Washington insiders are starting to worry that their reputations--and not just the nation's computers--could be crippled by the notorious year 2000 software bug. That's one reason they're cheering the return of John A. Koskinen, who's been recruited by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to work out glitches in as many of the government's software programs as possible by the first Monday of the millennium, Jan. 3, 2000.
"This really could be a serious problem for the government and the world economy," Koskinen said during an interview on March 9, his first day as assistant to the President and chair of the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion.
Koskinen accepted the job last month after receiving calls from Clinton and Gore, ending his eight-month sojourn in the private sector. Koskinen left the Office of Management and Budget in July 1997, after a three-year stint as deputy director for management.
Industry executives grimly predict the federal repair job won't be done in time and will spill over the budget of $4.7 billion, even if the government ignores the tens of thousands of minor computer systems, computerized elevators and the heating and security systems that, too, could go haywire.
"Koskinen is facing up to what they should have done a year ago," said Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee's Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee. Horn recently graded the agencies' repair efforts, awarding only three of them an A and six a B. He gave out four C's, six D's and five F's.
Last year, both Horn and Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md., chairwoman of the House Science Technology Subcommittee, called on Gore to lead the upgrade effort, partly because of his high-tech resume. However, Gore has kept his distance from the problem--at least publicly. He couldn't take the job, because "you need to have someone focused on this issue only," said Koskinen. But he said Gore--who's gearing up for the presidential primaries in early 2000--is still involved.
"In my conversations with people on the Hill . . . their first point is that everybody will be in the sinking ship together and it will be small consolation. . . if one particular passenger on that boat has more blame than another," said Koskinen.
That still leaves plenty of room for finger-pointing. "When we get down to the last six months, and problems start to pop up, there will be more of a tendency for people to start running around in circles making noise," Koskinen said.
So, why did Koskinen accept this next-to-impossible task? Being asked by the President and Vice President was one big reason, the love of a challenge was another, Koskinen said. Still, "you have to sort of be a masochist," he admitted. After all, as Koskinen readily acknowledges, he'll be left holding the bag if the software fails, but he won't get much credit if the snags are smoothed and Jan. 3 passes uneventfully: "It is one of the world's great bag-holder positions."