Politicians Fiddle As Year 2000 Hammer Falls
You can tell the U.S. government's year 2000 problem is severe - no politician is trying to take charge.
Neither Vice President Al Gore, House Speaker Newt Gingrich nor President Bill Clinton want to touch this problem, even though it may lead to worse disruptions in government services and greater financial costs than the two government shutdowns in 1995.
There is no year 2000 leadership in the Clinton administration pushing reluctant bureaucrats to seriously address the year 2000 software problem. Although Sally Katzen at the Office of Management and Budget has been leading a quiet and largely unsuccessful effort to rally the federal troops, experts agree that most agencies are in denial. In essence, the Clinton-Gore technology duo is trying to ignore the problem.
However, the silt will hit the fan in late 1999. That's when politicians of all stripes will get splattered if anything goes wrong with Medicare, Social Security or welfare payments, bank transfers, stock market oversight and disruptions in the nation's air traffic control system.
The 1998 Clinton budget plan was not a serious stab at fixing the problem. The politicians and accountants who submitted the budget - including Katzen - have swapped their green eyeshades for rose-tinted glasses, allowing them to conclude that existing budgets will solve the problem. Amazingly, the plan estimates that the government's software - at up to 15 billion lines of code - can be fixed for only $2.3 billion.
As one industry association leader put it, that does not even pass the laugh test.
Industry's experience teaches otherwise, prompting the Gartner Group to estimate the government's real bill at up to $30 billion.
The White House's low-ball estimate ensures that it does not have to ask Congress for extra cash or admit that it has been too busy promoting the information superhighway to notice that the government's computers will run out of gas in three years.
Congress is also out to lunch. Lawmakers held a hearing or two last year that attracted some agency attention but failed to earmark any significant money to fix the problem. By holding hearings, Congress has partially insulated its 535 members from the inevitable charges that lawmakers did nothing to fix the problem.
Of course, one can argue that Congress and the Clinton administration were too busy fighting over the federal budget to worry about infotech, or that the administration did not have any infotech czar before the 1996 Clinger-Cohen act made Sally Katzen the chief of government infotech.
So who will suffer because of this government inattention? The most obvious victims will be those citizens whose lives will be disrupted by the federal government's failure to pay health care or pension checks.
But companies and their employers will also suffer once the federal government starts cutting infotech contracts to raise money for year 2000 repair costs.
Perhaps the first to go will be regular upgrades of PCs and peripherals, then we'll likely see a postponement or delays of new programs. That might reduce the productivity of the government workers, wasting billions of dollars more.
This prospect is just one of the reasons why industry groups have sounded the alarm in Washington. It's time for Congress and yes, the White House, to stop fiddling around and treat the problem seriously.
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