Bacon's Rebellion

IT Controversy Shouldn't Spoil Public-Private Partnerships in Virginia

Focus should be on resolving implementation issues, not politicizing them

Could the high-profile kerfuffle over the state's contract to consolidate and manage the state's information technology (IT) infrastructure diminish the state's appetite for outsourcing and public-private partnerships (PPPs)?

That's a question suggested in a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article on the simmering controversy over the Virginia Information Technology Authority (VITA)'s handling of its ten year, $2.3 billion IT contract with Northrup Grumman.

The answer is, it shouldn't. Virginia's had a long history with successful PPPs and is widely recognized as a state leader. State officials recognize by now that PPPs come in all shapes and sizes. An IT modernization project is a lot different than a toll road partnership, which is in turn a lot different from a partnership to modernize a state psychiatric hospital. Virginia's undertaken these and many other types of PPPs over the last two decades.

Commonwealth policymakers should have a sophisticated enough understanding by now of the nuances and varieties of PPPs, recognizing that there is no cookie-cutter template. Each PPP is a unique vehicle structured to achieve a set of specific goals, and each type of contract has to be carefully constructed and monitored to ensure that both the state and their private sector partners deliver on their commitments. And if you run into a situation where one party or the other fails to deliver, then you remember that it's a partnership, where the parties work to resolve implementation issues.

Resolving challenges can take a variety of forms. It may necessitate, as in the case of Indiana's troubled welfare eligibility modernization project, requiring the contractor to implement a corrective action plan and allowing sufficient time to evaluate the results before considering a cancellation of the contract.

Similarly, when Florida ran into similar challenges with three major IT outsourcing initiatives a few years ago, they had to adjust contracts and project timelines when the projects bogged down in implementation. One of the main reasons was that end users-primarily state agencies-weren't ready to ditch the antiquated systems they had gotten accustomed to and inundated the contractors with hundreds of customization requests, which complicated the implementation significantly. However, as Florida's Council on Efficient Government detailed in an excellent post-implementation review of these projects, the state and its private partners ultimately were able to navigate the challenges and deliver on the projects.

With any large-scale privatization initiative, especially those involving complex system overhauls like an IT modernization, you have to expect upfront that there will be obstacles. This would also be the case if government was doing the exact same work in-house-large-scale projects are inherently tricky. It's all about how you deal with the inevitable challenges.

Unfortunately, as we're seeing in Virginia, some policymakers and officials have a tendency to turn expected implementation challenges into political footballs. It was no different in Indiana and Florida, but administration officials wisely tuned out the politics and focused on keeping their PPP projects moving forward.

We haven't seen that in Virginia with the IT initiative. Instead we've seen state officials fired, fingers pointed and a general lack of focus on getting the project back on track, as Reason Foundation colleague Steven Titch details here.

If there are legitimate implementation issues that have arisen thus far, the proper response for the state would be to sit down with its private partner, understand the challenges, and develop a plan to address them. The contractor doesn't want to lose the contract and the state doesn't want to stop a major overhaul midstream, so the incentives are aligned to work things out. And the state needs to perform the due diligence of closely monitoring the contractor's performance every step of the way-holding their feet to the fire with penalties if appropriate-while also ensuring that agency staff aren't presenting internal obstacles to successful implementation.

Virginia knows how to do PPPs well. The problem is that officials are simply not living up to their own standards in their handling of the IT contract and should quickly adjust course. And allowing what are likely resolvable outsourcing challenges to become heavily politicized unnecessarily exacerbates the situation.

Despite Virginia's reputation in the PPP industry as a state with broad-ranging experience, political flare-ups like the one we're seeing today can begin to change that perception. If contractors believe that their projects might be thrown to the political wolves, they may think twice about bidding on contracts in Virginia. Or at the very least they may factor political risk into their pricing, driving up costs.

Policymakers should see the forest through the trees and remember that PPPs have had a long and successful track record in Virginia and are a proven tool for doing more with less in state government.

With revenue shortfalls continuing to drive state fiscal woes for the next several years, Virginia officials will need to do more PPPs, not less. It's time for officials to turn down the politics and focus squarely on righting the IT project. In the long-run, fixing it will be much more productive than politicizing it.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform at Reason Foundation and Senior Fellow for Government Reform at the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. This column was originally published at Bacon's Rebellion

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform





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