After a late start, Postal Service scrambles to deliver 2000 fixes

The Postal Service’s motto says that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor
gloom of night will keep mail carriers from their appointed rounds. The motto, however,
says nothing about date code failures.

The service has few options should its systems fail Jan. 1, said Norman E. Lorentz, the
Postal Service’s senior vice president and chief technology officer, at a House
hearing last month.

As of early this month, the service was finishing its master 2000 plan. Lorentz
initially had promised House lawmakers that USPS would finish the plan by Feb. 26. But a
House staff member said the service deadline for submitting the plan to Congress had
slipped to March 12.

Lorentz had to defend the Postal Service’s readiness at a hearing of the House
Science Subcommittee on Technology and the House Government Reform subcommittees on Postal
Service and on Government Management, Information and Technology.

The service has a “reasonable level of assurance” that it will be able to
deliver the mail after the new year, he said. “I cannot promise that there will be no
problems. But we remain confident that with the continued hard work of everyone involved,
we will achieve our goals of delivering the mail, protecting our employees and protecting
our finances,” Lorentz said.

Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), chairman of the Government Management, Information and
Technology Subcommittee and co-chairman of the House Y2K Task Force, said it was late for
the service to be finalizing a master plan.

“You are making progress but still have a long way to go in a short period,”
Horn said. “This is a management problem. If it’s just a bunch of techies
running loose, that’s your problem.”

Horn and Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.), co-chairwoman of the Y2K Task Force, said they
are concerned about the service’s ability to maintain operations because so many
agencies’ year 2000 contingency plans call for using postal mail if government
systems fail. The concern arises, the lawmakers said, because USPS relies on highly
automated mail-processing systems to handle 198 billion pieces of mail a year.

If the service’s systems crash, lawmakers asked, could USPS revert to manual
sorting, and how would that affect other agencies’ contingency plans? For example,
the Social Security Administration, which has finished its date code work, has set a plan
to use postal mail to send checks to recipients if electronic benefits transfer systems

Lorentz said USPS would not fail the government but acknowledged that the service had
underestimated the complexity of its year 2000 problem.

Postal Service inspector general Karla W. Corcoran said the service is behind schedule
because initially only the Information Systems Department at Postal Service headquarters
was working on the problem.

The department has changed strategies and now has officials from across the agency
working on the effort, Lorentz said. “Are the plans we have in place perfect? No. But
we’re confident we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.

Both General Accounting Office officials and the IG said that because of its late start
the Postal Service faces serious obstacles in ensuring that its systems will be ready.

“The service has been working hard to address its year 2000 problem and has
recently revamped its management approach that, if successfully implemented, can provide
significant support and oversight to its year 2000 efforts,” said Jack L. Brock Jr.,
director of governmentwide and Defense information systems for GAO’s Accounting and
Information Management Division.

The Postal Service will not meet the Office of Management and Budget’s March 31
readiness deadline. Lorentz said 123 of its 152 mission-critical systems are ready and all
but three systems will be fixed by June 30. He said USPS will spend $607 million on fixing
its systems.

One of the most significant hurdles USPS faces is its dependence on outside services to
deliver mail, Lorentz said. “We rely on commercial air and surface transportation to
move mail locally and across the country. We also power our facilities from the same
utilities as our customers. As you can see, some of the key elements that are necessary to
support a national postal system are not within our direct control,” Lorentz said.

Richard D. Weirich, the service’s vice president for information systems, said
USPS has had problems getting information from its approximately 8,000 contractors.

The Postal Service is working out agreements to ensure the 5,700 systems with
which USPS exchanges data will be ready Jan. 1. There are still 1,400 data exchange points
for which plans still must be set, USPS officials said.

Corcoran stressed that most of the problem issues are within management’s purview
and said her office has recommended ways for the service to deal with problems such as the
exchange points. She said a big problem is that the service does not have a consistent way
of reporting its year 2000 status. The information given to senior managers is not always
complete, consistent or clear, Corcoran said.

The Postal Service is developing workaround scenarios, Lorentz said. He added that the
service also will use a recovery management process that will provide a structured way for
reporting problems and implementing emergency plans, he said.  


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