Feds, States Devise Year 2000 Date Fix

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Feds, States Devise Year 2000 Date Fix

By Nick Wakeman
Staff Writer


Pennsylvania photo

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge

PITTSBURGH - Federal and state chief information officers have agreed to create a four-digit year standard to prevent potentially widespread software problems in future electronic data exchanges among states and agencies at all levels of government.

The date standard will apply to data being exchanged among the states and between states and the federal government, said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, whose state hosted an unprecedented summit of state and federal chief information officers at the behest of his CIO, Larry Olson. (See related story on page 28.)

Each day, there are thousands of electronic exchanges of files and data among states and between states and the federal government. Government officials have long argued that failure to align date-handling approaches could wreak havoc in the operations of all levels of government.

Ridge issued dire warnings about potential problems from breakdowns of data-sharing links during the Oct. 28 summit. "We are talking about everything from minor inconveniences to jeopardizing public safety," Ridge said. "This is no small problem, and the clock is ticking."

Officials from 42 states and a federal delegation representing 21 agencies who attended the all-day session also formed two panels to foster more cooperation between state and federal government officials on year 2000 software conversion issues.


OMB photo

Sally Katzen, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the federal Office of Management and Budget

A national policy group will be headed by Sally Katzen, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the federal Office of Management and Budget and California CIO John Thomas Flynn, who also serves as president of the National Association of State Information Resource Executives, a co-sponsor of the summit. "We came because this is important, and it is essential that we work together," Katzen said after the summit. "I saw the beginnings of trust and respect emerge and that is always beneficial."

Leading a group that will look at technical issues are Kathy Adams, associate commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration, and Steve Kolodney, Washington state's CIO.

Flynn said a schedule of meetings and agendas for the working groups should be established by Nov. 10. The groups need to identify all the areas where states and the federal government share data. "We don't even know where all the interfaces are," he said.

Other issues to be tackled by the working groups are how to share data on successful and unsuccessful year 2000 fixes, identifying where data "bridges" will be needed and defining certification and compliance. Devising contingency plans for failures of systems also is on the agenda, Flynn said.

A key role for the working groups will be breaking down barriers to cooperation, Katzen said.

"We consider the summit only a first step," Olson said.

But the establishment of a standard for the year portion of the date codes is impressive, said Bob Cohen, vice president of communications for the Information Technology Association of America, an Arlington, Va.-based group that represents IT firms. Cohen did not attend the summit, which was open only to state and federal government officials and the media.

Participants of the State/Federal CIO Summit expressed concerns that differing levels of compliance among the numerous state and federal computer systems will cause problems when those systems share data.

Using a standard of four digits to represent the year in a date code might seem like the only logical step, but adopting that as the default standard was never a sure thing, Ridge said after the summit.

The year 2000 software flaw exists because software often only labels data with the last two digits of each calendar year. Thus data from 2001 would be labeled with "01" - and could be mistakenly interpreted by the computer as data from 1901.

"There are other techniques for
solving the problem in the short-term," said Texas CIO Carolyn Purcell. "A contiguous four-digit date is not required to solve the problem internally, so establishing that this is the default standard for communications between the interfacing [agencies] is a significant accomplishment."

Setting the standard bodes well for substantive work coming out of the working groups, Cohen said. "It seems they are determined to make progress," he said.

Coordinating efforts with the
federal government will be a plus, said Matthew Carey, Pennsylvania's year 2000 manager. "We really need to know what the federal government expects from us," he said.

All the states are facing pressures to solve their own year 2000 problems but they cannot lose sight of their interactions with other governments, Flynn said. "That is why this meeting is so important," he said.

The summit, which brought state and federal CIOs together for the first time, was needed to lay the groundwork for identifying areas of concerns among the states and the federal government and creating a forum for addressing those concerns, Flynn said.

"The main thing is that we now have a framework for future work," Olson said.

To avoid widespread failures, state and federal governments cannot think of the year 2000 as simply an information technology problem but as a business problem, Flynn said.

In California, Gov. Pete Wilson issued an executive order last month that made
senior managers in the agencies responsible for year 2000 compliance, not just information technology officials, he said.

"This has been an IT problem for too long; it is a business problem," Flynn said. "We cannot just rely on the IT shops to fix this because they respond to the priorities of the business managers."

Wilson's executive order made the year 2000 a priority for members of his cabinet. To fix a problem with the magnitude of year 2000, high-level "champions" are needed, Flynn said.

Wilson also has put a freeze on IT projects that are not year 2000-related and are not mandated by the federal government or state legislature, he said.

"We are turning down projects," Flynn said. Even with that hammer, it still will be hard for the state to reach compliance for its mission-critical systems, he said. The state has about 350 systems that need to be fixed.

For one California system, the goal is fixing 18,000 lines of code a week to make the state's Dec. 31, 1998, deadline, he said.

Another Pittsburgh summit is planned in April for officials from local governments and school systems.


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