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1998-01-20 09:57:18


U.S. Government: Contingency Plans Needed; Tests May Fail



Testing is a critical aspect of every repair. The U.S. government has such a late deadline for testing (March, 1999) that any major failure in an agency will threaten its existence. It may not have time to repair whatever is broken.

Will these agencies go back to paper and pen management systems? The Federal Aviation Administration thinks it may be able to for some procedures. This is the first time I have heard of any agency that is considering a reversion to paper and pen. It is the right approach. But the costs of making that transition would be very high. No one today knows how to create and manage such paper-based information systems in large organizations. The old timers are long gone.

This appeared in FEDERAL COMPUTER WEEK (Jan. 19).

* * * * * * *

With just more than a year before the federal government is expected to finish fixing its Year 2000 computer glitches, agencies now are delving into the gritty details of data interfaces, staff shortages and backup plans for systems that fail.

Agencies have been aware of these underlying problems, but only in recent months have Year 2000 project managers begun to develop solutions and carry them out. . . .

At this juncture, the government admits that many agencies will not meet that deadline. For the most part, the ability to finish the work successfully depends on the agencies' management of these difficult but integral problems. . . .

Most agencies are expected to encounter new difficulties in the year ahead as they move into the testing phase of their Year 2000 projects and consider developing contingency plans, observers said.

"History shows that in any major software maintenance or software development project, testing is something that's generally underestimated," said Joel Willemssen, director for information resources management at the General Accounting Office. "The amount of effort that it takes to test and resolve the problems that result from testing is enormous. Clearly, the harder part of Y2K compliance is yet to come."

The process of testing will be easier for some agencies than for others. SSA, for example, has converted and tested more than half of its exchanges, with a goal to finish them all by December, while agencies such as the Transportation Department, with its complex air traffic control programs, have admitted to running far behind.

The potential for unexpected problems to arise during the testing phase heightens the awareness of the need for strong contingency plans, several observers said.

According to Willemssen, putting together contingency plans for the most mission-critical systems is one of the biggest challenges facing federal agencies. Agencies, he said, must understand "what are the risks associated with Year 2000 failures at any point along the lines of that business process. And if that risk is realized, then what are you going to do, who is going to do it, and what is going to be put in place?" . . .

At the Federal Aviation Administration, one contingency plan is to go to paper processing. "It is possible for some kinds of work that we do for people to go back to paper if they have to," said Kim Taylor, director of information resources management at DOT. "The grants system is one area where we could potentially go back to some paper-based processes, but we're looking at a range of things, depending on systems and applications," he said.

Given the potential for problems to arise during the testing phase, agencies are nearing some difficult decisions about where to invest their energies, one source said.

Agencies that have been planning to bring new systems online rather than renovate old systems may want to rethink the issue, a Defense Department official said. What happens, the source asked, if a new system is not fully operational by Jan. 1, 2000? If that were to happen, the official said the agency would find itself without a working system. Now is the time for agencies to make such "go or no go" decisions, the source said.


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