A Lesson From the 'Goose Egg Five'

On Dec. 29, 1998, Oregon's Statewide Year 2000 Project Office took its first Year 2000 hit. It had nothing to do with a computer malfunction. It had everything to do with a communication malfunction.

That day The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy article headlined "Year 2000 Problem Is Bearing Down on Certain States." A chart identified the 10 best- and worst-prepared states. Oregon and four other states were awarded goose eggs (0 percent) for having done nothing to address Year 2000 concerns. Ridiculous? Of course. But if The Wall Street Journal said it was so, it must be right. Right?

Any civil servant can imagine the attention brought to our office. At a time when I was busy preparing for the arrival of our legislative assembly, I had to spend days explaining to reporters, outraged citizens and skeptical lawmakers that Oregon was not ignoring the Year 2000 problem.

The most troubling call I took, however, was from my state's director of administrative services. Bond rating companies had contacted him to verify the poor performance reported by The Wall Street Journal. He reassured them by providing ample documentation of Oregon's Year 2000 diligence. But what about the bond companies that hadn't called? Could future bond sales or offerings be affected because an analyst believed the newspaper's article to be factual? We'll never know.

The problem was compounded by the World Wide Web site the reporter used as his story's source. In December, the Web site's sponsor, the National Association of State Information Resource Executives, conducted an online survey that required states to distill a highly complex project management challenge into a single "percent complete" figure. States that objected to NASIRE's methodology were unable to submit an "N/A" or "see note of explanation." This resulted in five states appearing as "0 percent complete"-a misrepresentation of their Year 2000 efforts.

NASIRE defended its practice by pointing out that its Web site advises visitors to check with each state's Year 2000 project management agency. Oregon was never contacted by anyone from The Wall Street Journal. Had the reporter checked, however, his story wouldn't have had the sensational slant that it did. The "Goose Egg Five" felt like they'd been ambushed.

Oregon's Statewide Year 2000 Project Office took great care in recently deciding to post on its Web site (y2k.das.state.or.us) a chart showing the status of the state's 78 mission-critical systems. These are the systems that Oregon has identified as essential to the public's health, safety and financial well-being. They support programs as diverse as state payroll, law enforcement data and child immunization records.

After a review by independent evaluators, the systems received a color rating-red, yellow or green-to reflect each system's stage of readiness. We took steps to ensure fair treatment by giving two months' advance notice to all agencies of our intent to begin real-time reporting of their progress. We also strived for consensus on color-rating criteria and the process for requesting a system condition status change.

We got the results we sought. Agencies are more responsive to our deadlines for collecting progress reports for the legislature. Press coverage has been favorable, and the media have resisted sensationalizing the color reports. Citizens appreciate our willingness to disclose our progress clearly.

The program isn't without controversy. Agencies remaining in the red aren't entirely comfortable with the public exposure. But as one reporter told me, "If they don't like it, they ought to do whatever they need to do to get their system changed to green."

Public interest in the Year 2000 will only escalate. A University of Connecticut study showed that 81 percent of respondents consider stories about the government's work to fix the Year 2000 computer issue "somewhat or very important." Only stories about utility, military and banking readiness ranked higher in importance.

All of us who are responsible for reporting Year 2000 progress would be wise to heed this advice: Stick to the facts. Steer clear of misleading statistics and reporting systems. In this way, business, government and the media can avoid causing the kind of Year 2000 glitch that hit the state of Oregon.

Don Mazziotti is the chief information officer for Oregon.

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