Y2K Wake-up Call

The last two months have seen a flurry of reports on the federal government's handling of its Year 2000 computer problem. Unfortunately, little of the news is good.

The Y2K issue, or "millennium bug," refers to the inability of older computers and programs to distinguish between the years 1900 and 2000. Errors that might result could shut down vital systems.

The problem affects government, business, and private computer systems worldwide. In a worst-case scenario, Medicare and other federal benefits could be held up, air-traffic control could be disrupted, regional electricity grids could break down, and defense computers could crash.

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Rep. Steve Horn (R) of California, a Y2K expert, issues quarterly reports on Washington's progress in fixing the glitch. The administration aims for all agencies to fix their systems by March 1999. But Mr. Horn's report card last week gave the government a "D." While a few agencies, including the Social Security Administration, got A's for their work, many larger ones are woefully behind, including the Justice, State, Energy, and Health and Human Services Departments.

The picture was further muddied when Pentagon inspectors learned the Defense Department agency that manages US nuclear stockpiles hadn't gotten independent testing before certifying its computers as bug free.

John Koskinen, the White House's Y2K point man, takes a more positive view than Horn. He says 61 percent of federal systems are fixed and that 85 to 90 percent will meet the March deadline. Of greater concern, he says, local governments, small businesses, and foreign governments have hardly begun to look at the problem.

For proof, Mr. Koskinen need only point outside his window at the District of Columbia's effort, which Congress's General Accounting Office finds to be more than a year behind. Nor is D.C. alone: GAO cites surveys showing that one-quarter of 1,650 cities polled hadn't even begun to address the problem. Only three states reported their food-stamp-program systems ready, while only 14 could say the same of their nutrition programs.

It's not enough for agency spokesmen to issue bland assurances. Federal departments, from the IRS to the Army, have demonstrated an appalling ineptitude on computer issues. Mr. Koskinen should call in the White House's heavy artillery - perhaps computer-savvy Vice President Al Gore - to prod federal managers.

Meanwhile, governors, mayors, and others need to get on the stick. They might want to recall that 2000 is an election year. Voters are likely to remember who mismanaged the issue when they cast their ballots.

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