Keeping your eyes on the prize

For the most part, the government's response to fixing the Year 2000 problem has been well-managed and a success beyond what even upbeat experts thought could be accomplished by this date.

So it came as a surprise that House Republicans, backed by a just-released General Accounting Office report, accused agencies of not properly tracking the money they had spent from the $3.35 billion Year 2000 emergency supplemental fund Congress set up last year. GAO also charged some agencies with spending money on non-Year 2000-related information technology and with not supplying information.

Of course, agencies have a responsibility to track as best as they can how they spent money from the Year 2000 fund. And merely estimating costs is not good enough: The federal government must be held accountable. But Congress also must remember that agencies have been engaged in a battle with the Year 2000 bug that can appropriately be likened to triage, in which the goal is to fix the most critical systems as quickly and as accurately as possible. That means that less-critical business functions have to be set aside and worked out after the primary crisis has passed.

But there are more troubling inconsistencies with this particular report. Typically, agencies' responses to GAO's reports are measured, and they frequently agree with the findings. But the level of disagreement from agencies on this report is uncommonly harsh, with some of the more ridiculed agencies challenging GAO to audit their Year 2000 bookkeeping, flatly denying they have spent money on non-related Year 2000 issues and contradicting GAO's assertion that it had not received a response for data.

It would be unfortunate if agencies, apparently on the verge of successfully overcoming one of the most challenging IT crises to come down the pike, were to be tripped up for not tracking funds appropriately. Agencies should accurately tally their costs. But it would be a travesty for Republicans to twist agencies' efforts to fix computers into a political billy club, all the while missing the bigger point that agencies are well on their way to avoiding an IT disaster.

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