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The Response to the Y2K Challenge Offers Lessons for the Pandemic

Only the federal government can provide the leadership necessary to energize the national resources necessary to meet such a challenge. But it can't do it alone.

The world faced a seemingly insurmountable technology challenge in the late 1990s that threatened to disrupt civilization. Addressing this required mobilizing a vast response effort, not unlike what we are facing today with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The year 2000 challenge, known as Y2K, was easy to describe but not as simple to solve. To save space, which was very valuable in the early days of computer programming in the 1950s and 60s, programmers adopted the strategy of using two digits to identify the year—1966 became 66. Little did these early programmers know that financial institutions, industrial firms and government agencies like Social Security and the Federal Aviation Administration would adopt that practice for the computer systems they would build over the years.

This “legacy code” in old programming languages was everywhere. By the early 1990s, computer experts began to predict that major failures, or even catastrophes, would occur when the clock ran out in 1999 if the problem wasn’t fixed. As the years passed with little organized response, the likelihood of success diminished significantly. Social Security, for example, had over 50 million lines of computer code that needed to be checked and, in many areas, fixed.

Ultimately, President Bill Clinton decided it was important to find someone to coordinate the government's work in this area. As the Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget from 1994 to 1997, I helped change the way the government acquired and managed information technology. I also ran the government shutdowns in 1995, working with every agency to develop a coordinated response to the budget crisis. So, I seemed to be a logical choice to lead the response. It’s also possible that I was the only one willing to take the job.

Lessons Learned

Following are five lessons learned from my experience in running the Y2K effort that leaders today and in the future may find useful when faced with a similar cross-agency, cross-societal challenge with an immutable deadline.

1. Coordination is critical. We started by setting up the “President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion.” In addition to the usual suspects, I asked that the Council include all the independent regulatory agencies, who usually want to be unconstrained by executive branch initiatives. They all agreed to participate, including the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the Security and Exchange Commission, etc.

I visited each cabinet secretary and agency head and said they could appoint anyone they would like to the Council as long as their representative had a broad knowledge of the agency's activities and the authority to make decisions on the spot, since we didn't have time for people to check back with headquarters as we moved along.

At an early meeting, we spent a full afternoon in a retreat-like setting to discuss the areas outside the federal government where serious problems would be created for the country if their IT systems didn't work. We quickly moved through the obvious candidates such as electricity, telecommunications, finance and transportation to discover that we had 25 areas of concern, including state and local government, pharmaceutical firms, chemical companies, water treatment facilities etc.

2. Public-private partnerships can be powerful. We then decided that the way to proceed was to convince the national groups for each of the 25 areas, generally located in Washington, to form a partnership with the federal government to coordinate the work in their area. The working groups would be co-chaired by the relevant agency—the Federal Reserve coordinated the financial industry; the Energy Department worked with utility companies and the oil and gas industry; and the Transportation Department got planes, trains and automobiles.

The first challenge was to convince the national trade organizations to take on the responsibility (many said “we do policy papers and lobby, but never organize operations”), and then to assure them that we were from the federal government and really were there to help them, not tell them what to do.

Almost as soon as I started, representatives of the finance and telecommunications industries came to see me to say that their biggest challenge was that lawyers were telling their companies they could not exchange Y2K information with any of their competitors since they risked being charged with violating antitrust laws or, if any information they provided proved to be incorrect, they could be sued. 

So, I agreed to work with Congress to get liability limiting legislation passed. But it would have to be by unanimous consent in both houses of Congress, since we didn't have time for the usual process of hearings and floor debate. Needless to say, it was a high wire act since there are a lot of people and organizations, like the trial lawyers, opposed to any legislation limiting any liability. My pitch to Congress was that if we could only do one thing to deal with the problem, it would be to pass this legislation. The Senate quickly passed the bill and, late one afternoon in the summer of 1998, when the clerk of the House of Representatives read the title and asked if there were any objections, no one said a word.

This freed up the flow of information and allowed companies to share with each other where they were finding problems and how they were dealing with them.

3. Focus from the top has impact. One strategy we used to encourage organizations to pay attention to the problem was, in the case of states for example, to hold a meeting with the National Governors Association and invite every state to send their Y2K coordinator. The theory was that if there was a coordinator, the governor would now know who it was and would pay more attention to the challenge. Even more importantly, if the state did not have a coordinator, they would quickly appoint one, since no one wanted to be identified as having no approach to the issue.

A corollary strategy I discussed with governors, mayors and company presidents was that they didn't have to know anything about the problem, all they needed to do at every meeting of their senior leadership group was ask “how are we doing on Y2K?” That would send a strong signal that they cared about the problem and those dealing with the issue would want to show progress at each meeting.

The problem in some cases was that I got asked to join the leader at their monthly meetings. Thus, I ended up each month at a meeting with the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Transportation and the head of the FAA, and the Mayor of Washington and their leadership teams. 

4. Avoid panic with regular, honest communication. We also had to deal with the challenge of getting those who depended upon IT for their work to fix their systems without panicking the general public. One strategy was to convince our working groups to start issuing public progress reports on a quarterly basis beginning in January of 1999. Some, like the oil and gas industry, were concerned that if they reported they were only 40% done, that would generate public concern and some panic. 

I said that the contrary was true. The public would appreciate their candor and believe their report since, if they were going to lie, they would simply say they were done. Then, when they completed their work later in the year, the public would have confidence in that report and respond accordingly.

It was also clear that what the public really wanted was to know what was going to happen in their immediate areas. So we developed materials to allow local leaders to organize, with our help, “community conversations”—public gatherings where local representatives of utilities, banks, the telephone company, emergency managers and government leaders could have an open discussion about how they were approaching the problem and the status of their work. 

To encourage these gatherings, I told those on our monthly conference call with city representatives that if they could set up a gathering in the next couple of weeks, I would show up. My thought was that four or five would meet the immediate challenge. I ended up going to 23 community conversations across the country.

5. You can't solve a global problem on your own. Finally, our larger problem was how to coordinate with the rest of the world. I visited the UN in the Spring of 1998 to discuss our approach but by the summer, it was clear that the UN on its own was not going to take on the Y2K problem. So, with the assistance of Ahmad Kamal, the permanent ambassador from Pakistan, we invited UN member countries to come to a meeting at the UN the first week of December in 1998. 

I thought that if we could get 30 countries or so, representing the developed countries of the world, we could make real progress. We ended up with 100 countries. We had put together a committee of 12 Y2K leaders from around the world so that this would not appear to be only a US initiative. We divided the countries up by continent with a committee member taking the lead in pulling together continental meetings with presentations on whatever subjects the local countries requested. 

The countries not only enjoyed the presentations we provided over the two-day meeting, they insisted we gather again the following June to compare notes and discuss contingency planning. And so, in June of 1999, we had 170 countries join us in New York for what was the largest non-General Assembly meeting in the history of the UN.

Was There Really Ever a Problem?

I had said at my initial press interview that being the Y2K Czar was the greatest bag holder job in the world. If things went well, everyone would ask “what was that all about?” And, if there were major failings, they would want to know “What was the name of that guy who was supposed to be in charge?”

And, sure enough, while a number of significant failures occurred on New Year's Eve—the Defense intelligence satellite system went down, the low-level wind shear detectors at major U.S. airports failed, and the Japanese lost the ability to monitor safety systems for their nuclear power plants—the theme immediately emerged on New Year's Day of 2000 that this had all been an overreaction to a problem that didn't really exist. But that view does not reflect the reality of the danger to the world. I don't know anyone who worked on the Y2K problem in a financial institution, a power plant or a telecommunications company who thought they wasted their time or money to make sure the transition went as well as it did.

Future Applications of Lessons Learned

These lessons offer important insights for government leaders, businesses and other partners facing crisis response today, and those that will inevitably arise in the future. Specifically:

  • Organizing a working group of people affected by a common problem and listening to what they have to say is always a good way to start meeting a challenge. When it's a global issue that affects the entire United States, even more is needed.
  • Only the federal government can provide the leadership necessary to energize the national resources necessary to meet such a challenge. But it can't do it alone. Federal agencies need to be members of an ongoing management group, but they need to reach out to the relevant players in the private sector to form a functioning partnership. 
  • The government also needs to speak with one voice, providing the public with regular, factual updates and predictions and instructions for the future. State and local government, private companies and nonprofits all have important roles to play and work to do, but they need to be doing it as part of a national plan they helped develop.
  • Finally, a global crisis requires a global response, often led by the United States. With luck, we'll get through each crisis we face, but we can't rely on luck to make it happen.

Listen to John Koskinen explain the Y2K command center during the last week of 1999:

John Koskinen, in addition to having led the President’s Council on Year 2000, is also the former Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, former Chair of the Board for Freddie Mac, former City Administrator for the District of Columbia, and former Deputy Director of Management at the Office of Management and Budget. This post is part of a series developed by the IBM Center for The Business of Government that reflects on lessons from past government reform efforts.

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