Koskinen Casts Wide Y2K Net

nferris@govexec.com

The federal government not only must get its own computer systems ready for the year 2000, the Clinton administration's new year 2000 czar said Wednesday, but it also should prod non-federal organizations to speed up their preparations for the century change.

"We have an obligation to the public to view this as more than just a federal systems problem," John Koskinen said at a joint hearing of two House subcommittees. He said agency officials should be working with their counterparts in the private sector and state, local and foreign governments to keep critical information networks up and running.

Koskinen told the House members his new office, the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion, will be a catalyst for outreach, coordination and jawboning to make sure systems are ready for the century change. It will not substitute for or duplicate work already being done by other organizations, such as the Office of Management and Budget or the Chief Information Officers Council, he said.

Instead, he said, "the council's real contribution will be made by coordinating work by the agencies with those outside the federal government, whether they be tribal, state and local governments, private-sector organizations or institutions operating around the world."

Federal agencies will be encouraged to work with the industries they regulate or work with, Koskinen said. For example, he said, the Treasury Department or the Federal Reserve should coordinate outreach to financial institutions, and the Health and Human Services Department should work with the health care industry.

The new White House office will not have operational responsibilities, he said, telling reporters later that he will have a staff of two professionals and one assistant. But a week into his new job, Koskinen acknowledged that he already was meeting individually with agency heads to review their progress and their concerns.

Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee, agreed that the federal government has a role with respect to non-federal systems. "We must develop a recovery plan for possible failures in key sectors such as finance, utilities and transportation," he said, adding later: "It is amazing, but true, that the Year 2000 computer bug could harm the world's largest and most robust economy. It is our responsibility to squash this bug."

In other developments at the hearing, which drew an overflow crowd:

  • Horn said agencies' repair work is behind schedule and "we have no choice but to double our rate of progress." He also called on the executive branch not to ignore the "secondary" systems that agencies have labeled non-mission-critical. "The collective confusions of tens of thousands of secondary systems failing could be catastrophic," Horn said.
  • Gene Dodaro, a senior General Accounting Office official, said that "not all mission-critical systems are going to be fixed on time" and agencies should set priorities to ensure the most important ones are repaired. He said 4,600 federal systems need to be repaired or replaced in the next year. GAO released a draft of a new guide for agencies, Year 2000 Computing Crisis: Business Continuity and Contingency Planning, yesterday.
  • A year 2000 consultant, Michael P. Harden of Century Technology Services Inc., described agencies' difficulties in finding and retaining skilled programmers to carry out repairs and warned that labor costs are doubling every six months.
  • Treasury Department officials described their year 2000 progress to date in measured terms. Chief information officer James J. Flyzik said the problems are "far from solved," but the agency is on target to complete the job on schedule. One problem at Treasury: getting information from hardware, software and processor suppliers about their products' readiness for the century change.
  • Koskinen said the extent of problems with so-called "embedded systems"--the microprocessors that operate office machines, thermostats, automobile systems and so on-is "unknowable," but they are not as much of a cause for worry as the government's information systems.
  • Rep. James A. Barcia, D-Mich., said he was dismayed to learn that the information systems office for the House of Representatives does not have a plan and has been slow to begin its own year 2000 repairs. "If we intend to take a leadership role, we must lead by example and get our own house in order," he said.
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