Putting the Year 2000 Crisis Into Perspective

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Putting the Year 2000 Crisis Into Perspective

By Tim Hunter

The Office of Management and Budget estimates that it will cost the federal government about $2.3 billion in currently unappropriated funds to fix its year 2000 problem. Others envision a total cost of around $30 billion.

Washington observers over the last generation could not have missed the billion dollar parade of information technology acquisitions by the government that have brought us to our current problem.

As one who worked on the President's Council on Management Improvement in the 1980s, I can recall no end of Beltway bandit press releases promising vistas of carefree IT federal management, efficiency and effectiveness. So what did we get?

Thanks to the discovery of the year 2000 crisis and with the prophets of doom apparently now being validated, we find a federal government IT environment teetering on the brink of computer meltdown on Jan. 1, 2000.

The current situation suggests that over the last 25 years the public wasn't given the wonders it purchased from the IT industry. This observation applies whether talking about in-house or contracting.

Given the scope of the year 2000 crisis, maybe most Washingtonians are too overwhelmed to try to place the current situation in perspective or relate the federal government's year 2000 crisis to past mistakes. Or they are too shell-shocked to be concerned about a crisis that is tailor-made for those in the IT industry with plans to use it as a pretext to cram more unnecessary, ineffective and redundant systems into the federal agencies.

After all, the solution being advocated by a number of vendors is tear it all out and start over. Before federal agencies start ripping out their working IT systems they should take time to recall the philosopher Santayana's dicta that those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

Leaders on both sides of the aisle and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue agree there is only one sure remedy: find more money from the Treasury to throw at the problem.

Absent are the voices of government leaders who articulate a legitimate citizen concern that any money the federal government throws at this crisis may have little long-term public benefit.

The current situation suggests that over the last 25 years the public wasn't given the wonders it purchased from the IT industry.
The year 2000 crisis has certainly quickened the pulse of many a vendor. Don't expect this always hungry community to study history: their ally is amnesia. At congressional hearings, outreach symposiums and other gatherings, one sees the vendor species in full flower, eyes glowing, faces flushed with anticipation, palms at the ready eager to grasp the windfall of year 2000 sugar plums assumed to be ripe for the plucking.

So who should ask whether the federal government should allow the Beltway community to descend on a vast plunder? Who should set the rules and prescribe planning and technology standards, limits on cost margins, application of the existing management controls and central discipline over the year 2000 compliance effort?

One approach might be to require that anyone engaging in the year 2000 crisis be required to make certain affirmations: First, that their products and repairs can be installed before 1999 in a minimum time frame and be made to work. Second, that their contracts include an ironclad warranty to protect the public interest.

Some Beltway firms have decided to write off the possibility of the year 2000 crisis being a maintenance issue. Their approach is to sell agencies entirely new systems. No one so far has publicly asked: Is this cost-effective? On the other hand, there are those who say that the remediation of noncompliant code can be carried out at low cost and that the time required to repair noncompliant systems is only about a third of what is being prophesied by the sayers of doom and the vendors of new systems.

OMB, as the arm of the White House for management, should step in and manage the year 2000 effort governmentwide. Congress should provide the necessary and proper regulations to consolidate a leaky, diffused process.

Many in Congress have repeatedly called on the White House to produce a year 2000 czar, meaning someone who is responsible for getting results. (One might ask, whatever happened to Vice President Gore's czar-like Reinventing Government program and his equally imperial National Performance Review?)

For about a year, the oversight committees of Congress have been prodding the executive branch into accurately reporting on the likely condition of the federal government's computers on Jan. 1, 2000.

OMB now works from an assumption that lots of government computer programs are going to fail Jan. 1, 2000. On July 10, at joint hearings conducted by House subcommittees on Government Management, Information & Technology and Science & Technology, the White House seemed to take it as a given that after Jan. 1, 2000, some parts of the government aren't going to be working at all. The term of art to justify this to the policy wonks is mission-critical.

Sally Katzen, administrator of the White House's OMB Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, cheerfully reported that none of the agency's mission-critical systems were reported behind schedule. This peculiar sophistry raised not only the question of what OMB considers mission-critical but why OMB would accept an agency's word when the reporting information is self-discrediting?

Mulling over the issue of mission-critical, members of Congress speculated that the Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control systems could be considered mission-critical. At least one lawmaker at the hearings was willing to go way out on a limb and consider national defense to be mission-critical.

After the White House testimony, Congress' GAO came forward July 10 to drill holes in the largely misleading agency/OMB reporting. The report submitted by OMB to GAO includes certain unexplained discrepancies: like the Small Business Administration needing from September 1996 to December 1998 to assess its problem and then having the ability during the 1998 Christmas/New Year's holidays to completely renovate, validate and implement its mission-critical systems. This amazing feat will be carried out during the time of year when, typically the largest number of federal employees are forced to take use-it-or-lose-it annual leave.

There was no explanation why the wonder scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration plan to take only 30 days to completely repair their systems after having spent two and a half years studying the problem. Does that make sense to anyone? Well, it did to the White House.

Because the year 2000 problem is being erroneously hyped by the usual generators of public panic as a looming disaster, little if any attention has been given to the quiet voices of reason who say that the federal year 2000 crisis, while real enough, is essentially a maintenance issue.

Do the president or vice president care to carry out their constitutional duty to control a swarm of hard-charging mutts who have heard the dinner bell? Or are they going to continue to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil?

Tim Hunter founded Hunter & Associates, an Arlington, Va., firm, in 1995. He served in the White House from 1984-85 and 1988-89 and with the President's Council on Management Improvement from
1985-88. He can be reached via e-mail at tnhunter@bellatlantic.net


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