is eager, maybe too eager, to be known as tech savvy. It’s as if a pale wallflower at a dance suddenly becomes almost as hot as Miss Cool Bay Area or Brainy Miss Boston. That’s a lot better rep than Massive Resistance or trying not to let the Confederate Generals on Monument Avenue in Richmond get soiled by an Arthur Ashe memorial.

Another factor dates from the Jim Gilmore/George Allen years. Back then, when tech was hot, the economy was expanding and Bill Clinton was slipping from Bimbo to Bimbo, there came a neocon idea that privatizing the public sector was worthy and wonderful. Starting back in the Reagan-Thatcher years, the concept assumed that the free market was the best way to control costs efficiently and unleash creativity. Thus, private firms should be hired to run state functions, such as highways or IT functions.
Although the ideas were hatched with the GOP, privatization and public-private partnerships were embraced by business-friendly Dems such as Mark Warner and Kaine. So, when Mark W. wanted to show his tech-savviness and pointed to antiquated, underfunded state IT systems, the obvious solution was to turn them over to the private sector, which in this case, was one of the state’s biggest and most politically powerful employers.
Well, ahem, it hasn’t worked out that well, as the scandals with Northrop Grumman and VITA show. Maybe private business isn’t all that more competent than plodding old government bureaucracies. There’s plenty of evidence against the private sector, given its record leading up to the worst recession since the Great Depression. Arrogance, hubris and aggravating, short-term thinking come to mind.
Maybe it’s time for Virginia to move on from this style of thinking that is stuck the nineties. The venture capital and IPO days are really so very yesterday. And isn’t the Net just a more advanced telephone system and not a god unto itself? How about some good old-fashioned service and keeping your word and upholding your end of a deal?
Peter Galuszka