Survey finds feds behind curve

House members said they were "appalled" by a survey released last week that showed a majority of federal agencies have done very little to develop plans to cope with the Year 2000 problem, prompting the House oversight committee that conducted the survey to issue failing grades for most agencies.

Of the 24 agencies surveyed by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee's Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology, 14 had not formulated a plan to address the problem that, if left untreated, will cause many of the agencies' systems to crash on Jan.1, 2000.

The systems only use the last two digits of a year to control their functions and perform calculations and, because of the way their software works, will incorrectly read the year 2000 as the year 1900.

Of the 14 failing agencies, 10 received a "D," and four agencies - the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the departments of Labor, Energy and Transportation - were slapped with an "F."

"If this were a class in college, there would be a lot of dumb-dumbs in that class," said Rep. Steven Horn (R-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee and a former political science professor.

Horn singled out three agencies to chastise: DOT, which apparently never responded to the survey; DOE, which Horn said did not begin to address the Year 2000 problem until after it had received the subcommittee's survey; and NASA.

DOT officials declined to comment on the survey and said they are preparing a response for the subcommittee. DOE officials did not return phone calls.

Horn said NASA's grade of "D" was surprising because the agency is "one of the most innovative, advanced and computer-dependent agencies in the federal government," but it had not prepared a Year 2000 plan and reported it will not have one until March 1997.

"This leaves less than a year to inventory and fix systems," Horn said.

Also heavily computer dependent, the Defense Department, which in the past has been praised for acting swiftly on the Year 2000 problem, received a "C" because it had not yet completed an inventory of its software nor identified what had to be converted.

Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.), chairwoman of the House Science Committee's Technology Subcommittee, which also has been following the Year 2000 problem, said, "We were appalled at the fact [that] the federal government wasn't planning ahead in a coordinated fashion for the next millennium."

Other survey findings included:

Only six agencies had calculated cost estimates, totaling $298 million, needed to fix their systems. The Health Care Financing Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated it will cost a combined $125 million, and the Agriculture Department's Austin Automated Center had figured on spending $5.6 million on its systems.

DOD estimates it will need to fix 358 million lines of code at a cost of $358 million to $3 billion.

The survey was Congress' first attempt to measure how agencies have responded to the Year 2000 problem and has focused more attention on the problem with agencies.

"Congressman Horn has compiled a lot of important data, and for all agencies this is a major call for action," said Kathleen Adams, chairwoman of the Year 2000 Interagency Committee and associate commissioner of the Office of Systems Design and Development for the Social Security Administration, which received an "A" in the survey "Obviously, there's a lot of work to be done."

Even for some agencies receiving passing grades, the outlook is not good. House staff members overseeing agencies' plans for the Year 2000 said the three agencies receiving a "B" were actually behind schedule. Horn admitted they were "a little lenient" in awarding the "Bs."

Some information technology experts following the Year 2000 problem in the government said the lack of a more heated response from House members to the survey was unsettling. Horn said he believed agencies "can turn it around" in the coming months.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who represents Northern Virginia, home to dozens of information technology corporations, said he wants to see better grades in a year.

But federal and private-sector IT experts, who are becoming increasingly skeptical about the probability that agencies will have fixed their systems in less than four years, say a year is far too long a period to wait for an improvement.

'Massive Failures' Ahead?

Olga Grkavac, vice president of the Systems Integration Division at the Information Technology Association of America, praised the survey for convincing some top-level agency managers to address the problem more quickly, but she warned that "unless the agencies immediately gear up to deal with the problem, we're going to have massive failures."

Frustrated by the lack of response from agencies to the problem, Grkavac added, "You're at a loss for words to get across to agencies how to define the immediate attention this needs." She added that agencies should be past the planning stage and into taking an inventory of their software. After fixing the software, agencies need a year to test the systems.

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