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Agencies lag on millennium bug

A slew of federal departments are failing to make headway in their Y2K solution projects, according to the latest government report.

    The federal government's computer system preparations for the year 2000 will now cost $5.4 billion, according to the latest quarterly report by the Office of Management and Budget, which also added another agency to its Y2K slowpoke list.

    The State Department's efforts to address the Year 2000 problem slowed, and the agency Back to Year 2000 Index Page now joins the Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Transportation departments, as well as the Agency for International Development in the growing list of government bodies failing to make headway in their Y2K projects.

    Without improvement, these agencies are "in danger of not meeting the March 1999," government-wide goal of Year 2000 compliance, OMB acting deputy director Edward Deseve said in a statement.

    As a result, Vice President Al Gore has ratcheted up his involvement in the government efforts by instructing the heads of the struggling agencies to assess the obstacles they face in making necessary fixes and report back to him next month with their plans.

    The action is a positive move by the vice president, who has been criticized by Republicans and industry observers for failing to take a leading role in dealing with this major technology issue.

    Though on the surface it may seem like a change in how the vice president has previously dealt with the issue, Jack Gribben, a spokesperson for the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion said it is part of a continuous effort by Gore to address the problem.

    "He actually met with the heads of the departments in tier 1 last Wednesday and told them that Y2K has to be the No. 1 management issue," Gribben said. "I do think it is part of a continuing role. He and the President earlier this year told agencies to," take the problem very seriously.

    Gribben said the tone of Gore's discussions with the agencies was very serious and he told the department heads to go out to their managers on the front-lines, ask them what obstacles they face, and report back to him by mid-October.

    The latest in a series of quarterly reports on the federal government's progress on Year 2000 remediation efforts estimated the cost for the 24 government agencies at $5.4 billion, up from the $5 billion estimate in the last report released in May.

    The bug has its roots in antiquated hardware and software formats that denote years in two-digit formats, such as "98" for 1998 and "99" for 1999. The glitch will occur in 2000, when computers are fooled into thinking the year is 1900. The glitch could throw out of whack everything from bank balances and elevator maintenance to building security procedures.

    Despite the addition of the State Department to the slow list, or tier 1 group, the report also featured some good news. Overall, half of the federal government's 7,343 mission-critical systems are now 2000-compliant, Deseve said. But only 37 percent of those systems have been tested for compliance and put back online.

    Along with tier 1, those agencies not making adequate progress, the report also breaks agencies into two other groups. Tier 2 is made up of agencies that are making progress but with concerns, while tier 3 is the OMB's most favorable rating.

    Among those agencies in tier 3, making good progress in their Y2K efforts, are the Veterans Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, NASA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Social Security Administration, the General Services Administration, National Science Foundation, and Small Business Administration.

    "In the last quarter, OMB has implemented additional steps to more closely monitor the activities of agencies facing significant Y2K challenges, including heightened reporting requirements," said Deseve. "OMB is now requiring monthly reports from tier 1 and tier 2 agencies on their goals for getting the systems ready, along with their progress in meeting these goals."

    In related news, the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem is set to hold a hearing Thursday on the challenges facing the Department of Transportation as it tries to deal with the Year 2000 problem. The DOT is one of the agencies located in the tier 1 category of the OMB report.

    Thursday's hearing will hear testimony from DOT and Federal Aviation Administration officials as well as executives from American Airlines, Delta Airlines, and representatives from major metro public transportation services.

    The Senate hearing will explore safety and convenience concerns for the traveler and commuter, as well as the potentially paralyzing effect the millennium bug could have on businesses that are reliant on "just-in-time" inventories and prompt transportation of manufactured goods.