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1998-06-08 21:17:54


TIME Warns: Government Computers Won't Make It



This is significant as a media event. TIME (June 15) ran a short piece on the likelihood that the U.S. government will not meet its deadline.

This is not news to people who have followed y2k for a year or two. But it will be news to the average reader.

Today, y2k is still background noise. That is why you can still get cash out of your bank. That is why there are ATM machines with money in them.

Not in late 1999.

* * * * * * * * *

There are two little black clocks in John Koskinen's office inside the White House complex. They display not the time of day but how much time is left until the Year 2000. Time is something Koskinen desperately needs more of. He's in charge of making sure the U.S. government's computers don't crash come Jan. 1, 2000.

Koskinen's task is not just daunting; it's impossible. The feds own roughly one-quarter of all the computers in the U.S. The Pentagon alone has about 1.5 million machines--and it keeps discovering more. At last count, at least 4,500 of the government's most vital systems still needed to be repaired. And the studied silence of President Clinton and Vice President Gore on the subject isn't making it any easier to raise the alarm. . . .

Internal Revenue Service. The good news is that the IRS may not be able to process your tax returns. The bad news is that it won't be handing out any refunds either. Since last fall, says newly installed Commissioner Charles Rossotti, the agency has upped estimates of its Y2K costs repeatedly, from $250 million to $850 million to more than $1 billion. It fell behind its own deadline of having 66 of its 127 most vital systems fixed by January 1998, and still hasn't finished deciding which minicomputers, file servers and PCs need debugging. Even if the IRS gets fixed, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans benefits checks come from the Treasury Department's Financial Management Service, a little-known agency through which almost all the government's payments and collections flow. It's in poor shape. As of March, FMS hadn't finished even the preliminary step of deciding which systems needed to be repaired.

What nobody, not even Koskinen, knows is how bad the crash will be. So why doesn't he press the panic button during speeches and interviews? "Would we do better if I stood up tomorrow and said this is a national crisis?" he asks in reply. Probably not. But it might get the bureaucrats' attention.


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