After spending years forging electronic ties between various levels of government, information technology executives face the prospect of seeing those connections scrambled by incompatible year-2000 conversions.

While most state agencies are busy making sure their own computer systems are year-2000 compliant, less attention has been paid to the crucial issue of whether one agency's year-2000 conversion will work with that of another, said Larry Olson, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for information technology. The question of data compatibility looms particularly large between state and federal government agencies, said Olson, where the inability to transfer electronic information could have wide-ranging impact.

"We are so networked now between all [levels of government] that this has the potential of completely disrupting the services that we deliver to our citizens," he said. "We now look at this as an economic viability issue -- not a technical issue."

State and federal officials took a first step toward safeguarding these crucial data transfers during a day-long summit meeting aimed at resolving inter-agency conflicts created by the year-2000 problem. Representatives from 42 states and 21 federal agencies gathered in Pittsburgh on Oct. 28 for the meeting, which was spearheaded by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge.

Olson said the participants, many of whom were chief information officers, laid a foundation for ongoing effort. "Gov. Ridge and Pennsylvania have achieved their top goal, and that was to finally get everyone together and talking," he said.

The meeting yielded several accomplishments, including a mutual agreement between state and federal agencies to use four contiguous digits to identify the date in electronic data and creation of a national policy group of senior executives and a joint state/federal working group to carry on work initiated during the event.

Olson described the four-digit date standard as a framework that will be modified and refined to fit the requirements of agencies that are trading information. "I think it needs to get down to each individual agency talking about its own computer program," he said. They're kind of unique in a lot of cases, so the fix might be unique."

Olson expects the national policy group to focus on "big-picture" issues like evaluating progress and assessing priorities. The working group will tackle the "nuts and bolts" technical matters.

The makeup and operation of those groups will be overseen by Sally Katzen, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, and John Thomas Flynn, CIO of California's Department of Information Technology.

Raising the Issue

Olson first raised the issue of data compatibility in July during a speech to the National Governors' Association annual meeting. "As most groups go about making year-2000 changes, they are failing to take into account the numerous data exchanges that are handled on a daily basis," he said. "Much of their hard work could be undone in an instant if they start exchanging data with an outside group that has not been so diligent."

Olson's own state expects to complete year-2000 modifications to 8,000 mission-critical computer programs by June 1998. The remainder of Pennsylvania's 42,325 programs will be fixed by December 1998, Olson said.

Noting that Pennsylvania has identified nearly 600 data interfaces between its own state agencies and federal agencies or third-party interests, Olson called the state/federal summit a vital step in safeguarding the state's year-2000 effort. "If we can't receive good, accurate information from our data partners, it doesn't matter whether we're in good shape or not. We'll still be impacted," said Olson. "We're trying to get across that you're not an island. You have to deal with your data partners -- better now than later."

Call to Action

Olson formally proposed the year-2000 summit in a letter to the National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE) and the