GAO's Willemssen:Knee Deep in Year 2000

GAO's Willemssen: Knee Deep in Year 2000

Joel Willenssen

Since the General Accounting Office identified the year 2000 computer problem as a high-risk area in February 1997, Joel Willemssen, 42, has been at the center of the storm. In the last two years, the GAO's director of civil agencies, information systems, has testified on Capitol Hill more than 25 times.

In his 19 years with the agency, nothing compares to the year 2000 computer crisis in magnitude, said Willemssen, who received bachelor's and master's degrees in business administration from the University of Iowa, and has completed the executive level program in information systems at the University of California at Los Angeles.

GAO has issued more than 70 reports on the computer bug in less than two years. More than half of GAO's computer-related staff of 100 is focused on Y2K at federal agencies, state and local governments and key economic sectors, and Willemssen expects the effort to increase in 1999. He talked about the Y2K outlook with Washington Technology staff writer Richard McCaffery.

WT: Have agencies been cooperative, or is the GAO's relationship with them antagonistic?

Willemssen: It's generally been cooperative. It's interesting that the receptivity in some agencies has changed over time. If we were speaking 12 to 18 months ago I couldn't really tell you that, from a uniform point of view, there was real engagement and involvement from top agency executives. For the good, that's changed. It's fairly consistent now, when we go into an agency, that the issue is understood and is a top priority. The unfortunate part is that in some cases, they started late.

WT: Which agencies?

Willemssen: The two most prevalent examples are the Federal Aviation Administration and the Health Care Financing Administration. Both face massive challenges to get all their systems compliant in time. They both have made Y2K a top priority and have made excellent progress during the last several months. The FAA has worked hard all year.

WT: Will the FAA be ready?

Willemssen: Our most recent position on the FAA is contained in an Aug. 6 [congressional] testimony. Things could have changed, but because of the magnitude of what they face, it's doubtful they can get everything done in time.

WT: What will happen at the FAA Jan. 1, 2000?

Willemssen: They still have time to influence that.

WT: Are those two agencies your biggest concern?

Willemssen: They're among the biggest challenges we'll monitor. We're also monitoring the efforts of the Department of Defense. They have more systems than anyone, and quite a ways to go. Also, the Department of State is quite a bit behind, and state and local governments are an issue of growing concern. We issued a report based on a survey of the states on Y2K progress with social information systems like Medicaid, child support enforcement and food stamps. The results weren't encouraging. For example, as of August, only 16 percent of state Medicaid systems were compliant. This was self-reported information.

WT: Are agencies being unrealistic about their chances of being ready in time?

Willemssen: I wouldn't say they're being totally unrealistic. Let me put it this way: We base our views on the facts and our experience of what can be done in the time remaining. We generally don't have disagreements with agencies on the facts. We occasionally disagree on the bottom line. I understand why agencies take an optimistic approach, but I'm in a position of reporting the facts we've gathered and our views.

WT: Has Y2K pointed out weaknesses in the way the government manages its information technology systems?

Willemssen: It's pointed to some weaknesses. For example, you would expect top IT managers to have a fairly good inventory of systems under their control. What we found is many agencies didn't even have a basic inventory. They had to spend precious time learning what systems they had.

Secondly, there are related concerns in the software development area and the capability of federal agencies to develop software using well-disciplined processes.

WT: Do you mean there's a lot of home-grown software that's hard to sort out?

Willemssen: Software that wasn't developed using standardized processes.

WT: Any management strengths?


Willemssen: Some organizations were better positioned to address the issue. There are organizations where IT is a valued commodity and a top priority as opposed to a side issue. The Social Security Administration is foremost in my mind. They started on Y2K almost 10 years ago. They recognize IT as a critical strategic asset they have to have working properly to do their job.

WT: How much do you think Y2K is going to cost the federal government?

Willemssen: Our last estimate was $7.2 billion, based on Nov. 13 quarterly submissions of the 24 major agencies. It's a little more than triple the original federal estimate of early 1997 of $2.3 billion.

There's been a steady increase. I expect it will continue slightly if the past is any indication.

WT: Is there anything you've recommended that the government should be doing that it isn't?

Willemssen: The primary one outstanding is the need to set governmentwide priorities based on four factors: adverse health and safety, national defense, adverse financial impact on the average citizen and economic impact.

WT: What's happening now?

Willemssen: Every agency makes its own decisions.

WT: Would you like the president or the Office of Management and Budget to step forward and ask these agencies to prove that they've made these issues a priority?

Willemssen: Yes.

WT: Will it continue to be an issue?

Willemssen: Mr. [John] Koskinen, [the government's year 2000 czar,] is very aware our position.

WT: Is the work you're putting into Y2K paying off?

Willemssen: Definitely. To date, we've put out a number of guides on Y2K that have been adopted by the executive branch for use by federal agencies, such as our original enterprise assessment guide and the guide on contingency planning and business continuity. Almost without fail, the agencies have adopted our recommendations.

Also, right after John Koskinen was appointed, we gave him several recommendations, and he has adopted and implemented most of those. The list goes on. We clearly feel we've been successful.

WT: So your goal is not just to monitor what the government is doing, but help it meet the Y2K challenge?

Willemssen: The first goal is assisting the Congress in its oversight responsibilities. Part of that is making recommendations to the executive branch and seeing they're implemented.

WT: Why is the GAO so interested in the year 2000 issue?

Willemssen: Two reasons. We identified Y2K as a high-risk area to the federal government in February 1997, and we were going to do what we could to surface the issue and minimize the resulting impact. Second, there's been a tremendous amount of congressional interest. Most of our reports have come from congressional requests.

WT: What do you mean by high risk?

Willemssen: That citizens will be adversely affected in terms of the benefits and services they have come to expect.

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