SSA's Adams focuses on Year 2000

When Kathleen Adams agreed last year to chair an interagency committee on the Year 2000, she never thought that she would attract so much attention.

"You think about the genesis of how this thing got started," said Adams, whose full-time position is associate commissioner of the Office of Systems Design and Development for the Social Security Administration. "I thought I'd get a couple of helpers to put together a workshop and then go around to the different agencies to raise awareness about the problem.

"But it has grown into so much more, and it was a funny thing to find myself on Capitol Hill answering questions from Congressman [Steve] Horn (R-Calif.) about why every agency wasn't on the committee," she said.

The answer is that the Year 2000 Interagency Committee, as it is called, is an informal group, so agencies are not required to join. Attracting agencies to join the committee has been met with some resistance, Adams admits.

"I think one of the reasons this didn't catch on is [that] it sounds like such a boring topic," she said. "But the more you get into it, the more it becomes fascinating. The related issues are very, very interesting and have profound consequences."

Since its first meeting in July 1995, the number of federal representatives on the Year 2000 Interagency Committee has grown from three to more than 30. Adams said the committee's expansion has been aided by press coverage of the Year 2000 problem and last month's House committee hearings.

A Year 2000 conference that SSA, the Defense Department and industry groups organized last month on the problem also attracted more interest in the committee.

A Successful Strategy

The experience has convinced Adams that the recent trend to form interagency workgroups to solve governmentwide problems is a successful strategy to follow when solving cross-agency problems. By putting officials from different agencies together, "you leverage their resources," she said.

Despite the heightened awareness, Adams is convinced that four years is not enough time to reprogram all the government's systems, and some of them will fail.

As a result, agency officials should perform what amounts to technological triage, Adams said. First, agencies should take an inventory of their systems to find out how much of their program code is date-sensitive. Agencies then need to determine if they can fix the systems with commercial off-the-shelf products.

"The rule of thumb is: If you can get 70 percent of the functionality from a COTS package, then it makes sense to buy it," she said.

The other option is to replace or redesign the system, Adams said. But given that agencies have only three and a half years left to make the changes, "those decisions have to be made

quickly, and you have to get started now," she said.

Adams was tapped to chair the committee because SSA had already started reprogramming much of its software to be Year 2000-compliant. SSA started analyzing the problem in 1989.

Adams' interest in government and familiarity with SSA started when her father took a position with the agency and moved the family to Baltimore from Miami. She received a degree in English from the University of Maryland and made plans to go to law school.

To earn money for law school, she accepted a position as a health insurance policy analyst at SSA and later joined the management internship program. She worked in SSA's district and regional offices in the budgeting, operations and systems divisions. The internship afforded Adams a working knowledge of all SSA's functions.

Like so many other professionals who plan to work for the government for a short while but end up making a career in civil service, Adams' intentions of leaving for law school faded. She liked the internship program because it allowed her to work in different positions and take on different responsibilities.

"A lot of jobs are cyclical," she said. "Once [I] go through one or two cycles, and I can begin to anticipate what is going to happen, I just want to move on. The challenge is just not there for me anymore."

That's why Adams has settled into SSA's systems office, which develops and maintains the software that supports SSA's business functions, such as an applicant's eligibility for benefits, and assigns Social Security numbers.

"I think I could spend my life here, and I never would learn everything because technology is always changing," she said.

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