- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 1999

The nation's attitude about the year-2000 computer glitch has been molded by a consistent message from the government's top official overseeing the federal computer project.

John Koskinen, the even-tempered chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, has managed the federal computer project while leading an effort to inform people about the progress of federal agencies and industries ranging from utilities to airlines.

His messages seemingly have both quelled concern and convinced people to make some preparations, as polls last week indicate.

But critics say Mr. Koskinen has reassured people into complacency and fooled them into thinking there won't be problems stemming from computing errors Jan. 1.

"I think the message has been overly optimistic," said Norman L. Dean, executive director of the Center for Y2K and Society, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group whose mission is to reduce the possible effects of the year-2000 problem.

But Mr. Koskinen, a master of gentle persuasion, consistently has warned people to prepare for Jan. 1 as they would prepare for a winter snowstorm.

Even though he has critics, Mr. Koskinen has supporters who credit him with nagging federal officials into finishing a massive $8.38 billion computer overhaul before the ultimate deadline.

They also credit him with defusing panic.

The year-2000 computer problem stems from a cost-saving shortcut in which software programmers devoted only two spaces in a date field to designate the year. That older software assumes the year always will begin with the digits "19." If technicians don't fix computers, they could shut down or malfunction when they interpret the digits "00" as meaning 1900 and not 2000.

Whether people criticize or support Mr. Koskinen's use of the bully pulpit, it's clear he has convinced people the year-2000 date change won't cause widespread computer failures or interrupt the national infrastructure delivering services like electricity or telephones that so many rely on.

"It's worked like a charm," said Edward Yardeni, chief economist at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York, a leading year-2000 alarmist who has predicted that computer problems could hurt the economy.

Polls indicate people have heard Mr. Koskinen's reassuring voice.

A poll by ICR of Media, Pa., released Wednesday concluded 70 percent of Americans expect minor problems, 23 percent expect no problems and just 5 percent expect major problems.

The number of people expecting major problems dropped from 11 percent in July.

As Saturday approaches, Mr. Koskinen's well-crafted messages make it unlikely the public will panic, observers say.

George Strawn, director of computer networking at the Arlington-based National Science Foundation, said there has been a slight increase in the number of people planning to stockpile food and water since the summer.

But that doesn't mean a wave of panic will overcome the public, he said.

"I think it's steady as she goes," he said.

Mr. Strawn said a poll by the NSF, an independent federal agency that conducts scientific research, indicates that 42 percent of those polled the week of Dec. 16 shows consumers plan to buy additional food and water in preparation for the Jan. 1 date change.

That's up from 36 percent in August.

Mr. Koskinen has said modest preparations are prudent, but he has warned consistently against embracing a bunker mentality that would result in massive hoarding.

Mr. Koskinen has said since he started the job that he has been afraid of causing panic. He believes the best way to prevent that is by providing people with as much information about preparedness of federal agencies and of major industries as possible.

So he has flooded the public with updates and held more than 400 community meetings across the country.

The campaign to inform the public culminated in a Dec. 14 announcement from President Clinton that federal agencies had fixed 99.9 percent of 6,175 federal computer systems.

Mr. Strawn argues that people have used that information to arm themselves for Jan. 1.

"The public is well-educated about this, and an informed, educated public is a prepared public," he said.

But Mr. Dean argues that the stream of reports that federal agencies have finished year-2000 work has lulled people into complacency.

Fortune 500 companies are funding $50 billion worth of computer work, but consumers seem unconcerned, he said.

"The people who are closest to this problem the government and the private sector are taking this very seriously, and the general public is not," he said.

Mr. Yardeni agrees.

"Right now, it's almost eerie how calm people are," he said.

That sense of calm is unlikely to waver unless people watching television New Year's Eve see other countries that enter 2000 before the United States beginning with the Republic of Kiribati in the South Pacific when it is 5 a.m. Dec. 31 in Washington experiencing catastrophic problems, Mr. Yardeni said.

"I seriously doubt we will see much in the first couple of days in terms of visible problems," he said. "It's going to take most of January before we know" the scope of year-2000-related problems.

If the glitch produces no or few problems, the seeming lack of concern among people won't matter, Mr. Yardeni said.

But if there are widespread problems, Mr. Yardeni predicts a national mood swing.

And that could test Mr. Koskinen's ability to reassure the public once again.

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