Olson's Year 2000 Warning Garners Attention


Olson's Year 2000 Warning Garners Attention

By Dennis McCafferty
Staff Writer

Pennsylvania photo

Pennsylvania Chief Information Officer Larry Olson

Pennsylvania Chief Information Officer Larry Olson's efforts to get government information technology officials on all levels to address the need for compatible year 2000 software conversion solutions has attracted much attention.

The alarm that Olson is sounding is getting noticed by his counterparts in other states, the Washington-based National Governors Association and the National Association of State Information Resource Executives in Lexington, Ky.

But federal response has been nonexistent, Olson said, despite his recent attempts to communicate in writing with officials at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget on the issue.

Olson wants to hold a state and federal CIO summit in Pittsburgh to discuss system compatibility issues in October, an idea that has been met with positive response from other state IT officials.

Indeed, Olson estimates that there are 60 interface programs linking his state agencies with federal officials, all vital for supplying data related to welfare benefits, health care dollars, labor statistics and other critical government services.

"We are not islands,'' said Olson, who oversees the annual $400 million in spending for Pennsylvania state government technology initiatives and operations. "We are partners. But we haven't had any interest from the federal government. No one wants to talk to us. We've seen reports addressing the problem but no one wants to build the bridge.''

The problem becomes immensely complicated by the pending year 2000 software dilemma. As agencies seek to correct the software date codes - establishing four digits to designate a year as opposed to two - there are fears that code fixes with a federal agency will be incompatible with other systems. Olson and other state officials have indicated they may establish computer firewalls to ensure that an incompatible system doesn't wreak havoc with the state agencies' systems.

OMB officials said neither Ed DeSeve, acting deputy director for management and head of the federal CIO Council, nor OMB Administrator Sally Katzen, who has acted as the agency's sole spokeswoman on year 2000 issues, would be available for comment.

After much industry grumbling, the problem has finally gotten notice from the White House. In a recent address on the approaching millennium, President Clinton said that the federal government is working in cooperation with state and local public sector leaders, as well as private industry, to "prevent any interruption in government services that rely on the proper functioning of federal computer systems'' in referring to needed, turn-of-the-century date-code changes.

President Clinton's comments followed about six months of attempts on the part of the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America to get his administration to take a lead role on year 2000 issues. Heidi Hooper, the ITAA year 2000 program manager, said the association wrote to Vice President Gore six months ago and then President Clinton about two months later with little or no response.

Speaking for the federal government, Pam Woodside, who oversees state year 2000 issues for the OMB's CIO Council, said there is sincere interest among federal officials to take part in the planned summit. The issue will be brought before the CIO Council in upcoming weeks to gauge members' interests, she said. Until the summit, a resource for state leaders on year 2000 issues remains on the U.S. General Services Administration's World Wide Web site (www. itpolicy.gsa.gov), which contains a link where all federal agencies' year 2000 contacts for state issues are listed.

"I think each entity in the federal government will address the issue,'' said Woodside, who is also the project manager for year 2000 compliance for U.S. Housing and Urban Development. "The people who transfer data back and forth need to address it. But the more we address needs to be done in a consistent manner, the better off we'll be.''

Texas photo

Carolyn T. Purcell is both executive director of the state of Texas Department of Information Resources and the president of NASIRE

Carolyn T. Purcell, who is both executive director of the state of Texas Department of Information Resources and the president of NASIRE, was upbeat about the summit. "We will happily participate in such a summit,'' she said. "We're very concerned that there's a threat of contamination both ways that we ought to minimize. We should be able to do this on a global level, so there's an advantage to discussing this on a high level and across the states.''

Adding to state IT officials' concerns is the much-publicized tardiness of federal government agencies in acknowledging a potential year 2000 crisis. Also, IT insiders consider the current $2.8 billion price tag to fix the federal agency systems to be extremely conservative.

"The states are finding this out for themselves,'' said Mark Evans, executive conference director of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Intergovernmental Technology Conference, a private, for-profit company that stages educational conferences across the country for officials representing state, local and federal government. "I think a summit will be very appropriate. It's going to be a wake-up call. This clearly is going to address the issue, instead of waiting for the year 1999 plus one minute to find out whether the federal government is going to address the issue.''

Evans' company will also stage a conference in which the topic will likely be addressed on Nov. 5-7 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. (For more information, go to the Intergovernmental Technology Conference World Wide Web site at www.govresources.com)

Steve Kolodney, director of the Department of Information Services for the state of Washington and a chief NASIRE leader on year 2000 issues, said states will be left with little choice but to find ways to block the electronic transfer of data from federal systems if the situation fails to improve.

"It would preserve the integrity of state-generated data,'' he said. "You'd then go back to manual input of the federal information, which would be tedious. But you can't allow bad data to sneak into files. There's no way to track it. And, like a virus, it starts to move across the system and, if you have to go back to clean it up, you have a huge and expensive problem.''

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