Y2K: Only the grin remains

"And this time, it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone" (from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll).

The "real" millennium began, as expected, without a major glitch. Governments and companies set up no special watch centers, and most computer technicians around the world enjoyed a well- deserved holiday. On Jan. 2, news stories told of new Norwegian trains not starting until their clocks were reset and errors in credit card readers at 7-Eleven stores.

The new year brings challenges as well as relief. Policy issues—privacy, the protection of intellectual property, taxation, cybercrime—require unprecedented consultation and cooperation. The growing gap between information haves and have-nots around the world is becoming politically important. And consumer demand for around-the-clock online service keeps up the pressure to reinvent government.

An adage from the public relations business goes, "If you can't fix it, flaunt it." With the Year 2000 problem, the very technology that threatened global chaos became the means of avoiding that disruption. Software engineers developed fast, reliable tools, reducing the cost of fixing code from a dollar per line in 1998 to a few pennies by mid-1999.

More significantly, the global network of Year 2000-vulnerable PCs, main-frames, switches and routers enabled the ready sharing of best practices, coordination to avoid duplication and current information to maintain public confidence. Without the Internet, Year 2000 coordinators in 50 states and 170 countries would have been stranded on islands of their own technology, experiencing unpredictable simultaneous malfunctions.

How can the Internet enable solutions to the problems it engenders? As the Year 2000 problem showed, the power of the Net is relationships. Organizations facing the challenges of administering Internet policy, bridging the digital divide and bringing public services into the 21st century should continuously focus on three areas:

  • Sharing best practices. A robust electronic forum for sharing lessons learned from citizen service initiatives across states and countries can prevent costly, time- consuming mistakes.
  • Coordinating activities across multiple constituencies. The dozens of public- and private-sector organizations promoting Net access for underserved populations should create an electronic center to minimize wasteful duplication of effort and confusion about roles.
  • Collaborating to solve problems. The Internet is breaking down old barriers and creating new models of work. In the Internet policy environment, no one has all the answers. Adversaries must work together to develop balanced policies.

With some effort, the successes of the Year 2000 fixes can stay on the screen, like the Cheshire Cat's grin, long after the global effort is forgotten.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com).

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