Government Y2K Conference

Washington, DC -- 1997 Dec 09-12

Chairman's Welcome -- by R. W. Bemer

I'm sure we are all anxious to hear, from the representatives of these several branches or bodies of our U.S. Government, about the overall plan that our Government, as a whole, has in place to solve or at least ameliorate the Year 2000 problem of many computer systems. Perhaps we'll only hear about what the Government is doing for its own operations. But we should really hear what the Government's plan is for the entire United States.


I will myself be happy to learn which body has overall responsibility to coordinate the plan, to publish the plan and its schedules for the entire population to see, to choose and tell us where it will be published, and what part each citizen is expected to play so that the plan may be successful. So far I have not seen this, even on the Web. I do read of Congresspeople who don't know, either, but have suggestions about what to do.

I am curious to know the scope and probabilities for the methods that will be used to assess relative completion of the work, with both current extrapolations and schedule of revised extrapolations, if necessary. Only then may we be sure it will be done in time.

I am especially sensitive to this last. When employed by the General Electric Computer Department I would attend meetings where some design and manufacture project was authorized because Marketing said they could sell 18 of something within six months. Believing these honest salespeople, I would ask, in another such meeting when those 6 months had passed, how many they had actually sold to the projections. They were not only shocked that I would ask such a question (when in fact they had not sold any), but irate with me for asking that they tell the truth.

For any of you unaware of the sequel, that General Electric Computer Department is out of business! No great harm there. But should we let the U.S. Government go out of business? We might live without parts of it, but not without the total entity that supports the requirements of our Constitution.

If you have forgotten (I admit I had to look it up) -- the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States says that the purpose of that Government is largely to:

"... insure domestic tranquillity,
provide for the common defense,
promote the general welfare, ... "


The Year 2000 problem is not just a computer program problem. Those programs reflect, and in some cases, control our lives. So it's a people problem, too.

I'd like to hear about what Government components are doing about the problem in their customary roles. Not only how they're changing their computer programs, but how they are governing such change in the entire country. Regulatory roles, for instance, like banning saccharin, even though it turned out harmless. Dare I say airbags? But one cannot help noticing that there are some Y2K companies out there, even publicly-traded companies, that are selling nothing but best efforts, without guarantees of schedule or actual success.

I am reminded of a wallpaper my wife once bought for a joke. For our mountain house, that is, where only good friends would see it. The design was nothing but patent medicine ads from days of unabashed deception. If those nostrums had worked as advertised, all of our great great grandparents would still be alive! My point is that government does not permit and condone fraudulent advertising any more.

So I'd like to know (wouldn't you?) about the first Y2K company to be prosecuted for false advertising of a harmful product (believe me, if the product doesn't work it will be VERY harmful). Where does the responsibility lie? With the Federal Trade Commission? The Food and Drug Administration? Has the Congress legislated the appropriate penalties for these Federal crimes? Is there a distinction in sentencing? Is there first-degree and second-degree Year 2000 fraud, to guide the predatory lawyers out there? The judges should know, too. What is the Attorney General's position on this?

You may think I am being facetious about this. I am not. I remember prosecutions for war profiteering, and for selling faulty goods (like bombs that didn't explode).

And can you imagine the selfishness of the company that just trademarked the symbol "Y2K" in early November? Where has patriotism gone? And they've promised to ask you all to cease and desist, or else.

How about the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta? If they can consider guns a disease, surely the Millennium bug should be in their sights!

What of the Army? They're used for various emergencies abroad. Is there anyone here who thinks we don't have an emergency here at home?

What of the U.S. Post Office? They haven't done badly in innovation and change in the past. We've been educated to the 2-character tokens for states. And first the 5-digit, and then the 9-digit zipcode. Moreover, mail put in order on zipcode by computer gets a special rate -- that was my idea, in 1970.

The Post Office is heavily into advertising now, so why not get the Cheers postman to tell us about the new dating method on cancellations, and why we're changing to that year-month-day-hour-minute sequence? It can make a great story. Of course the meter people will have to redesign to follow the new requirements.

What of the Department of Transportation? Even if buses, trains, and airlines run on time -- what time? We'll need new schedules. Perhaps this is a good time to convert to 24-hour notation.

Ah! The Department of Education! We've got a real and useful task for them, for a change. Change to rational computer-influenced time will require much re-education of the general public -- in a hurry. Can they do it? Where are the computer programs or games to teach this palatably? Are there time games for the PCs? Videos? Public service spots on television?

Not least, the Government Printing Office. They have a massive amount of forms and regulations, which will require corresponding redesign. Have they started?

Of course many agencies have specialized missions, and cannot be be tapped for such roles. For example, the Social Security Administration, and I hope we shall hear some good news from them today.

But perhaps all such questions will be answered today and tomorrow. But if not, and they are still valid questions, what is the next step, to be taken by whom? So you're all welcome to hear, find out, and decide for yourselves.