A week from Friday, the last of the District's 3,806 new desktop computers will be installed at D.C. General Hospital. There won't be a ceremony, but the boot-up will be one of the most visible signs of a long-needed technological revolution in city government--one fueled by the threat of year 2000 computer problems.
As improbable as it may seem for a government that has several offices in which employees still use rotary dial telephones, the emergency drill to replace or repair aging computers that only recognize years beginning with "19" is about to provide the District with an unprecedented array of services to offer its residents.
Because of new computers acquired during the city's late-starting Y2K repair program, D.C. residents soon will be able to register their vehicles and renew parking permits online or by phone, eliminating dreaded waits in line at 301 C St. NW.
Residents already can tap an extensive online directory of human service providers, translated into 110 languages. They also can pay for and receive 18 types of general business licenses online.
Such technology improvements have long been needed in D.C. government, but the city's sluggish bureaucracy never got around to doing them. Then the looming threat of widespread, millennium-related computer failures forced officials to spend more on computer hardware, software and other equipment in a $150 million upgrade effort funded primarily by the U.S. government.
"Y2K has given technology a momentum and visibility that hopefully will continue," said Suzanne Peck, the District's chief technology officer.
The year 2000 glitch was a catalyst for Fairfax, Montgomery and other counties, too. "Y2K forced everyone across the country to ask the question, 'Is it time to replace or fix or enhance existing computer systems?' " said David Molchany, Fairfax County's chief information officer.
In D.C. government, employees use computers every day to keep track of the city's business--everything from hospital patients to unemployment claims to tax bills to motor vehicle information. Computers also allow employees and agencies to communicate with each other through electronic mail, or to access the Internet. Many cities and counties are moving toward providing residents with all-day, interactive services such as applying for permits, paying fees, fines and taxes and even voting from a home computer.
No other government in this area has had as much catching up to do in its technology effort as the District. The District also lags behind other big cities, according to federal auditors, an irony in a region regarded by information technology leaders as the capital of the Internet.
Nevertheless, the city's year 2000 conversion program is scheduled to be completed on time, no small feat because it began only 18 months ago, compared with three years ago in Fairfax.
"Through this trial by fire, the District has developed capacity in the information technology field that it did not have before," said D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), whose Committee on Government Operations oversees the technology program.
The city's Y2K program also has financed an unprecedented infusion of technical expertise from more than 300 consultants and a dozen senior D.C. technology managers, many of them newly hired.
Obsolete systems and equipment have been replaced. The fire department scrapped its heart-saving defibrillators, which weren't Y2K ready, and bought new ones. A Wang system used by the city's financial managers to track tax and other information wasn't Y2K compliant, so a faster, easier-to-maintain, compliant IBM system was put in. It likely would have taken years to replace otherwise.
Saddled with a 1970s-era computer system, the Department of Employment Services had been working for more than two years on a replacement to distribute unemployment, disability and workers compensation checks; the year 2000 program pushed the agency to speed up completion of the project.
The city's nine data centers, where mainframe computers store and process information, have been refurbished. The D.C. police department's data center now provides faster, more current criminal records, crucial when authorities exchange information with other law enforcement agencies. The city's financial management system, which includes such records as property, business and income tax, literally went underground to a secure, three-story-deep facility off Massachusetts Avenue NW.
Data is being shared between agencies for the first time, improving delivery of city services in some instances. Child neglect cases previously had been monitored by human services officials while child abuse records had been kept by the police department. Sharing the case information allows authorities to match names in families, trying to identify a pattern of neglect and prevent a child from being abused, Peck said.
For the first time, the city has a central technology office, headed by Peck. The city now has an inventory of all its technology equipment, crucial to deciding what's still needed, what needs to be junked and when newly installed computers will have to be replaced.
Standards have been written specifying what type of hardware and software should be purchased to keep the city's technology current. This means the city is shifting to one common configuration of desktop computers--instead of a patchwork--allowing the computers to operate with each other and saving the government money through bulk purchases.
The strides being made are notable because of the climate Peck stepped into when she started last year. The District's information technology program was practically nonexistent then, with no leader or strategy. No one knew how much money was being spent on technology or what the city's contractors were doing.
Consultants hired by the presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board warned in reports of "a shutdown of District business" because year 2000 conversion efforts were dangerously behind schedule and underfunded. The telephone system didn't work. The antiquated computer with all of the city's motor vehicle records often broke or was slow, allowing drivers with bad records to remain on the road.
Peck's job was to stabilize the city's technology systems so they would be ready for Jan. 1, 2000. The conversion is nearly complete.
"Y2K really focused our attention on how bad the technology has been and the level of disinvestment," said Interim City Administrator Norman Dong. "It gives us better footing going forward."
Still, huge technology problems remain; Dong acknowledged that "every single agency" in D.C. government needs improvement.
Jack L. Brock Jr., a senior director at the General Accounting Office, which has been evaluating the District's year 2000 program, said "it's an open question" whether the city can take advantage of the gains it has made.
"A lot of what they did was fix existing systems that didn't perform well," Brock said. "After Jan. 1, they still won't perform well. They'll just be Y2K compliant."
The motor vehicle information system was fixed temporarily so it wouldn't shut down as often, but its permanent replacement is months behind schedule. Many of the city's teachers aren't getting their paychecks on time or in the right amount because of problems with a new automated payroll system. Control board members and other city leaders complain of the lack of accurate, real-time financial information, which is generated by computers. And U.S. Department of Labor officials still are unsure whether the city will be able to process its unemployment checks after Jan. 1.
"Once we get by the Y2K crisis, we need to continue to invest in technology. It's going to be an ongoing issue that I'll keep coming back to," Patterson said.
It's also going to be expensive. Top on Peck's list is a $12 million fiber-optic, high-speed network that can be used for Internet access by employees, videoconferences such as a mayoral Cabinet meeting and data links to 541 D.C. government locations.
The city's chief financial officer, Valerie Holt, said information technology expenses are a key pressure determining whether next year's budget is balanced.
"We need to leverage and continue the momentum of Y2K," Peck said. "If we don't, we'll fall back to the days of disinvestment in technology."
Nothing symbolizes those days more than the notorious rotary dial phones. Peck, speaking from a digital telephone with voice mail and transferring capability, said the District has replaced 27,000 of its 31,000 telephones. Soon, she said, all D.C. government phones will be like hers.