Making Year 2000 priority No. 1

With fewer than 500 days left until the turn of the century, the Defense Department is hauling out the big guns. Unless the agency shows substantial progress in its efforts to defeat the millennium bug, Secretary of Defense William Cohen has threatened to call a halt to all software development that is not related to the Year 2000 fix. Although extreme, the measure is a necessary evil in the government's battle to ensure that its systems will work after Dec. 31, 1999.

Some, alarmed at the effect such a moratorium would have on major DOD projects, such as the F-22 aircraft and the Commanche advanced scout helicopter, will no doubt criticize the plan. Some have already gone a step beyond, warning that any such move would mean jobs lost. The reality is that DOD had no choice. As many had predicted, the calendar finally made the Year 2000 issue priority No. 1.

The real question is not if the Cohen memo was a good idea, but rather, is it too little, too late? Industry, which history will label the "Chicken Little" of the Year 2000 crisis, has long warned DOD and all government agencies that significant attention and resources need to be devoted to the Year 2000 issue before it was too late and before it began to affect all other programs.

However, DOD is not the only one to come late to the party. After all, it was only last month that President Clinton first spoke publicly on the Year 2000 issue. Perhaps even more revealing, the White House is not scheduled to release its own request for proposals for Year 2000 renovation and validation services until later this month.

One DOD official recently noted that any moratorium on software development would not be popular. Kudos to Cohen and other DOD leaders for recognizing that the race to make government systems Year 2000-compliant is far from a popularity contest. We encourage other government agencies, particularly those already singled out for insufficient Year 2000 progress, to join DOD in making the tough decisions and making Year 2000 priority No. 1 before the calendar does it for them.

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