State/Federal Summit Tackles Y2K Data Compatibility

Inability to transfer data between agencies could unravel a networked government.

by / November 30, 1997
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 Federal Chief Information Officer Council. NASIRE quickly endorsed the idea. However, the federal organization was slower to respond.

Prior to the event, Olson expressed concern over the federal government's level of interest in addressing potential data incompatibility.

"We've seen no communication at all. We rely on press and industry reports, and the ones I have read or heard about have not been very positive," he said. "They could be in great shape. I just don't know, and I'm the kind of person who likes to pre-plan and avoid surprises."

However, Pam Stallings-Woodside, chairwoman of the Federal CIO Council subgroup on state-related year-2000 issues, said her subgroup had taken steps prior to the meeting to avoid data incompatibility between state and federal agencies.

For example, said Stallings-Woodside, also year-2000 project manager for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the subgroup proposed a minimum data-transfer standard calling for uniform use of a four-digit year field.

The organization also identified a person in each federal agency who is responsible for handling data exchange with states. These contacts are posted on the General Services Administration (GSA) home page , and can discuss data standards and implementation deadlines with state officials, said Stallings-Woodside.

After the meeting, Olson described the level of federal participation as "outstanding."

"I think, clearly, the federal agencies saw the importance of this and sent high-level individuals," he said. "This is the first time federal and state CIOs have gotten together. I think it will be an excellent model for the future."

Challenges Ahead

Although the summit produced a framework for ironing out year-2000 issues, Olson noted that the hardest work lies ahead. Among other things, state and federal officials now must develop the following:

* Methods for certifying year-2000 compliance among state and federal agencies that trade electronic data.

* Procedures for developing what are known as "electronic bridges" to allow transfer of information between an agency that is year-2000 compliant and another that is not compliant.

* Contingency plans for handling situations where one agency is year-2000 compliant and the other is not, and an electronic bridge has not been developed.

"It was important to build the framework and have the executive leadership backing. Now we need to flesh it out with more detail by the end of this year," said Olson. "We'll probably have some aggressive conversations -- that's what happens between partners. But we need to keep the dialog going."

Potential Impact

Disruption in the flow of data between states and the federal agencies could impact some of government's most basic functions.

Steve Kolodney, chairman of NASIRE's Year-2000 Committee, said benefit programs -- such as those providing welfare payments and food stamps -- which are funded by the federal government and administered by the states, face the greatest danger. "In conjunction with that are a whole set of eligibility questions, all of which require some kind of data interaction with the federal government," added Kolodney, director of the Department of Information Services in Washington state. "Now, with welfare reform and limitations on the amount of time anybody can receive federal welfare payments, you have to be able to manage people who are moving from place to place.

Law enforcement is another area of concern, according to Olson. In particular, he pointed to computerized FBI information on out-of-state felons. "If you can't check the information from other states through the FBI system, then you're without a tool to protect citizens," he said.

Lack of year-2000 data interchange standards also threatens cutting-edge efforts like electronic commerce, Olson added. "If the data you ship me is bad data because of year 2000, I can't use it."

On the Horizon

Kolodney, whose committee helped Olson organize the summit meeting, predicted year-2000 computer problems could start cropping up in 1998. Still, he's optimistic that data incompatibility issues will be solved before they seriously threaten government information transfer. "I think there is sufficient time to do it, particularly if your attitude is that you want to make sure there is no disruption to public service, and you're willing to throw out some stuff along the way," he said.

In fact, year-2000 preparations in Washington include a healthy dose of house cleaning, said Kolodney. "We're making an active effort to try to shut down systems that are no longer necessary. Inertia keeps them going, but now there's an economic reason to think about whether that's good business."

The convergence of several factors made the state/federal summit well-timed, according to Kolodney. "It's very hard to get a political process focused on these issues before you're at a moment in which there is a sense of compelling urgency," he explained. "I think right now, we have all gone through budget cycles in which that urgency has been raised, and many of us have been funded to implement fixes to our systems."

Olson said both public and private organizations have been somewhat reluctant to spend money on year-2000 conversion because, unlike exotic initiatives like electronic commerce or digital signatures, it often adds no new capabilities. Instead, most conversion efforts simply preserve systems already in place.

"It sounds kind of unimportant. A two-digit code: Who cares about that? A lot of people just don't take it seriously," he added. "It's not a big deal to me, if you get [the conversion] done ahead of time. It's going to be a big deal if you wait and get surprised and systems fail."

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