John Koskinen was the leader of the president's Y2K efforts from February 1998 to March 2000. Dubbed "Y2K Czar," he coordinated federal date change preparations, as well as readiness efforts by local, state and foreign governments and the private sector. After solving what he called the world's biggest management challenge in 50 years, Koskinen turned his attention to local government in the District of Columbia, becoming deputy mayor and city administrator for Washington, D.C.
Q: While you were the federal government's Y2K Czar, you developed a reputation for forging high-level cooperation across multiple jurisdictions. What lessons can be learned from your experience that would help governments continue to move forward in deploying new technology?
One lesson from Y2K is that people are willing and sometimes even anxious to cooperate with the government when it is made clear that it is a real partnership. We made it clear right from the start that we didn't have the time, even if we had the inclination, to try to tell people what to do. So we tried to structure our role as a facilitator to help enable people working together. And once, particularly in the private sector, companies got comfortable with the fact that we were really trying to be participants rather than telling them what to do, we got tremendous cooperation. The same thing happened internationally. We were very careful not to make this a U.S. initiative and worked to create cooperative working relationships at the country level. Obviously, what motivated everyone in this situation, which was different than most problems we [dealt] with, is that Y2K was a problem with the potential for affecting everyone. And it had a clear deadline. For some of the longer-term problems we are dealing with, it is easier for people to procrastinate.
Q: Nevertheless, have you noticed that there is a different level of cooperation now as a result of the Y2K experience?
It's varied. A lot of lines of communication were opened and some of them have continued to operate. I know in some areas of the world, countries that came together to work on Y2K are now continuing to work on other information technology challenges. In South America, Africa and Eastern Europe there are groups of countries that are continuing to work together. We also have about 120 countries that have continued at least to provide focal points, as we call them, for information technology issues. So, there is a network up now of about 120 countries that are online with each other. And these region groupings in different parts of the world, then, are obviously part of that overall umbrella.
Q: The natural inclination to protect one's own turf has traditionally been a barrier to cooperation between different areas or jurisdictions within government. Did Y2K preparations start to erode that tendency?
Well, when you look at issues like information security, people are becoming more and more connected, and there certainly is recognition that nobody is an island anymore. Anyone's failure is your failure. When systems go down or data is corrupted or viruses spread, they are going to affect you. You can't isolate yourself. You can't become separate from the system. One thing Y2K did for people was cause them to focus on how interconnected and reliant they are on others. People are beginning to understand that, while it may be important to protect your own environment, your turf is everybody's turf in some ways.
Q: Would the same thing apply regarding cooperation between government agencies?
When I was deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget [from 1994 to 1997], I helped create the legislation that created chief information officers in all the agencies and structured the CIO Council as a vehicle to allow agencies to work