Agencies peddle own Y2K fixes

The federal government - roundly criticized for falling behind on the Year 2000 problem - has paradoxically emerged as a provider of date-conversion services.

A handful of federal agencies offer or soon will offer Year 2000 services proposing their own computers as test beds for other agencies' applications and marketing tools and their own personnel to identify and fix potential software glitches.

The Department of Veterans Affairs' Austin Automation Center has been providing services for several months. More recently the Transportation Department in May opened a Year 2000 service bureau and the Commerce Department is getting its service under way. On Sept. 1 the Air Force's Materiel Systems Group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio plans to launch a Year 2000 service center which will be open to all federal agencies.

The agencies-turned-services-providers are charging their fellow agencies on a fee-for-service basis as they have for years for more traditional data center services. But because they are not allowed to turn a profit the agencies maintain they can beat industry prices. That factor may make the agency providers an attractive option with Year 2000 talent becoming scarce - and more expensive - as the millennium nears.

But the agencies' industry relations are not entirely competitive. Most agency Year 2000 centers are partnering with product and service providers. Tool vendor Viasoft Inc. and such integrators as CTA Inc. and Science Applications International Corp. are among those teaming with agencies to provide solutions.

And if customers and vendor partners benefit from the arrangements so do the agency providers themselves. Although agencies cannot turn a profit they can invest the fees from their Year 2000 customers to expand their data centers therefore achieving greater operational efficiencies and avoiding consolidation industry observers said. In addition centers that operate as franchises have three years to become self-funding.

DOT launched its Year 2000 service through its Information Technology Omnibus Procurement. The agency has contracted with SAIC to offer Year 2000 support said Bonnie Fisher Year 2000 project manager at the Transportation Administrative Service Center. "We are able to use the existing contract vehicle to offer flexible solutions - basically a cafeteria approach - to outside agencies and internal DOT customers " Fisher said.

DOT is offering such services as assessment code remediation unit testing and integration testing which ensures that different programs work together once converted.

As DOT's partner SAIC offers services and software from such companies as GMR Technologies International while DOT offers its data center for software testing. Fisher said DOT can conduct integration testing for $8 000 to $15 000 while industry charges $15 000 to $100 000. "We're significantly cheaper with the same capabilities " she said.

Fisher said DOT has attracted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard as Year 2000 customers. Additionally she said DOT has submitted proposals to five other agencies regarding Year 2000 services.

Commerce meanwhile has dedicated an IBM Corp. ES 9000-class mainframe as the hub of its Year 2000 conversion effort according to Patrick F. Smith director of the Office of Computer Services at Commerce. The agency has Viasoft's products available and has relationships with several vendors to provide Year 2000 support Smith said.

The agency's Year 2000 center is currently at work on its own programs but Smith expects to draw external customers as well. "Do I think I'll get customers? Sure. As we get closer to the Year 2000 I think that everybody is going to overreact and come looking for solutions " he said.

Smith said the agency's fees are "only designed to recover the full cost unlike industry which bills a profit factor. Whatever it costs to me to provide that service that's what I have to charge to that federal agency. It saves the taxpayers money " he said. The center operates as a franchise under the Government Management and Reform Act of 1994.

Service for DOD

The Air Force's Materiel Systems Group meanwhile plans to offer "a complete service for Year 2000" to the Defense Department and civilian agencies said Clifford Hall director of systems engineering at the Materiel Systems Group.

Those services will include cost estimation renovation and testing. In terms of tools the service already has acquired Viasoft's Year 2000 tools according to Joseph Di Stefano director of federal operations at Viasoft. The Air Force will offer its Year 2000 offerings on a fee-for-service basis.

The VA's Austin Automation Center also is offering Year 2000 services to agency customers. The data center offers a platform for Year 2000-related development and testing. An official with the center said the center is not "out knocking on doors" to sell services but it will "talk to any agency that may have an interest." The center can call upon contractors including CTA to provide additional Year 2000 services.

Di Stefano said the agencies' push to offer services could result in less duplication in the government. Agencies that have gone through conversions and are now offering services can prevent others from "going through the same learning curve " he said.

"If a government agency has the resources and they can either share those resources or do some kind of a charge-back for the use of those resources it will save [the government] money " said Royce Goble chief operating officer with GMR Technologies International.

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