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Virginia’s Big Plan for State Tech Pays Off During COVID

A few years ago, the state decided to create what amounts to a marketplace for government technology. Now, one of Virginia’s tech leaders details how that model is helping to save money and innovate.

The Virginia state flag waving against clear blue sky, close up.
An ongoing push in Virginia to change the way the state buys and deploys the latest government software and related tools is paying dividends during the pandemic, according to one of the top technology officials there.

In an interview with Government Technology, Jonathan Ozovek, chief operating officer for the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) — which provides tech services to 65 state agencies — said the new program, still a work in progress, has reduced unemployment backlogs and boosted data visibility for public health officials.

Virginia is in the midst of moving toward a multisourcing services integration (MSI) program.

In general, the goal is to create what amounts to a marketplace for gov tech vendors, giving state officials more choice about what to buy, and freeing themselves from relatively lengthy contracts with single suppliers. The aim is to build a nimble, flexible and efficient infrastructure for state technology needs by introducing some private-sector practices into the operations of public agencies.

Doing all that can lead to significant, long-term cost savings, at least according to MSI proponents and budget projections.

MSI ON THE RISE


An MSI is a company — in Virginia’s case, Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) — that connects and unifies new tech suppliers for the state. Other states such as Texas and Georgia also have adopted MSI models, and the successes or failures of such projects seem certain to influence government CIOs and similar professionals across the country.

“You have a way to not only plug and play different suppliers,” Ozovek said of the MSI model, “but to have a suite of innovations. As well, the principle of scale is very, very important.”

Back in 2017, VITA announced that it had awarded a $165 million contract to SAIC to serve as the state’s MSI. The deal, set to a five-year base period, enabled VITA to then terminate its 12-year supplier contract with Northrop Grumman as the tech agency sought out other vendors and shorter deals.

“The monolithic model was very expensive and not transparent,” said Vishal Tulsian, the senior vice president of operations for SAIC’s state, local, health-care and federal financial business. “People think of efficiency as meaning less choices. It’s actually quite the opposite.”

FASTER PROCESSING


An example of the influence of the MSI push on Virginia’s state tech efforts comes from the administration of unemployment benefits.

As the pandemic took hold, unemployment rates soared, causing severe backlogs in claims as state workers fell behind on processing.

VITA turned to robotic process automation (RPA) software provided by UiPath to help break that bottleneck. The technology can process 120 files in 24 minutes; a human worker would need 10 hours to do the same job, he said.

The new system began work in June and has since reduced by 40 percent the state’s backlog of unemployment claims, Ozovek said.

As he tells it, the MSI model played a key role in getting that technology to the right people at the right time.

“For RPA, the MSI model has allowed us to optimize speed of time to market and to assess top tier suppliers,” he said. “I developed the concept of an end-to-end enterprise RPA-as-a-Service with my deputy COO and the MSI construct allowed that to come to fruition in the public sector. A monolithic model would not be incentivized to actively develop innovative services like this and ultimately bring them from concept to deployment, particularly in the public sector.”

COVID-19 RESPONSE


The state’s public health workers also have benefited from RPA technology delivered via the MSI model, he said.

More specifically, the Virginia Department of Health needed to quickly analyze COVID-19 tests and was relying on a semi-manual process. VITA set up an RPA process that sped up the process and increased access to that vital data by nearly 7,000 percent.

According to VITA, such work stands as the first public-sector, end-to-end service offering of RPA in the country.

More broadly, the still-progressing MSI model in Virginia has resulted in the state gaining access to more tech services annually.

According to Ozovek, the throughput of services prior to the MSI model was around two to three services a year. In 2020, by comparison, VITA introduced 19 enterprise services. So far in 2021, the agency has released 10 enterprise services.

“We are on target for a key milestone of this transformation to release prioritized enterprise services within 100 business days, which is a significant accomplishment,” he said.

COST FACTORS


Speed and variety are not the only likely benefits from the Virginia MSI model, according to a report from the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC).

As VITA moved to the MSI model, JLARC reviewed various aspects of the plan and estimated that the state would save more than $200 million in technology costs through fiscal year 2024. The commission arrived at that figure by comparing IT costs under the state’s previous technology supplier and those same costs under the new multi-supplier model.

“With this new MSI model, we are 15 years ahead of schedule with new tech and are able to (purchase it for) a quarter less,” said Tulsian.

Ozovek said he is determined to keep proving the worth of this model to other state agencies and keep up with the leading edge of technology.

“We are on track to do a limited deployment in (the fourth quarter) of AI as a service, which would be the first service of its kind in the public sector, similar to our RPA concept,” he said.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in New Orleans.
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