The Y2K Silver Lining

Don't be surprised to see smiles on the faces of IT professionals when they talk about the Year 2000 computer date-change bug, even when you consider the possibility of a complete technological meltdown and all that it entails.

They're not sadistic. More like opportunistic.

Although they've spent many a month sweating out solutions to very real problems, the ordeal has made them heroes of sorts, giving them newfound respect and importance in the eyes of government officials. And that hard-won attention comes with plenty of possible perks.

"People now understand the dependency we have on technology," said Wendy Rayner, chief information officer for New Jersey. "Industry has already realized that.... Government really woke up to that fact through Y2K."

Although governments across the country had different situations to contend with, common themes are emerging as the Year 2000 crisis segues into the Year 2000 near miss.

Now the Bosses Know Too

A perennial problem for IT managers has been getting the decision-makers to give technology concerns the attention they deserve.

Not anymore.

One of the first things Gov. Gray Davis (D) of California did after he took office, for example, was to issue an executive order making Year 2000 compliance one of his main goals. After that, any state IT initiative enjoyed the highest priority, said California CIO Elias Cortez.

"That leadership from the governor on down has enabled us to focus on technology as being a major enabler for providing services to citizens," Cortez said. "That's the No. 1 thing to have come out of this."

There's a focus on technology in the New Jersey governor's inner circle too, Rayner said. That doesn't necessarily translate into money, she said, but the possibility of getting money is greater than ever before.

"They are now prepared to see technology as an investment for the state rather than just a cost sector," Rayner said. "And they are more clearly seeing the kinds of opportunities that come out of technology investments."

Making sure this new-found awareness lasts is the new hurdle for CIOs.

John Kelly, CIO for Arizona, has made a point of providing monthly Year 2000 updates to each of the governor's cabinet members and is trying to create ways of keeping technology in front of these executives. That means mandatory monthly and quarterly reports from state agencies about what technology is doing to help them improve services.

"We believe the Y2K reports have opened the door for cabinet officials about the potential of technology," Kelly said. "Now we hope to take the door off its hinges completely."

Keeping top government executives informed about technology matters won't be as much of a concern for California's Cortez, as Davis recently made him a full member of the cabinet, one of the first CIOs in the country to be given that post.

Davis also intends to sponsor legislation in the next session of the legislature that would give Cortez's Department of Information Technology permanent status as a government department.

Finally Knowing Where Things Are

Centralized technology planning and procurement is a relatively new thing for most governments. Previously, individual agencies were responsible for their own technology needs, leading to a hodgepodge of hardware and software throughout government. Fixing the Year 2000 has forced organizations to inventory these systems, many for the first time, providing a clear picture of resources they will need to move forward into the Internet-driven future.

Evonne Rogers, Year 2000 project manager for Wyoming's Department of Administration and Information, was surprised to discover how much stuff the state had on hand.

"No statewide inventory had been done before because there had been no real central control of IT," Rogers said. "Now I know more about the applications that are in place across state agencies than any other person in the history of the state."

Susan Lowman, IT administrator for Catawba County, N.C., had a similar reaction. She just hadn't realized what "massive amounts" of software were on the county's computer systems. Some of it was as much as 9 years old and had been running "just fine" but had not been accounted for until the inventory.

The process was particularly valuable from the hardware side of things, Lowman said, because it enabled her to get a good handle on the haves and have-nots in the government.

"We were able to get the have-nots newer equipment because of it," she said.

Now the Game is Cooperation

For Dianah Neff, CIO for Bellevue, Wash., the Year 2000 has meant a complete revamping of the way the city government does business.

"The process could have been so arduous it had the potential to really wear the organization down," Neff said. The process "galvanized people to come together and try to get things done in the shortest amount of time possible. I don't think that would have happened as quickly without Year 2000, if ever."

Providing a "best practices" model for how state and local governments can collaborate on technology programs is the second most important result of the Year 2000 progress, according to California's Cortez. He established a model for governments statewide to deal with the Year 2000 computer problem, breaking out of the previous, limiting process that had agencies and local governments doing self-assessments in isolation from each other.

"This interdependent model has agencies and government working with each other and government and business working with each other," Cortez said. "We see this as the principal way for us going forward with future technology projects."

Better Planning for the Worst

Because Year 2000 planning was all about preparing for a disaster of sorts, the link between it and "normal" disaster and contingency planning should have been a no-brainer, but it wasn't. In fact, dealing with the Year 2000 problem introduced some organizations to disaster planning like they had never seen it before.

"We had to look closely at what to do if certain of our systems failed, about what the process would be for continuance of business," said Doug Taylor, director of the Information Systems Department for Tuscaloosa, Ala. "It just had never entered the thought process before. We do have disaster plans, of course, but these types of things are not a part of them."

For instance, Tuscaloosa is in a tornado-prone area, Taylor said, so tornado contingency plans are the status quo. But, until now, no one had thought about the need for backup equipment such as batteries and generators to keep buildings that house computer equipment at a certain temperature. And no one had considered how to keep traffic signals running and emergency dispatch systems at the ready.

"It made people look more closely at their critical systems and made each department in government think about contingencies," Taylor said. "It's given me more of an idea of what to look for and to think more clearly about the goals I should have."

Neff said the Year 2000 process has fostered better disaster preparedness in Bellevue.

"We've done a very strong outreach to the community at large about Year 2000, and I think that has given us all a much better idea of how to deal with disasters overall," she said. "I don't ever remember us doing that kind of outreach before."

Such activity has other advantages, she said. For one thing the public has a better appreciation of the kind of interplay that's needed between the public and private sectors, something she believes has built a good relationship between the two sectors that can be built upon in the future. There was a relationship there before, she said, "but it wasn't nearly as focused as it is now."

A Much-Needed Lift

This higher profile for IT also gives the technical people in the various departments a lift in terms of prestige and morale.

"Like everyone else, we've had enormous difficulties in retaining technical expertise, and we've had to take extraordinary measure to keep them," said Glenn Mayne, project manager for Florida's Year 2000 Project Office.

People generally work for state and local governments because of the pride associated with the job or for commitment to service, not for the pay, Mayne said. But when the disparity between the public- and private-sector pay levels gets too great, and morale suffers from the perception that effort gets no recognition in government, that's when you start to lose people, he said.

Because of having to deal with the Year 2000 problem, technical workers in government are feeling more appreciated, and they realize the important role they play, Mayne said. "It's produced a tremendous esprit de corps," he said.

And Mayne said more money for his workers will be coming down the pike too.

Making it Last

Because government attention spans can be fleeting, IT executives are focused on locking in the advances they've won. For some, that means analyzing Year 2000 lessons.

"We are working now on the transition from Year 2000 into the future by codifying these lessons and best practices into a 'Silver Lining of Y2K' document," Cortez said. "For example, the state procurement program usually requires a 90-day cycle from beginning to end, but for Y2K we've managed to compress that into just a few days for many things. So we'd like to maintain as much of that streamlined process as possible for the future."

One of the most important aspects of this silver lining has been much-improved communication between technologists and business unit managers. The technologists knew the importance of the Year 2000, but getting the business executives to understand it was another matter. Maintaining that level of communication for future initiatives will be a priority, Cortez said.

Or as Wyoming's Rogers put it, "We'll have to see how this pans out in the future."

-- Brian Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland, Ore.

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