Congress should not simply throw dollars at the year 2000 problem; it should reform the agencies so no problem like this is allowed to ever happen again.
Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., is trying to design a reform and plans to hold hearings later this year to boost support for his plan: a new office of federal management with direct access to the president and enough clout to fix problems before their cost climbs into the billion-dollar range.
As yet, Horn has no bill and no co-sponsors. But he does have the chairman's gavel at the management, information and technology subcommittee of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee. That's a good place to start designing a reform. Horn pins much of the blame for the year 2000 problem squarely on the White House's Office of Management and Budget, which he says spends too much time on budgeting and too little time on improving the management of technology and programs.
"I lay it at the doorstep of OMB. One of my gripes is that there is little focus on management," he told a conference earlier this month organized by the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America.
The year 2000 problem will cost a bundle, anywhere from $2.3 billion to $30 billion, depending on whether you believe the White House or the Gartner Group, a market research firm based in Stamford, Conn. Horn estimates the cost will be somewhere between $10 billion and $15 billion.
The cost will only grow as agencies struggle to fix faulty software embedded in computerized devices, such as air traffic control navigation equipment, health-monitoring devices, elevators and other electronically controlled necessities of agency office life. That tab could exceed $2 billion, says an aide to Horn.
Aside from OMB, another source of blame are the agencies, which have rarely hired chief technology officers with the technical expertise, political clout and control over cash that is needed to solve any problem in Washington.
Industry deserves some share of the blame, if only for failing to deliver high-quality software, and failing to make enough public noise about this problem.
But Horn should also spend some time looking in Congress, where nothing was done before last year to wake up the people with the power to fix the incipient problem - the cabinet secretaries and the budget barons. Perhaps Congress could benefit by spending more time examining the intersection of management and technology where its laws are converted into action - or into shelfware and confetti. But we can't hope for any silver bullet.
After all, technology is transformed into politics and budgets once it enters Washington. So it can hardly be a surprise that the White House has not chosen to blast its own cabinet secretaries for failing to do anything about the year 2000, nor should anyone be amazed that Republicans are not criticizing one another for failing to put more money and effort into solving this problem back in 1995 when they took over Congress.
But in a government divided by party, it surely makes sense for each branch of government to build up its own expertise so that both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue can quickly spot flaws in the other's plans for technology management.
If the pain caused by the impending year 2000 fiasco is great enough, then Congress and the White House may do something to prevent its recurrence - just as they reformed the nation's bank laws to prevent a repeat of the 1980s savings and loan bailout that some estimates predict will cost taxpayers up to $250 billion.