Gross and the Year 2000 Gap
The dirty little secret of the year 2000 software crisis is the vast gap between the progress reported by federal agencies and the myriad problems discovered by contractors when they arrive at the scene of many software conversion efforts.
Industry officials have been complaining privately for months now that things are not the way they have been advertised once they dig into the work that has been done by many
The year 2000 problem was hidden for years in the federal government even as some agencies such as the Social Security Administration pushed ahead with solutions.
Thus it is perfectly plausible that the full scale of the problem - or some good solutions - are also still hidden in the lower levels of the bureaucracy.
And that's precisely why we should welcome the political and bureaucratic skills of Arthur Gross, the IRS chief information officer, as he rightly digs his way down through the bureaucracy with the aid of outside contractors and the IRS inspector general.
The IRS uses a color-coded system to track the planned vs. actual status of its conversion activities. And while his agency is reporting 86 percent of its year 2000 program in the green zone, Gross says he doesn't trust the numbers.
Under Gross' lead, the IRS is using officials from the IRS inspector general's office and private sector firms or, as he calls them, year 2000 police, to perform random verification and validation checks on agency data.
Gross uses words like "massive" and "numbing" to describe his agency's year 2000 effort, which now involves 800 people.
The IRS software inventory is "not fully fleshed out," Gross says, but currently the year 2000 repair effort spans 70 million lines of code, 95,000 components, and 120 mission critical systems.
Gross' candid assessment and assertive style should serve as a government wake-up call to the looming year 2000 crisis. His agency counterparts ought to be taking a page from Gross' year 2000 manual.
Members of Congress should see to it that other agencies follow Gross' lead - like it or not. Rep. Steve Horn, who is setting an example of good congressional oversight, has vowed to spend more time digging into agency data on year 2000 compliance in the coming year.
Gross' approach indicates the importance of canny management. Good technology is not enough if the IRS' satellite offices won't recognize the problem, won't share their data or won't cooperate - and the only way to ensure cooperation is for Gross to have the day-to-day support of the top brass.
That means, in this case, Lawrence Summers, deputy secretary of the Treasury, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Vice President Al Gore and his boss, President Bill Clinton.
Unfortunately, we've been down this road before.
There were many warnings about the savings and loan crisis, which will easily clear $100 billion once long-term interest rates are calculated.
The problem is a government paralyzed by the enormity of the problem that threatens myriad programs, reputations, careers and electoral victories.
It's high time these highly visible figures start taking steps that ensure the nation can keep ticking through the year 2000.
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