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An IT outsourcing contract without penalties? A state pays the price

You hear a lot of analysts, clients and, of course, vendors touting the benefits of IT outsourcing, especially as the U.S. emerges from this economic recession, which the latest government numbers show is over. In larger organizations, outsourcing can help globalize operations, and proponents inevitably point to the bottom line: It usually saves organizations money.

But if you follow the news, you might have also heard about what must be considered an IT outsourcing failure in the state of Virginia, which is currently embroiled in controversy over its $2 billion IT outsourcing contract with security firm Northrop Grumman. Although there have been a number of missed deadlines and service failures, as we reported this week, breaking the current contract could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money – that’s no pocket change! It leaves the state with little choice but to get this deal back on track.

So what went wrong? Perhaps most importantly, there was a poor governance framework in place for overseeing this deal. I wasn’t so surprised to hear that – a lot of organizations struggle before successfully implementing a governance framework for IT outsourcing contracts. But I’m still wondering how the state could not include penalties for any missed deadlines and service levels below those specified in SLAs. Isn’t that the entire basis of a contract — to hammer out those details? It’s mind-boggling.

(And, just so you know I’m not new to such failures: As a community journalist, I covered the construction of a new high school with a budget that’s ballooned to nearly $200 million, almost double the initial estimates. So, trust me, I know government incompetence.)

I’m scheduled to speak to Virginia CIO George Coulter Friday about the corrective action plan proposed by Northrop Grumman and how the state intends to straighten this mess out. Do you have questions regarding IT outsourcing contracts or what went wrong here? I’d love your input.

Also, for those who view Virginia’s mess as a cautionary tale, remember to check out SearchCIO.com, where we have information on IT outsourcing governance, outsourcing trends going into next year, and more.

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