Czar Is Ready for Millennium...and Sleep

Czar Is Ready for Millennium...and Sleep

John Koskinen

If you think you have spent a lot of time and energy on the year 2000 problem, think about John Koskinen. Named chairman of President Clinton's Council on Year 2000 Conversion in March 1998, Koskinen is the administration's point man for year 2000 readiness.

For the last year, Koskinen has coordinated the year 2000 readiness efforts of more than 30 major federal and regulatory agencies and those of working groups that span 25 industry areas. Under his leadership, federal agencies have gone from 35 percent Y2K compliant to 93 percent.

Koskinen, 59, a former deputy director of the White House's Office of Management and Budget, said lack of awareness is no longer a problem. These days, he worries about the wait-and-see attitude of some small businesses and communities.

In an interview with Washington Technology staff writer Richard McCaffery, Koskinen talks about the push for action overseas and the need to press on with federal, state and local repair efforts.

WT: Some thought you were crazy to take this job. Has anything in the last year surprised you?

Koskinen: I expected there would be a more organized approach internationally, and we'd spend the bulk of our time on domestic issues. The more difficult problem has been getting smaller organizations involved.

WT: What is your best guess about what will happen Jan. 3 — the first Monday of 2000?

Koskinen: The basic infrastructure in the United States will be fine. The risk we run is that in a lot of local areas, people have not paid attention or have decided to wait it out. They're going to find that was a mistake.

There are going to be some cities and counties and some small businesses that are going to show up Monday to see what works. Then they will call their suppliers, only to find a lot of other people calling, too.

In February, March or April [2000], when the replacement [system] comes, they will be in great shape. The question is: How do they function for two or three months?

Any city manager, mayor or county executive who doesn't have this as a priority, and isn't assessing their systems to make sure they work, is not responsibly discharging their duties.

WT: Has pressure from Rep. Steve Horn [R-Calif.], Sen. Robert Bennett [R-Utah] and the General Accounting Office helped?

Koskinen: My view all along has been that the oversight has been generally helpful. It was a way to make people understand this was a serious issue.

If I had a grumble, it was that as we began to make real progress, some of the reports were counterproductive, because they began to wear on employee morale. It is important to get people's attention and for agency heads to understand they are at risk. But once you've got a commitment from people to do the work, then continually harassing them risks becoming counterproductive.

WT: Will the federal government make it?

Koskinen: Now that the government is 93 percent compliant, we think we are in very good shape. We don't think any agency is at risk of not being ready for the year 2000.

WT: How did the government get so much done in the last year?

Koskinen: First, agencies got more experience dealing with the problem. Second, there has always been a lag because you don't get credit on a major system until the whole system passes one of the benchmarks.

Some agencies, like the Department of Education, have a few huge systems. Some [critics] said they wouldn't be done until 2030. Six months later, they were done.

Third, we spent time with the president making clear to cabinet secretaries that they were personally responsible and accountable. We increasingly got the agencies to understand that they had to make Y2K a top priority. At agencies like the [Federal Aviation Administration] and Defense and [the Health Care Financing Administration], everything else had to take a back seat. That meant, in some cases, some very good, new projects were delayed.

WT: When did agencies get the message?

Koskinen: That was pulled together at a meeting Vice President Gore called with [lagging] agencies in September. Gore said this had to be the top priority of the whole agency, not just the IT department.

WT: What is the biggest challenge remaining?

Koskinen: To ensure that the states we rely upon to run programs are compliant. Our main focus is on federal programs like food stamps, Medicaid, welfare programs and job training.

WT: How many are compliant?

Koskinen: The majority of states are not yet compliant, and there are probably 10 or 12 moving too slowly. Last month, 39 states came here for a Y2K summit, and I told them 90 percent is not good enough. The fact that 45 states make it does not help a program if five states cannot administer it.

WT: Come fall, do you plan to start letting people know which states are not advancing quickly enough?

Koskinen: We'll have to start letting people know in the summer, but more importantly, it will be critical for them to have appropriate contingency and backup plans. That's one of the things we've done at the federal level. Everybody, even if they think they're done, needs a contingency plan.

WT: Would you do anything differently?

Koskinen: I wouldn't change anything.

WT: What has been your main accomplishment?

Koskinen: The thing I have been able to do is provide an organized approach across the government, and now across the country. We've got working groups and partnerships with all the critical infrastructure industries in a way we've never had.

WT: What is next?

Koskinen: I'm going to sleep a lot.

WT: Will you work in the public or private sector?

Koskinen: I'm not sure yet. I've always been fascinated by turnarounds and crisis management, so I'll probably look around for some appropriate area of chaos

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