GAO's Willemssen monitors Y2K pulse

Depending on how your agency's technology programs are faring, Joel Willemssen could be either the most or the least welcome visitor to your office. As the General Accounting Office's director of civil agencies' information systems, Willemssen leads investigations that determine whether an agency's technology programs are working well or if they are wasting taxpayers' money.

Willemssen has become a fixture at congressional hearings, testifying on high-profile information technology issues, such as the Year 2000 problem and the Department of Health and Human Services' Medicare Transaction System (MTS).

"I really enjoy what I do because I'm in a position to make a significant difference," Willemssen said. "I like systems that have a day-to-day impact on the average citizen, and I like observing how these systems actually improve the lives and welfare of citizens."

Willemssen's admiration for GAO goes back almost two decades. As a student of business administration at the University of Iowa, where he earned a bachelor's and a master's degree, Willemssen perused local newspapers for the latest GAO activities. So when GAO recruiters were scouting for talent, Willemssen was prepared. "I already knew quite a bit about the GAO from newspaper reports about the kind of work they did," Willemssen said. "I used to track them with great interest."

Describing himself as a man who believes in government, Willemssen joined GAO as a 23-year-old intern in 1979. At a regional office in Chicago, his duties consisted of tracking expenditures by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. When Willemssen found discrepancies in those expenditures, he knew this was the job for him.

His findings ended up in a GAO report, the first of many. But more important than the rush of having his findings distributed throughout the country, Willemssen found the work worthwhile.

"I think that getting an unbiased view of what was going on was what sparked my interest the most," he said.

"The best that we at the GAO have going for us is our credibility. When we say something, people believe it."

Now, Willemssen said his greatest challenge is to monitor agencies that must fix their computer systems so they can properly process data that includes dates after Dec. 31, 1999.

Over the past year, Willemssen has testified on 20 occasions, presenting to Congress his findings on agencies' Year 2000 work. Willemssen believes the GAO has helped change the mindset of the government, which he said now looks at the situation with urgency. Proof of that, he said, is the recent establishment of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion.

"I think we've had a positive impact through our reports and testimonies, pointing out that the issues need to be addressed," Willemssen said. "If you look back over the last year at where the federal government has come on [the Year 2000], you can see major shifts in [its] outlook."

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