USDA 'unlikely' to meet Y2K deadline, GAO says

It is "highly unlikely" that the Agriculture Department will fix all its computer systems in time for the Year 2000 date change, the General Accounting Office reported today.

At a hearing before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Joel Willemssen, director of civil agencies information systems at GAO, said the majority of the USDA's systems have not been renovated. Of the 10 USDA agencies reviewed by GAO, including the Forest Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, about 80 percent of the work remains to be done.

"USDA's systems support many vital public health and safety and economic activities, and, if not properly fixed, tested and implemented, severe consequences could result," he said. For example, payments to schools, farmers and others in rural communities could be delayed or incorrectly calculated.

The USDA plans to replace about 42 percent of the reported 596 mission-critical systems that still need to be renovated. "This is cause for concern, as replacement systems are often a high risk because federal agencies have a long history of difficulty in delivering planned systems on time," Willemssen said.

Some replacement systems already are scheduled to miss the Office of Management and Budget's March 1999 deadline for installing reprogrammed computers, Willemssen said. For example, the Forest Service decided last month to delay an agencywide rollout of its Foundation Financial Information System until October 1999. It has not yet decided how it will handle the more than 20 existing applications the system is scheduled to replace, he said.

Anne Thomson Reed, chief information officer at the USDA, said the department is on track to fix its Year 2000 problem, on which it expects to spend $120 million.

In addition to the agency's internal efforts, the USDA is looking at data exchanges and interfaces with states and other partners. "These exchanges are important because several of our programs are delivered in partnership with the states, such as Food Stamps...or [they] rely on close interaction and cooperation with industry," Reed said.

Committee chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) plans to introduce this week the USDA Year 2000 Compliance and Information Technology Reform Act of 1998. The bill would centralize all Year 2000 computer conversion and other IT acquisition and management activities within the USDA CIO's office.

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