Koskinen Paints Bright Year 2000 Picture

Koskinen Paints Bright Year 2000 Picture

By Richard McCaffery
Staff Writer

The Clinton administration's point man for coordinating governmentwide year 2000 software repairs said the cost of making those fixes will not rise at the same searing pace as in last year.

The government's cost estimate for making agencywide repairs has ballooned to $4.7 billion from $3.9 billion in just the past three months. Last February, the government's price tag was $2.3 billion, a figure many critics in Congress and industry called highly unrealistic.

"I think it will increase incrementally over the next few quarters," John Koskinen, the new chairman of the federal government's Year 2000 Council, told Washington Technology. "A 10 percent increase would not surprise me. But I think we're in the right ballpark."

Koskinen, a former deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, was named by President Clinton in February to serve as chair of the Year 2000 Council. Koskinen started his new job March 9, and met for the first time with the full council April 16.

Its mission is to coordinate efforts among agencies, raise awareness of the seriousness of the issue, and perform outreach work with organizations outside the federal government, such as small businesses and foreign governments.

After meeting with the heads of 41 federal agencies for a progress report, Koskinen expressed confidence they will complete critical software repairs on time.

"We're in a race to a deadline," he said. "At this point we seem to be in a comfortable position to reach that deadline, but we have a lot of work left to do."

That assessment is more optimistic than others within the government and industry, however.

The White House Office of Management and Budget, which is overseeing governmentwide funding of the year 2000 software repair effort, issued a quarterly report Feb. 15 stating that the "majority of the work remains to be done," and progress is "not rapid enough overall." Among the agencies behind schedule at the time of the last report are the departments of Education, Energy, Health and Human Services and Transportation.

Also, Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., said in a March 4 report to the government management, information and technology subcommittee that only 63 percent of the federal government's nearly 8,000 critical computer systems will be fixed on time at the current rate of progress.

Earlier this year, the Office of Management and Budget accelerated by eight months the schedule that governs when agencies must complete all their systems date code work. OMB Director Franklin Raines told agency chiefs in a memorandum in February that he wants all systems 2000-ready by March 1999 rather than November 1999.

The year 2000 problem is a programming flaw that dates back to the industry's early days, when computers had limited memory. Programmers saved space by cutting two digits off all annual dates. So 1988, for example, was abbreviated as "88." The problem comes in 2000 when computers interpret "00" as 1900 instead of 2000.

Including Koskinen, who reports to Clinton, the council has a staff of four. Koskinen estimated the council's budget at less than $2 million over the next two years. "It could be less than $1 million," he said.

Koskinen's primary concern is that other countries will not be prepared. Since computers worldwide are linked, this could cause major problems for the U.S. government and industry even if domestic systems have been repaired.

"If a foreign stock market can't open on Jan. 3, that's a problem for our market and our economy," Koskinen said.

Despite Koskinen's optimism, at least one key industry official expects the price tag for year 2000 software repairs to keep rising. Bob Cohen, vice president of the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America, said his organization predicts it will cost $10 billion to $12 billion.

The OMB's cost estimate has jumped 20 percent since November.

"I hope [Koskinen] is right," Cohen said April 17. But "the higher you go in management the better the news. ... Everything sounds great" but you need to talk to the people on the ground, he said.

In fact, Cohen said, some estimates suggest that 80 percent of the costs will come during testing.

But Koskinen said federal agencies are further along in the process now and know better what to expect. "We're more in the realm of the known than the unknown."

Koskinen did say that two or three agencies he declined to name plan to ask OMB for additional money for repair work, ranging from about $25 million to about $150 million.

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