Back-Up Plans Play Key Role for Government
By Stephen Barr
While America celebrates New Year's 2000 with a three-day holiday, special teams of Social Security employees will slip into 1,400 offices across the nation. They will flip on the lights, check the telephones for dial tones and kick their computers into gear. Then they will enter new cases, ship them off to computer databases and await an electronic reply.
The federal government's other major bureaucracies also plan to take extraordinary precautions, all in anticipation that the year 2000 computer glitch, "Y2K," could disrupt business as usual.
If the Medicare program faces computer breakdowns, officials may ask some hospitals to file their claims the old-fashioned way, on paper forms, rather than electronically. The Veterans Affairs Department is considering issuing benefit checks earlier than usual to ensure the payments get posted to bank accounts before the turn of the millennium. And the Treasury Department plans to buy power generators to provide supplemental electricity at three finance centers, where millions of Social Security, tax refund and veterans checks are printed, in case local utilities fail. A center in Hyattsville will get a $1.3 million, quick-start generator designed to prevent any disruption of computer functions.
These emergency backup measures, along with many more, reflect widespread anxiety in the federal government that computer malfunctions on an unprecedented national or global scale could result from the simple inability of many software programs and embedded computer chips to recognize that the new year is 2000 rather than 1900.
Fixing the Y2K glitch in government computers will cost at least $5 billion, according to budget projections. But officials acknowledge the overall repair bill will likely grow next year as agencies scramble to beat the deadline. Despite the financial investment, months of mobilization and "what if" planning, Uncle Sam has a huge case of the electronic jitters.
"We know there are going to be disruptions," said Kathleen M. Adams, who heads the Social Security Year 2000 project. "I think it's just a matter of degree. Where are they going to be? And are they going to be critical infrastructure, or are they going to be nuisances?"
As in the private sector, the sheer scale of the government's task is stunning. Government programmers are analyzing and altering millions of lines of computer code in programs that affect virtually every telecommunications component and every electronic file exchanged with a city, a state, a nonprofit organization, a business or a foreign nation.
"Normally when you change something you're keeping most things the same and swapping out one application system on one computer," Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti said. "Here we're updating everything all at once. You never do that."
7,336 Critical Systems
Government agencies, in reports filed with the Office of Management and Budget, have identified 7,336 computer systems as "mission critical" those vital to public health and safety, federal services and agency operations. According to the reports, 40 percent of these critical systems can now be confidently declared ready to accurately process data on Jan. 1, 2000.
The computer-dependent systems at risk range from Tomahawk missiles to student loan processing, from Coast Guard ship inspections to farm crop payments. Many of the government's most complex computers are clustered at the Defense Department, the IRS and the Health Care Financing Administration, which oversees Medicare.
On May 15 the OMB designated the departments of Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, and Transportation, as well as the Agency for International Development, as troubled agencies, saying they were "not making adequate progress" on Y2K issues.
These laggards, according to the OMB, are running behind schedule in fixing major computer systems, may not be finished repairing some critical systems before the government's self-imposed deadline of March 31, 1999, or have not met the OMB's expectations in managing their Y2K problem.
The General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, repeatedly has faulted the government for "slow progress" and chronically underestimating the Y2K challenge. Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.), who chairs a House subcommittee on government technology, recently gave the government a grade of "F" for its Y2K effort.
But interviews with dozens of officials at Year 2000 federal test facilities in Atlantic City, N.J., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Tysons Corner and the District reveal a growing if cautious optimism that some federal agencies are on pace to fix the computer systems that matter most to average Americans.
Social Security, for example, has upgraded virtually all of the systems that authorize benefits for 50 million Americans each month and issue 17 million Social Security cards annually. At Veterans Affairs, programmers expect to calculate and process 3.3 million monthly benefit checks without major disruptions.
The Treasury's Financial Management Service, which prints benefit and tax refund checks, has started testing its computers to ensure they can receive orders from Social Security and other agencies, as well as mass produce the checks and clear them through the Federal Reserve.
The Federal Aviation Administration, plagued with generations of antiquated computers, redoubled efforts in the last six months and now reports substantial progress on Year 2000 updates to the air traffic control system.
But Washington's anxiety remains high because of the many unknowns. Officials must worry not only about fixing their own systems, but about computers beyond government control, such as those in telecommunications, banks and local utilities.
"The many interdependencies that exist among the levels of governments and within key economic sectors of our nation could cause a single failure to have wide-ranging repercussions," Joel C. Willemssen, a General Accounting Office computer expert, told Congress in June.
Or, as Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre put it: "We are not going to be without some nasty surprises."
Then there's the human factor. Industry experts estimate that 7 percent of all computer system repairs create additional errors. That means the government expects to spend half its Year 2000 project time testing "repaired" systems to find mistakes and to see if disparate systems will properly link up and exchange information.
"In almost every case, they are bugs that usually are quickly fixed. But you need to test, and you need to find them," Assistant Treasury Secretary Nancy Killefer said. "I think we will be working on Y2K testing all the way up to the end."
The uncertainty has helped transform a tedious technological task into a Year 2000 political issue, particularly for Vice President Gore, who casts himself as a champion of high technology.
Any computer glitches will likely hit at a time when Gore stumps for votes in Iowa and New Hampshire in pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination. Some Republican strategists are betting that voters will blame any problems on the Democrats, who control the executive branch.
But congressional Republicans also worry about a cascade of constituent complaints if there is a big computer blow-up in 2000. They suspect that some irate voters will simply blame Washington without distinguishing between Republicans and Democrats.
The potential impact of the Y2K problem reaches beyond the government, the Defense Department's Hamre told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June.
"The Year 2000 problem is an electronic equivalent of El Niño. This is going to have implications in the world and in American society that we cannot comprehend," he said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company