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Money well-spent on Y2k

by Don Miner

People across the world spent a great amount of time talking about Year 2000, also known as Y2K, while calculating the chances of problems that might occur when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. Now that the threat of Armageddon is gone, skeptics are raising questions whether the government and corporate America spent too much time, effort and money on the Y2K problem.

And why not? On the surface, nothing happened.

The turn of the century brought no major instances of loss or destruction. Even foreign countries were seemingly immune, and they spent far less time and money dealing with the matter than the United States.

According to a recent ABC News article, the United States spent about $365 per citizen on Y2K. The bulk of federal spending, or $8.5 billion, was spent to update and repair computers and to set up elaborate monitoring systems for each major industry at risk, from nuclear power plants to hospitals. The federal government also gave aid to foreign countries to help protect the U.S. economy from global problems, primarily to ensure that foreign nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants were safe.

If this amount of “wasted” spending seems high, it pales in comparison to what private citizens and companies spent to be Y2K ready. One analyst firm estimated that the private sector of the United States spent $41 billion. That’s a lot of consultants, extra staff, water bottles and batteries.

But there are at least a couple of important points to consider before making accusations about the “waste” of money and then start pointing fingers. The United States is easily the most technologically advanced country in the world, therefore, the most technologically dependent. And our capitalistic orientation does not include a covenant that says, “Private enterprise should waste money -just for the fun of it.” As the federal government’s top Y2K advisor John Koshiken notes, “Corporations don’t naively spend hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Concerning government spending, was every federal dollar spent on Y2K necessary and used in the most cost effective and efficient manner? I doubt it. But as a commissioner, I can say that the Douglas County government spent far less than $365 per citizen and that the time spent, effort and cost to address Y2K was well worth it. The estimated cost for Douglas County Y2K upgrading averaged approximately $20 per citizen, mostly invested in computers, systems and software.

Computers have proven themselves to be an essential ingredient in the mix of resources necessary to provide county services. Computers significantly improve efficiency, accuracy and reliability.

The heart of the county’s data management system is its mid-range computer, the IBM AS400. Most important are the key computer systems used in the offices of the clerk-treasurer, sheriff, recorder, assessor, comptroller, facilities operations and district attorney.

All of these systems are date sensitive. In fact, government systems rely heavily on dates, probably more than the private sector. The county owns and maintains over 400 personal computers, servers and printers, several local area networks and computer peripherals (i.e., scanner, back-up drives, etc.) with many software programs. The AS400 and every one of these systems, programs and personal computers were analyzed, reprogrammed and/or replaced, a very large and challenging task that took the county’s information systems staff over two years to complete.

According to John Endter, the county’s information systems supervisor, the Y2K issue “forced the information systems industry to clean-up what has been left neglected for the last 20 years” – spring cleaning, in a way. The cost of not dealing with Y2K would be considerably more expensive. “Corrupt data, lost data and inoperable systems would have been the outcome had Douglas county not gone through all of its computer programs with a fine tooth comb.” Further, it would have resulted in the failure of Douglas County to provide legally mandated services and/or services at the level required by law, such as maintaining water quality, accurate records and prompt payments.

The total county cost for hardware, software, consulting services and staff time for the last two years is just over $900,000. In the process of fixing Y2K programs, numerous computers were replaced or upgraded that were part of an ongoing replacement program and would have been replaced regardless of Y2K. Once again, the ounce of prevention investment in good planning proved its worth.