Meeting the Deadline, Mostly

Washington Post/March 31, 1999
By Stephen Barr

The federal bureaucracy, repeatedly embarrassed over the years by its failure to finish technology projects on time, has proved far more nimble in meeting today's White House deadline for eradicating the Y2K bug.

Clinton administration officials plan to announce this afternoon that 92 percent of the government's "mission critical" computer systems at the 24 largest agencies have been fixed, undergone an initial round of Year 2000 tests and put back on line, complying with the March 31 deadline set 16 months ago.

Thirteen of the 24 agencies reported that 100 percent of their critical systems have been deemed "compliant" for operation next year, administration officials said yesterday. Only the Agency for International Development, with seven critical systems, completely missed the deadline, reporting that none of its systems has been fixed, officials said.

In addition to AID, the 8 percent that missed the White House deadline include components of several vital systems, such as air traffic control computers operated by the Federal Aviation Administration, Medicare reimbursements processed by some federal contractors and Defense Department systems that help plan some jet fighter missions.

But administration officials said the lagging agencies would complete their Y2K work by summer's end and were pleased that out of 6,123 critical federal systems, only about 500 systems at 11 large agencies still need repairs.

Asked about the deadline after a Federal Communications Commission briefing on Y2K readiness in the telecommunications industry yesterday, White House Year 2000 adviser John A. Koskinen said today's announcement would be "a great testimony to work by skilled and dedicated employees and should help restore public confidence in the ability of public servants to deal with a major challenge."

In a statement, Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), chairman of the special Senate Year 2000 committee, said, "It is a significant accomplishment that the federal government has come as far as it has in the past year."

When the government began to grasp the magnitude of the Year 2000 problem, many feared an inept repair effort could disrupt programs or even jeopardize the economy.

In August 1998, for example, Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) issued grades to prod agencies and calculated that the Education Department would not become Year 2000 "compliant" until 2030, given its pace of repairs. But this month, the Education Department reported that its 14 critical systems, including 11 that process student loans and aid, were fixed and had undergone verification by an independent contractor.

Despite the redoubled effort, lawmakers and industry analysts warned yesterday that the government still faces a huge Y2K workload, including the need for sophisticated tests to ensure that federal computers can properly exchange data not only internally but with states and localities.

"This isn't the time to relax. Complacency cannot be tolerated at this stage of the game," said Ann K. Coffou, vice president of the Giga Information Group, a research and consulting firm.

The Year 2000 problem, known as Y2K, stems from the fact that millions of devices, whether mainframe computers that send out Social Security checks or silicon chips that control weapons, were programmed to process only the last two digits of a year, assuming the first two would be "19."

If they are not fixed by year's end, the machines may interpret "00" not as 2000 but as 1900, potentially causing shutdowns or malfunctions.

While analysts applauded the government's progress, they stressed that the next phase, called "end-to-end testing," would be difficult, consume huge chunks of time and add to agency costs.

In such tests, agencies are trying to determine if their systems can reliably exchange data with other systems after Year 2000 changes have been made to pieces of hardware or lines of code. Studies show that when systems undergo multiple changes, as with Y2K, technicians inadvertently make errors that prompt still more modifications to the systems.

"Testing requires a lot of things, and the question is whether they have enough time," said Barry C. Ingram of the EDS Government Industry Group, based in Herndon.

Dale W. Way of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc., in Foster City, Calif., said the government now confronts the problem of "putting Humpty Dumpty back together again."

"Even though they have made many of the systems individually compliant, they still face the challenge of making sure they all work together," Way said.

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