Year 2000 Council Gets Thumbs-Up from Industry

Year 2000 Council Gets Thumbs-Up from Industry

By Heather B. Hayes

President Bill Clinton's creation of a high-level council to oversee the federal government's year 2000 software conversion efforts is a positive step that is long overdue, industry officials say.

"Better late than never" is how many industry analysts described Clinton's recent action. Members of Congress and U.S. industry officials have complained for months that the year 2000 software conversion problem deserves higher-level government attention.

The president's Feb. 4 naming of John A. Koskinen, a former deputy director at the Office of Management and Budget, to serve as head of the new council, comes just 22 months before the year 2000.

"It would have been better if this would have happened a few years ago," said Judith Draper, a year 2000 director at Computer Sciences Corp., Falls Church, Va., which is reprogramming code for a number of federal agencies including the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA.

Sam Kittner photo

John Koskinen takes his post March 9 as head of federal year 2000 council.

But it is important that the council is in place and led by someone "who's very senior and very knowledgeable about year 2000," said Draper, who oversees year 2000 work at the Military Systems Center for CSC's Systems Group.

Officials at all levels of government are scrambling to fix the software glitch, which causes software to interpret the year 2001 as 1901. This bug could possibly scramble data processing in many government computers, including those processing Medicare claims or other vital disbursements.

Sally Katzen, who has led federal efforts to manage the year 2000 software conversion, will act as vice chair of the new council. Katzen, who left OMB to become deputy assistant to the president for economic policy, has also been the Clinton administration's main representative for the year 2000 issue before Congress.

The council will include one senior representative from each executive department and will report directly to Clinton. Koskinen, who has a background in crisis management, is scheduled to assume his post on March 9.

While generally applauding the president's choice of Koskinen, industry officials noted that White House foot-dragging on this issue gives Koskinen little time or room for error.

"He has to be forceful and decisive from the get-go and go out there and really take a leadership role," Draper said. "He has to make tough decisions and make tough recommendations and become very, very visible, very, very fast."

The administration's creation of the council came in the midst of some bad news for federal year 2000 conversion efforts. The U.S. Air Force discovered hundreds of additional computer systems that need fixing, even as a just-released General Accounting Office report slammed the service's management of the crisis. Meanwhile, officials from the Federal Aviation Administration told members of the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology that the agency was about nine months behind schedule in its conversion efforts.

Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., who chairs the House subcommittee and has urged appointment of a year 2000 czar for more than two years, characterized Clinton's executive order as a major victory.

"The work to be done within the government is staggering, and failure to complete that work would mean a potential technological nightmare," he stated. The new council, he said, "offers the best hope yet that we will avoid that nightmare."

Officials at the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America, an industry-funded group that has pushed for greater White House involvement on the year 2000 issue, also welcomed the move.

However, ITAA officials noted that it is not clear how much authority the council will ultimately possess. The executive order creating the council did not detail Koskinen's or the group's authority.

"Whether it's successful or not is going to depend on how the details play out and the extent to which Mr. Koskinen is able to get the attention of these cabinet secretar-ies and really get their heads into this game," said ITAA's Bob Cohen, vice president of communications.

In fact, Koskinen's ability to use his "bully pulpit" to make senior-level management aware of the gravity of the problem will make or break the federal government's chances of identifying, converting and testing its mission-critical systems before the date changeover, according to industry and government officials.

"Awareness is definitely a major aspect of managing this problem successfully," stated Gene Bounds, vice president of the solutions group at Robbins-Gioia, an Alexandria, Va.-based systems integrator currently working to convert several systems within the Department of Defense.

"Clearly, the council gives an awful lot of visibility to the issue [and] also increases accountability and gives ownership to a senior-level person at each agency. We think it's a very positive move."

Beyond federal conversion efforts, the council will also oversee and help manage conversion efforts for computer systems linking the federal government with state and local governments, the private sector, and foreign organizations.

"It's a major challenge, because we rely on so many other entities to carry some of the weight of federal programs," said a White House source familiar with the project. "If our systems are ready and theirs aren't, we've got a real problem."

Although most agencies are clearly behind the curve on their year 2000 efforts, industry players remain optimistic about the government's chances of meeting the looming deadline.

"Clearly there's time to identify mission-critical systems, categorize them, prioritize them, and get the job done," Bounds stated. "But there is a very small window of opportunity to get an effective management structure and technical structure in place. But for now, it looks like they're on the right track."

The council will have a clear baseline from which to judge their progress. Federal agencies are scheduled to make another quarterly report to Congress on their year 2000 progress on Feb. 15.

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