- By Colleen O'Hara
- Jan 09, 2000
The Year 2000 problem, which came and went with only minor disruptions,
may be remembered more for its positive impact on information technology
than its catastrophic threat.
Federal managers have learned important lessons and skills on how to
manage people and other resources needed to tackle monumental tasks.
"Year 2000 was a breakthrough because once we figured out [that if we]
didn't put the right management attention to solving this problem, programs
would stop," said Anne Reed, chief information officer at the Agriculture
Department. "If programs stopped, [managers] would be held accountable for
the viability of their organization."
The effort underscored the important role that IT plays in every aspect
of an agency's mission. It also forged strong partnerships between managers
and technical employees who had to ensure that programs and services continued
after the date rollover. These partnerships will be sustained over time
and become more important as the government embraces the idea of electronic
government, Reed said.
CIOs took on new roles as they stepped into the spotlight to talk about
what their departments were doing from a management perspective to address
the Year 2000 technology challenge, Reed said. "It was a very interesting
position for CIOs to be in a position of managing outreach efforts," she
The fact that there were only minor glitches Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 proves
that the Year 2000 effort was managed successfully, said Emory Miller, director
of IT professional development at the General Services Administration's
Office of Governmentwide Policy. "Sometimes the measurement of success is
a lack of things," he said. "In this case it was a lack of problems. I think
when you're as successful as we have been, I think people have a great sense
of pride...and I think they would welcome the next challenge."
The Year 2000 exercise taught IT workers how to work better with people
inside and outside their agencies to solve complex problems and how to think
strategically, GSA's Miller said.
"It's "big picture' skills that involved not only agency business but
agency infrastructure," he said. "Maybe we glued ourselves together a little
better. Strategically we understand how to talk to one another. Maybe we're
better positioned now to address the next problem."
Many observers anticipate the next wide-scale problem for government
will be information security, although most agree that
security is quite different from the Year 2000 glitch. Unlike the date change
problem, security is an ongoing challenge without a set deadline and without
a clear threat.
"With security, the nature of the threat, the instigator of the threat,
when it will occur is vaporous, so it's a much harder problem to manage
than Y2K," said Clay Hollister, CIO at the Federal Emergency Management
Agency. Still, it will take a concerted federal effort and attention from
the top to make sure everybody is in engaged in the effort, he said.
The message that agencies can take from the Year 2000 effort is that the
government is capable of dealing with other major problems, said Harris
Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.
"Generally the message is positive, that when we stay focused on the problem
and use resources we have, we can overcome enormous challenges," he said.
Making people personally responsible for a project such as fixing the
Year 2000 problem and having a high-level official such as Year 2000 czar
John Koskinen leading the charge are essential, GSA's Miller said. He has
called for a federal information security czar to ensure that agencies are
coordinated in their efforts to secure their systems. However, the Clinton
administration has no intention of appointing such a person.
While most federal IT experts view the Year 2000 outcome as a resounding
success, they may never answer the critics' question of whether they overreacted
to the threat. Tom Giammo, former assistant commissioner of the Patent and
Trademark Office and former associate director at the General Accounting
Office, sums up what many still believe: Agencies were driven by emotion
and failed to follow proper risk management methodology that would have
saved taxpayers considerable time and money.
"There was a total breakdown on Year 2000," Giammo said. "It weakens
the sense that there is a methodology that should be followed. [The agency
overseers have] lost their moral right to insist on it from some of the
But whether the Year 2000 bug was overhyped or mismanaged, the public
agrees that the bottom line is that the world avoided catastrophe.
As Bruce McConnell, director of the International Y2K Cooperation Center,
said after most systems worldwide seemingly rolled over into 2000 without
major hitches: "We did it right."