The lesson of Y2K: IT makes federal agencies tick

The lesson of Y2K: IT makes federal agencies tick

Top management involvement is crucial to future IT mission successes, agency executives say

By Christopher J. Dorobek
GCN Staff

Originally it seemed like just another memo sent by fax. How could such a relatively low-tech communication have significant ramifications on how the government manages technology?

Yet that Feb. 4, 1998, memorandum from the White House to the House Government Reform Committee was a definitive sign that something many referred to dismissively as 'the Y2K bug' was going to change the way agency executives looked at information technology. It would also renew the government's focus on project management skills.

The fax, sent literally during the middle of a hearing on the Federal Aviation Administration's year 2000 efforts, was a copy of President Clinton's executive order creating the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion and naming John A. Koskinen as chairman.

The document was important because it was an outright indication that the year 2000 problem was not just another IT issue. Instead Koskinen's appointment made it clear that the date code problem was a mission-critical issue, especially if agencies expected to operate into the next century, said Joel C. Willemssen, director of civil agencies information systems for the General Accounting Office's Accounting and Information Management Division.

'Among the most important things that happened in Y2K that I hope we can carry through to other projects is top management involvement,' Willemssen said.

Koskinen said: 'In many organizations, Y2K was just another problem battling for scarce resources. Many senior executives had no concept of the magnitude of the risks they and their organizations faced.'

DOD, Treasury were big Y2K spenders
In Millions
Agency for International Development$49.1
Environmental Protection Agency$40.9
Federal Emergency Management Agency$27.3
General Services Administration$105.6
Health and Human Services$806.5
Housing and Urban Development$78.0
National Science Foundation$1.1
Nuclear Regulatory Commission$8.4
Office of Personnel Management$16.9
Small Business Administration$15.0
Social Security Administration$39.5
Veterans Affairs$231.4

Everything's changed

Now, with Jan. 1 come and gone, agencies are looking at how lessons learned during the year 2000 experience can help them with future IT projects.

'One thing is clear: Life is never going to be the same,' said Jerry Slaymaker, a senior adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency's chief information officer.

Unlike many who praise the government's year 2000 efforts, Slaymaker said code fixes took longer, cost more and were riskier than necessary. 'I don't think our change management was as good as we thought it was,' he said recently.

As a result, IT shops in the future should expect to deal more with chief financial officers and agency executives, he said. CFOs, leery about getting into another similar situation, are going to require more discipline within IT organizations, Slaymaker said.

Kathleen M. Adams agreed. 'We are never going back to the time when CFOs don't pay attention to what's going on in the IT department,' said the former Social Security Administration systems official and one-time co-chairwoman of the CIO Council's Year 2000 Committee.

The date code efforts made it clear to everyone what a critical role IT plays in the government's mission, she said.

Koskinen said, 'Y2K is teaching us that top management needs to be more involved in information technology on an ongoing basis, since information technology cuts to the very core and the very heart of how organizations conduct their business.'

CIOs increasingly must consider how technology supports the agency's business, Slaymaker said.

Year 2000 proved that CIOs have to attend to their agencies' missions, Adams said. 'They are not there for technology's sake. They have to focus on their mission.'

Soon after taking his post, Koskinen told agency executives that he would attend the monthly senior management meetings for the agencies facing the greatest year 2000 challenges.

'This was partially to ensure that they were actually holding senior management meetings on a monthly basis,' he said. 'Not all of them were.'

That has changed, and many IT executives believe it bodes well for the future.

'The silver lining of Y2K is that it's sensitized the leadership of the Army to the importance of information technology and visibly demonstrated how technology is important to their way of doing business,' said Miriam F. Browning, the service's year 2000 program manager. 'They have seen it at a visceral level.'

Top management involvement'from the president, Congress and on down the line'changed the atmosphere, Willemssen said. 'If we could continue that in a post-Y2K environment it would help a lot,' he said.

David Ames, the State Department's deputy CIO for year 2000, said that with the proper amount of management support, project offices could work across agencies as they did on date code efforts.

Agencies are already reaping some benefits from the $8.38 billion that was spent on year 2000 fixes. Most agencies have cleared away a lot of the IT underbrush: systems that were older, unproductive or repetitive.

But Adams warned: 'It's like cleaning up your house. You can't just clean it and walk away from it. It's an ongoing process.' Now, she said, agencies must focus on maintaining the tools that helped them during year 2000 work'the systems inventories, the documentation and the review processes.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.