- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2001

RICHMOND (AP) Virginia spent at least $47 million in the past decade in budget overruns for new computer systems, with glitches giving rise to frustration in state agencies and taxpayer complaints, a newspaper reported yesterday.
Among the most recent in a string of computer flubs in Virginia government was the delay this summer of tens of thousands of tax refunds, with some taxpayers still waiting for their checks.
An analysis by the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk also found that:
The Virginia Department of Transportation lost at least $11 million when it canceled a contract in 1999 to put its paper records on computer databases. The agency also exceeded its budget by $9 million for computers to synchronize traffic signals in Northern Virginia, a project recently completed to relieve congestion.
Two major systems used by foster care and social workers across the state have been on the fritz for years.
A health department system to track medical statistics for immunizations and expectant mothers is 15 months behind schedule and $2.5 million over budget.
A personnel and payroll system was canceled in February 1999 after the state had spent $11.6 million on the project.
The College of William and Mary has sunk $5.5 million into a system plagued with problems and projected to exceed original cost estimates.
Other states reportedly have worse computer problems. A study by Governing magazine this year said Virginia trails only Utah and Washington at handling high-tech projects.
Richard Greene, the magazine's project editor, credits Gov. James S. Gilmore III for creating a Cabinet-level high-tech czar. Secretary of Technology Donald W. Upson approves all technology contracts exceeding $1 million.
Having one person in charge streamlines decision-making and accountability, leads to better decisions and fewer problems, Mr. Greene said.
"What one assumes is, if your management systems are good, you are inclined to have fewer disasters," Mr. Greene said. "The reality is, with big information technology disasters, it's kind of still a crap shoot. Everybody's got them. Anybody who tells you that they have never had a problem is lying to you."
However, governments can take a cavalier attitude toward wasting money on bad computers because they aren't driven by the same profit pressures that motivate businesses, computer specialists say.
"They have the money to spend, and they don't care," said James H. Johnson, president of the Standish Group, a technology research firm. "Maybe I'm being a little glib when I say that, but it's just typical of government. They get wrapped up in their own rules and regulations and can't see their way out of it."
Mr. Johnson's research suggests that 23 percent of all private-industry technology projects miss deadlines, exceed budgets or fail to meet their goals. In the public sector, the failure rate is 59 percent, he said.
This year marked the midpoint in a five-year, $123 million project to modernize the Department of Taxation. Some glitches were predictable as state officials began processing tax returns with automated scanners and Virginia taxpayers were introduced to a new form design. But the problems were worse than expected:
Six-hundred thousand tax returns contained errors attributable to the redesigned form. Some of those errors were the result of taxpayer confusion, but the sensitive scanners also can be triggered by stray pencil marks.
Seventy thousand refunds were delayed for people who used tax-preparation software on their personal computers. Tax officials blamed the company that processed those returns for failing to make adjustments so the documents were compatible with the new scanners.
Several thousand other taxpayers state officials say they are not sure how many experienced delays because of misprinted cover sheets used to keep track of individual tax returns as they are fed through the scanners. The scanners misread the cover sheets and flagged the forms, causing taxpayers to receive erroneous requests for W-2 forms.
Tax Commissioner Danny Payne said the new technology ultimately will speed up refunds by reducing the number of returns that must be processed by hand.

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