Federal/state links loom as hidden risk

As federal state and local agencies work to make their systems Year 2000-compliant most have not focused on the interfaces between systems that exchange data among the different levels of government. Failure to address the issue could lead to governmental entities contaminating each other's systems with faulty date-related data. The situation opens a second front in an already uphill battle to retool millions of lines of code to beat the millennial deadline.

Also at risk is the seamless provision of services across governmental entities a vision held by many information technology executives in government. Government officials and industry executives report that interfaces between federal and state systems are often poorly charted and that the cost of fixing them is even more uncertain.

How attentive agencies are to this problem varies widely. "Previously they were focused much more on their own internal systems " said Joel Willemsen who heads a General Accounting Office team that is assessing federal agency date-change efforts. "The data-exchange issue is just now confronting them head- on."

"I think it's one of the real unknowns in federal state and local government relations " said Tom Davies a vice president with Federal Sources Inc. He said he has yet to see "a real mapping" of data and systems interfaces among the different levels of government.

Though not all these interfaces are between mission-critical systems many officials and vendors who are aware of the problem said it is likely that some state and federal systems will be disrupted by faulty data. "We view it as one of the biggest problems regarding this entire Year 2000 initiative " said Matthew Carey manager of the Year 2000 upgrade for Pennsylvania. Carey estimates that his state has more than 900 interfaces with federal agencies that support tax collections aviation systems and renewals of environmental permits among other functions.

In order to fix the data-exchange problem the initial step is to identify the key interfaces. "The first cut is to figure out who is giving data to whom " said Royce Goble chief operating officer at Government Micro Resources Inc.'s GMR Technologies International subsidiary. GMR is one of 13 Year 2000 vendors recently selected by Virginia.

Year 2000 vendors said they handle this discovery phase as part of any Year 2000 project. "It's a standard part of the assessment and conversion process " said Randy Srba vice president and director of business development support for CTA Inc.'s CTA Information Technology Services Co. CTA is working with states such as Oregon Kansas and Nebraska.

But once the interfaces are defined the parties involved must agree upon issues such as common date-expansion formats and deadlines for making data Year 2000-compliant. And such agreements are not yet common.

If the parties are not synchronized the burden of patching interfaces falls to the organization that fixes its systems first. CTA's Srba said whoever finishes first "will have to develop a bridging routine to handle data coming from noncompliant systems." Such bridging routines look for noncompliant data and convert the data so it can be processed by a Year 2000-compliant system.

Some executives believe the task of bridging will fall largely on the states because the states are thought to be ahead of the federal government in resolving Year 2000 issues. "The states are fairly well along " said Sherrie Merrow director of Viasoft Inc.'s US2000 federal Year 2000 conversion program. "If they need information from federal [systems] they will have to filter the data before it comes."

Meanwhile Pennsylvania has decided to demand that federal agencies and others who get data from the state but are not compatible with its new date format construct their own bridges. However Carey said it would be better if there were some way to coordinate these upgrades more systematically.

"They believe there could be some aggregation of demand for different systems [by] getting a contractor to fix a system and [by] bringing the solution to everyone using that system " said Jay Kayne director of policy studies for economic development with the National Governors Association.

At the federal level an interagency task force on the Year 2000 recently formed a subcommittee to share date-change information with the states. Meanwhile the Intergovernmental Enterprise Panel a group of federal state and local officials set up to promote sharing of data and systems wants to bring local governments into the discussion.

`We need to make sure that the local governments and county governments are aware of what the issues are and they are doing whatever is necessary " said Cynthia Warner the Year 2000 program manager with the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy. In many cases Warner said the data that federal agencies get from the states originates at the local level.

But so far most federal agencies that have tackled the problem have done so program by program. And many federal officials contend that any attempt to merge their efforts will end up making the problem even more complex.

"Have we all caucused together? No " said Joseph Leo deputy administrator for management with the Food and Consumer Service at the Agriculture Department. "Is there a real problem with that? I doubt it. I would urge people to examine the question by market segment."

"The problem is there is not really one central voice in authority " said Rich Tilghman a consultant with Electronic Data Systems Corp. "It's up to each federal agency to move or not to move."

The FBI is one agency that moved early. The agency is modernizing its National Crime Information Center a database that state and local agencies use to check for criminal records of suspected offenders.

In consultation with the states the FBI set a new date format last spring that will take effect in July 1999 whether or not the new Year 2000-compliant NCIC system is up and running. "We've also distributed the logic we're using to convert our system " said Roy Weise an FBI unit chief who helps states with their interfaces to new systems.

How federal and state agencies will pay for these upgrades depends on the program and the system. In the case of NCIC there is no direct federal funding available to recode the date fields in their systems but the federal government will pay for half of any updates to state systems used to manage federal entitlement programs.

The budget requests of some agencies indicate addressing intergovernmental connections will add hundreds of millions of dollars to the Year 2000 price tag for federal agencies alone.

The cost of converting state systems that support the Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration which oversees unemployment benefits is estimated to be $477 million.

Leo with the Food and Consumer Service said the federal government expects to spend $250 million to $300 million on all Year 2000-related upgrades to federally mandated benefits systems including interfaces.As with the rest of the Year 2000 problem agencies have only until the end of this year to identify the fixes they need and a year to make the corrections so they can be tested by Dec. 31 1999.

High-level interagency and federal/state cooperation might help encourage agencies to address the interface issue in time GAO's Willemsen said. "But it is going to be difficult because you have so many different programs. Individual program managers will have to do their part."

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