By Michael R. Shannon
Conservatives occasionally wonder if anyone would notice should the government just go away one morning. This is not an attractive prospect for elected officials and Virginia Lt. Governor Bill Bolling had a personally scary experience in relation to just that topic when he was stranded in Italy last spring due to a volcano eruption.
The Lite Governor desperately consulted the airlines, the Virginia Department of Aviation and even the National Guard, but he was unable to return and preside over a special session of the General Assembly.
Yet the Commonwealth survived.
Many conservatives were pleased by this impromptu test and proposed to expand the experiment by stranding the rest of our elected officials in Europe. Sadly the same volcano that kept Bolling in Florence also prevented the General Assembly from joining him, so the test never took place.
This week the state enjoyed another spur of the moment no government test.
As I write we are in Day 7 of VIRGINIA HELD HOSTAGE: The Great Computer Outage. Thousands of Virginia drivers are unable to renew their licenses, under-taxed Democrats are unable to file their returns and ACORN is unable to register the deceased to vote.
On the other hand, it's been a great week for drivers who don't mind cruising with a suspended license; drivers who have an otherwise sterling driving record marred by a couple of DUIs; and our uninvited friends from South of the Border who drive sin licencia.
With the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) database offline, police can't check driving records during traffic stops. Motorists who might have had their car towed to the impound lot and their body transported to jail - because they were driving on a suspended license - are instead issued a ticket and sent on their way with a cheerful "Vaya con Dios."
This latest disaster has allowed DMV to extend the "no smile zone" from in front of the mugshot camera clear out into the parking lot (similes in license photos are illegal because it interferes with facial recognition software). There disgruntled citizens - who normally are only confused by which direction the HOV lanes are running and when - now have to puzzle out when the DMV office will be open again.
This is the price we pay when the contract for the Commonwealth's information technology (IT) work was sole sourced, negotiated by the Mark Warner administration and awarded to Monty Python Computing. Whoops, I mean Northrop Grumman.
The really fun element of this computer catastrophe - assuming you aren't up for a license renewal - is the tech support drones at Northrop are giving Virginia officials the exact same excuses tech support centers give hapless consumers when they call: "Hmmm. This is the first time anyone has ever called with this problem. Are you sure the cause isn't with your configuration and not our product?"
The only difference being Virginia is getting the excuse in English, whereas I'm routed to a call center in Bombay where "Bob" gives me his Hindi-flavored song-and-dance.
Pressed for a more complete explanation, a spokesman for Northrop, said the outage started when a "framowitz" shorted out a "pantaloomer" causing two circuit boards to fail, followed by the government.
At my humble office I can't afford Northrop and it's vast computing expertise, so my answer to massive computer meltdown is called a "backup." If one of the hard drives at Mandate World Headquarters fails and corrupts my data, I have two others where the information is duplicated.
This does not appear to be the situation in Richmond.
We were told on Monday that 24 of the 27 affected agencies' computers are back in service. The thought the Grief Counselor's registry is once again online is small comfort to the 39,000 DMV customers who have been unable to complete their transactions.
And this is just the latest snafu in connection with the $2 billion Northrop Grumman contract. Last year an audit found that Northrop had a reverse Midas touch and that almost every state agency that employs computers had been adversely affected under the Northrop contract.
Yet the agreement was recently revised, the amount payable increased and extended for three more years. But keep in mind at this particular point in the contract it was more like negotiating with kidnappers, than a typical supplier. Northrop had our data and the only alternative was a move to the Dewey Decimal system.
Gov. Bob McDonnell wants an "independent third party" - preferably one that does not use Northrop for IT services - to investigate the disaster and find a credible scapegoat.
Meanwhile, according to Northrop spokesmen, government will soon be functioning again. And if the quality of Northrop's work during the repair is anything like it's been in the past, when the DMV database is restored there is a good chance that seven of the 9/11 hijackers will once again be fully licensed Virginia drivers.
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