White House Urged to Name Year 2000 Czar

White House Urged to Name Year 2000 Czar

The governmentwide year 2000 czar will force the Clinton administration to face the software issue head-on.
-Rep. Connie Morella

By Neil Munro and Nick Wakeman

The departure of Sally Katzen, the Clinton administration's point person for year 2000 efforts, gives the White House a golden opportunity to address the year 2000 software problem more forcefully, House Republicans and industry officials say.

The White House announced Jan. 14 that Katzen would be leaving OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where she serves as administrator, to become Deputy Assistant to the President for Economic Policy. She will also serve as Deputy Director at the National Economic Council.

Although Katzen has been the most visible Clinton administration official for year 2000 efforts, members of Congress and industry officials have complained for months that the problem deserves higher-level government attention.

"There will be blame. It will be spread around, but most of it will be on the executive branch, especially if they don't put somebody in charge," Rep. Constance Morella, R-Md., told Washington Technology in a Jan. 16 interview.

Morella, who chairs the House Science Committee's technology panel, said she will introduce legislation in the coming weeks to force President Clinton to establish a year 2000 post in the office of the presidency. The governmentwide year 2000 czar, Morella said, will force the Clinton administration to face the software problem head-on.

Industry executives, worried that post-year 2000 blame will hurt their image and revenues, continue to press for greater White House involvement. Last December, Harris Miller, the president of the industry-backed Information Technology Association of America, wrote President Clinton seeking the appointment of a commission headed by the vice president to accelerate the government's year 2000 efforts.

Unisys photo

Mary Dale, national account manager for Unisys Federal Systems

The year 2000 repair effort "has to be a national policy level concern," Mary Dale, national account manager for Unisys Federal Systems, Reston, Va., said. Dale chairs the Industry Advisory Council, a group of influential industry officials who plan to issue a report soon that asks the White House to take a more visible role in the software repair effort.

The software bug, which causes software to interpret the year 2001 as 1901, will possibly scramble data processing in many government computers, including those processing Medicare claims and or monitoring the flights of passenger aircraft.

Katzen has led federal efforts to manage the year 2000 conversion within federal agencies and has been the administration's main representative for the issue before Congress.

Katzen, who plans to continue to work on year 2000 issues, said in an interview last week that she did not know how much of her time would be spent on the issue in her new post.

"I am not dropping year 2000. ... It is very important for the government and economy as a whole," Katzen said Jan. 16.

House photo

Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif.

But Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the technology subcommittee of the House's Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said in a Jan. 16 statement that it is time for the administration to make a move. "In the wake of Sally's departure, it is time to establish full-time leadership for the federal year 2000 effort," he said.

In mid-December, Horn's committee issued a lengthy report that predicted critical computers at half of the government's agencies would not meet the repair deadline of December 1999.

Establishing the year 2000 post close to the president is the only way to stop the Clinton administration from "running away" from the issue, said a House staff member. What's more, he said, it could double the effectiveness of the repair effort.

Katzen defended the administration's management of the year 2000 problem and said the Republican proposal to create a year 2000 job is unnecessary.

The OMB acts as the president's right arm, she said. "We have put a strategy in place [and] a structure to monitor and manage the issues. We've got the right people in the right places," she said.

Also, Katzen dismissed Republican criticism that the White House has not established a standard fix for troubled software. And she rejected Republican criticism that the administration has not reprogrammed enough money from existing accounts to fund repair programs.

There is no need for a single standard fix and there is enough money in existing information technology spending accounts to pay for the fix, she said.

Katzen's office estimates the federal government's year 2000 repair cost at almost $4 billion. In mid-December, her office told members of Congress that it had directed government officials to prepare contingency plans for agency offices whose software cannot be repaired in time and had accelerated the repair schedule.

Asked about the Republican's legislative proposal, which has not been drafted yet, Katzen said, "The year 2000 issue is nonpartisan. ... I should hope partisan politics should not play a role in this."

A House bill to create a year 2000 post must also win approval in the Senate, where complex debating rules can allow a few senators to delay a bill for a long period.

SSA photo

Kathy Adams, the assistant deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration

So far, senators have shown little interest in the federal government's year 2000 problem, although a hearing on the subject is tentatively planned in April before the Senate's commerce committee.

Even if the legislative proposal flies, there's the question of who would take the job. "I don't know anyone who will volunteer" for the post, said Morella.

The president last spoke out about the year 2000 issue in a Washington speech on Aug. 15 at the National Archives. Vice President Al Gore has not discussed the issue in public, according to congressional and industry officials.

"He is the vice president, and it will have some fallout on his chance" to win any presidential election in 2000, said Morella. "It is a chancy thing [to get involved in, but] if you don't do something, it is even more risky," she said.

Because of his association with information technology, Gore "has put himself squarely in the gun sights. ... [But] a few strategic speeches here and there would immunize him from a lot of questions later on," said one Democratic staff member in the Senate.

But the White House's reluctance to embrace the issue is understandable, said a Republican House staff member. "The only way to avoid the blame ... is to stay as far away from the [year 2000] tar baby as they can," he said.

CACI photo

Nancy Peters, vice president of business development for CACI International Inc.

"Many of us are disappointed that the president or vice president haven't stepped out," said Nancy Peters, vice president of business development for CACI International Inc., Arlington, Va. Peters also is a member of the Industry Advisory Council Year 2000 working group.

"This is a big enough problem that they need to be outspoken," she said.

But "we are at a point where we need to solve the problem. We can't be allocating blame," Dale said.

The Industry Advisory Council's Year 2000 report will be sent by the end of January to Kathy Adams, the assistant deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration, who chairs the year 2000 working group established by the agencies' chief information officers.

The paper, prepared by the Industry Advisory Council's working group of industry executives, lays out several "rapid action strategies" for the federal government to adopt. They include management and technical techniques that are widely used in the commercial sector, such as the award of incentives to workers and managers working on the year 2000 problem.

In the commercial world, companies' best information technology experts are assigned to work on year 2000, Dale said. In many agencies, officials are pursuing fixes without any coordination with other offices or agencies, she said.

"This is a very critical situation and we need to mobilize quickly," despite the government's usually slow, conservative pace, said Peters.

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