Agencies, Industry See Benefits From Y2K's Wake

Agencies, Industry See Benefits From Y2K's Wake

John Koskinen

By Nick Wakeman, Staff Writer

The same techniques and tenacity that prevented potentially devastating year 2000 problems for government agencies can be applied to other pressing issues, such as information assurance and electronic government, according to government and industry officials.

"Two years ago, Y2K seemed liked an intractable problem. The federal government would never make the deadline," said John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Panel on Y2K that oversaw government efforts to solve the problem.

But cooperation, information sharing and attention from high-ranking government officials averted a disaster, Koskinen said at a joint conference held March 8 by the General Services Administration and the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils,
a group that promotes education and communication among government IT professionals.

Now the challenge is taking the Y2K lessons and applying them to new problems, such as information assurance, infrastructure protection and e-government, he said.

Such a mobilization of government and private resources could provide an enormous boon to the information technology industry. The federal government spent an estimated $8.3 billion to address year 2000 concerns.

But how a new set of initiatives would translate into business and revenue for government contractors is not yet clear, company executives said.

"We don't know what all the changes are going to be," said Phil Lacombe, senior vice president for cyberassurance at systems integrator Veridian Inc. of Alexandria, Va. "But Y2K demonstrated that none of us can fix these problems on our own."

The government has an obligation to keep the fires of cooperation and collaboration burning, Koskinen said. "If we don't, in 10 years we'll be back to where we started from," he said. There will be too many information systems that no one knows about, interoperability will be a problem, and information systems will be inefficient.

The Chief Information Officers Council played a prominent role in preventing a year 2000 crisis because it created a forum for agencies and the private sector to share information on problems and solutions, Koskinen said. The CIO council comprises the top IT managers of all the government agencies.

"We have to build on these partnerships, especially with information security," he said.

Problems facing the government now, such as work force shortages, privacy issues and security, are similar to Y2K in that they are management problems, said Leon Kappelman, a professor and researcher at the University of North Texas who served on United Nations and World Bank committees on Y2K.

"These problems are really symptoms of poor quality in our software and IT management," he said, adding that poor management can create and accentuate these problems. Business as usual was not going to solve the Y2K problem, so new management practices had to be used, which included raising the awareness of senior government officials about how critical IT systems are for an agency to operate, according to Kappelman.

"We changed things, and that has to continue," he said.

Because of Y2K, agencies now have more complete inventories of their information systems, and this will be a tool for better management in the future, said Pam Woodside, Team 2000 project manager for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD now is using a change management policy, which looks at the business or mission value of a change to its IT systems before going ahead with that change, she said. Monthly progress reports are issued to keep better track of the deployment of new systems.

"We are now looking at systems development from a departmentwide perspective," Woodside said, rather than just system to system.

During its Y2K work, HUD found it had 365 interfaces among its various IT systems, and that to solve its Y2K problems, lines of communications had to be established among program managers, administrators, senior agency officials and outside partners and contractors of HUD, she said.

"Knowing how to work with each other is a definite silver lining to Y2K," said Renato DiPentima, president of the federal sector for SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va.

Contractors that developed good working relationships through their Y2K remediation efforts should benefit in the post-Y2K environment, he said.

The Y2K problem helped increase the trust between government agencies and contractors, said Kenneth Johnson, president of CACI International Inc. of Arlington, Va.

"The Y2K experience itself has been very positive," he said. The lesson that can be carried forward is that "talking, listening and working together yields good results," Johnson said.

Y2K is different from the current crop
of issues facing the federal government
in that Y2K had a distinct deadline, whereas issues such as information assurance, cybersecurity and electronic government do not, government and industry officials said.

But the Y2K experience will help these issues because, "for the first time, agencies and companies started asking: if my IT and communications systems fail, what is the impact," Lacombe said.

That question is pushing more agencies to ask companies such as Veridian to assess how vulnerable their systems are, Lacombe said. "They aren't asking us for different services, but they are asking us for more," he said. "There is a greater understanding of the value of their systems."

"People actually are talking now about software inventories, independent verification and validation and configuration management," DiPentima added.

Y2K showed that information systems are vulnerable to "widespread bugs, and that is an important lesson, and it is one that is going to be learned again and again," he said.

But budget concerns remain. "We just aren't seeing the dollars being cut loose," DiPentima said. "Agencies still are under a lot of budget pressure."

The budget pressures, however, also are colliding with performance pressures as citizens increasingly demand the same level of service from government as they receive in the private sector, said Harold Gracey, acting chief information officer for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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