Agencies tackle nuts and bolts of Year 2000 problem
- By Nicole Lewis
- Jan 18, 1998
With just more than a year before the federal government is expected to finish fixing its Year 2000 computer glitches agencies now are delving into the gritty details of data interfaces staff shortages and backup plans for systems that fail.
Agencies have been aware of these underlying problems but only in recent months have Year 2000 project managers begun to develop solutions and carry them out.
The Year 2000 bug stems from the inability of much computer hardware and software to properly recognize 21st century dates. Many computers identify years using only two digits which means these systems would mistake a "00" date as 1900 rather than 2000. The problem could cause anything from calculation errors to system failures.
For federal agencies now dependent on computers fixing the problem will take a lot of time. It involves assessing the extent of the Year 2000 glitch fixing the hard ware and software code testing the solution and bringing the computers back online. The Office of Management and Budget has set March 1999 for agencies to have their renovated systems up and running.
At this juncture the government admits that many agencies will not meet that deadline. For the most part the ability to finish the work successfully depends on the agencies' management of these difficult but integral problems.
"The closer we get to implementation the more critical these elements are going to be " said Cynthia Warner the acting director of the Strategic Information Technology Analysis Division in the General Services Administration's Office of Governmentwide Policy. "It's all about putting the puzzle together."
Understanding the Interfaces
Some of the greatest challenges face large agencies that exchange data with state and local agencies banks and other organizations involved in processing payments for Social Security pension and disability benefits medical benefits tax returns and federal salaries.
Beyond fixing their own systems agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the Treasury Department must also worry about the reliability of the data generated by systems outside their immediate control.
"We feel that it's a high-risk area because you are dependent on things that are outside of your control and obviously we trade with federal agencies states and third parties " said Kathleen Adams SSA's assistant deputy commissioner for systems and chairwoman of the Year 2000 Interagency Committee.
At present each agency is doing an "inventory" of its exchanges Adams said. Agencies are required to inform states of any exchanges by Feb. 1 and they need to come to an agreement by March 1 on the format and the date when the exchanges will be converted Adams said.
SSA began its Year 2000 compliance work in 1989 and according to Adams the agency has identified all of its data exchanges and prioritized them. The agency also has contacted a ll of its trading partners and has set target dates for conversion. "We actually built an automated tracking system to track when the agreements are supposed to be implemented and whether or not they have been " Adams said.
Likewise at the Health Care Financing Administration the problem is making sure that the Medicare contractors hired to operate the agency's medical payments systems which are scattered nationwide are Year 2000-compliant said HCFA chief information officer Gary Christoph. In the last fiscal year HCFA processed $210 billion worth of medical bills.
"We have recognized that the contractors' systems don't live in isolation " Christoph said. "For example contractors rely upon a telecom company to lease lines and those lines depend on telephone switches all of this is out of HCFA's control.
"How do we ensure that the systems are going to work end to end that the claims will make it all the way from the doctor's office to the hospital through all those leased lines and tel ephone switches into the front end of the contractor?" he asked. "At any stage along the way there could be an interruption because somebody has not taken care of their Year 2000 problem."
In addition to its November letter to medical contractors that requires them to bring Medicare-related applications into Year 2000 compliance no later than Dec. 31 [FCW Jan. 5] HCFA has assigned 100 of its personnel throughout its 10 regional offices nationwide to perform the task of providing general oversight of systems operations throughout the claims processing environment.
The Treasury Department which exchanges data with agencies at all levels of government as well as with banks and other outside parties also is taking steps to ensure that external interfaces do not compromise their data.
Treasury has identified 1 295 data exchanges with external trading partners which include agencies at different levels of government with banks and with other outside parties according to Treasury CIO Jim Flyz ik. The department has established a policy stating that all data exchanged externally must use the expanded date fields which include all four digits for the year.
"We've promulgated that standard throughout the IRS so all of our organizations that deal with external trading partners know they have to go to that format and they've either gone to that format already or they are in the planning process of getting ready to go there " Flyzik said.
Data exchanges Flyzik said are "new for all of us and I think it's challenging us in ways that we have not dealt with before. External interfaces have become a major challenge for everyone."
The Labor Issue
At the same time some agencies also are taking steps to address information technology staff shortages which are associated with the shrinking pool of programmers adept in such languages as Cobol and Fortran.
"We have seen our attrition rates go up considerably— about 8 percent last year " said John Yost the IRS' Year 2000 projec t director. "There is an increasing demand for people who have skills in some of the older programming languages where so much of the conversion work is concentrated."
Yost also said the IRS has done limited hiring during the last year a problem the agency would like to address. "We are looking for ways to make programming positions within the IRS more attractive so we can hold onto people and our Human Resource Division is developing a package that would entice people to stay " Yost said.
HCFA is experiencing similar problems according to Christoph but the agency has found little relief. "There's not a whole lot of expertise out there to tap " he said.
However the problem of finding programmers skilled in older languages is only part of a shortfall in the overall software industry which is driving up the cost of Year 2000 fixes.
Across industry the demand for these programmers "has resulted in soaring salary packages delayed retirement and retired workers being recommissioned into t he work force " according to a report released last month by the National Software Alliance an industry consortium. As a result the rates charged by systems integrators and consultants have risen as much as 25 percent in the past year the study found.
New Hurdles Ahead
Most agencies are expected to encounter new difficulties in the year ahead as they move into the testing phase of their Year 2000 projects and consider developing contingency plans observers said.
"History shows that in any major software maintenance or software development project testing is something that's generally underestimated " said Joel Willemssen director for information resources management at the General Accounting Office. "The amount of effort that it takes to test and resolve the problems that result from testing is enormous. Clearly the harder part of Y2K compliance is yet to come."
The process of testing will be easier for some agencies than for others. SSA for example has converted and tested more than half of its exchanges with a goal to finish them all by December while agencies such as the Transportation Department with its complex air traffic control programs have admitted to running far behind.
The potential for unexpected problems to arise during the testing phase heightens the awareness of the need for strong contingency plans several observers said.
According to Willemssen putting together contingency plans for the most mission-critical systems is one of the biggest challenges facing federal agencies. Agencies he said must understand "what are the risks associated with Year 2000 failures at any point along the lines of that business process. And if that risk is realized then what are you going to do who is going to do it and what is going to be put in place?"
"We're developing a contingency plan we have two years " Adams said. "We are trying to find best practices for contingency plans and right now they don't exist."
Treasury is taking a reactive approach as it tracks the progress of its Year 2000 renovations Flyzik said. Any time a system fix falls behind schedule the department develops a contingency plan to get that system's functions accomplished he said.
The Energy Department has a similar strategy according to Energy CIO Woody Hall. "About a quarter of the systems already have contingency plans " he said. "We are not requiring them yet unless a system appears to be getting in trouble."
Putting together contingency plans "takes time and effort away from the modification and correction process " he said. "If a system's not in trouble you don't need a contingency plan."
At the Federal Aviation Administration one contingency plan is to go to paper processing. "It is possible for some kinds of work that we do for people to go back to paper if they have to " said Kim Taylor director of information resources management at DOT. "The grants system is one area where we could potentially go back to some paper-based processes but we're looking at a r ange of things depending on systems and applications " he said.
Given the potential for problems to arise during the testing phase agencies are nearing some difficult decisions about where to invest their energies one source said.
Agencies that have been planning to bring new systems online rather than renovate old systems may want to rethink the issue a Defense Department official said. What happens the source asked if a new system is not fully operational by Jan. 1 2000? If that were to happen the official said the agency would find itself without a working system. Now is the time for agencies to make such "go or no go" decisions the source said.
Still for all the stress and problems associated with Year 2000 conversions agencies can look toward an upside to the process according to officials.
For example agency officials said their ability to work with their counterparts at other agencies gives them an insight into the technical challenges facing others. The process also is forcing them to sort through data and proc-esses that have been around for years.
"We've cleaned house " said Pam Woodside the Year 2000 project manager at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "For whatever reason it had not been a high priority to clean house but [because of Year 2000 work] we did an inventory of our forms [relating to public-housing assistance] and we found 33 forms that we no longer have to keep an inventory of or maintain " she said.
Additionally some agencies are enjoying the fringe benefits of bringing in new compliant hardware and software. For example while Year 2000 work has delayed upgrades to the Treasury Communications Systems Network a departmentwide network the upgrades will eventually provide better service than is currently available Flyzik said.
"Because we are upgrading and in some cases putting in new equipment into our network when we get beyond the Year 2000 we will have a much better infrastructure to work with to bring these new services on " Flyzik said.
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At a Glance
Status: Some agencies are still developing plans and solutions to fix the Year 2000 problem.
Issues: Among the most challenging problems facing agencies are data interfaces shortages of software programmers and a lack of contingency plans if systems do not properly operate after they are put back into service.
Outlook: Uncertain. Many agencies are behind schedule in fixing their systems some do not have enough money to make the fixes and many admit they will not meet the March 1999 deadline for putting systems back online.