10 Years Later, What We Learned from Y2K: Technology vs. Political Management
We had planned for it for years. It was, as one techno-wag said, “a disaster with a deadline.”
The Year 2000 roll-over was going to be big; world wide. No escape.
We knew this would be no mere technology challenge to be solved with exceptional American ingenuity. Y2K was problematic with unknown unknowns.
The internet would crash. Cell phones dead. The power grid dark.
In the late 1990’s one-half of the world’s internet traffic passed through the Commonwealth of Virginia, thanks to America On Line — AOL.com. And maybe another Northern Virginia entity in Arlington: the Pentagon. I think that was a secret.
Your Business Blogger(R) had the Y2K responsibility for Health and Human Resources, a $5 billion enterprise in the Virginia government. The boss, governor Jim Gilmore, a former military intelligence officer, knew what we could and couldn’t do to combat the Y2K Bug.
There was a lot we couldn’t do. And it wasn’t all technology.
It was a condition of continued employment that there were to be no interruptions or adverse incidents to the citizens of the Commonwealth and the rest of the World.
(We worker-bees could not get it wrong. The world ends AND get a bad employee appraisal. A sub-par job performance would not be a simple career-ending/world-ending mistake. Going out with a bang, so to say.)
Business literature notes the adrenaline rush of the “peak experience.” The Governor of Virginia had this as he had The Whole World In His Hands.
The web had to run for the wide world and more: Virginia’s hospital doors had to remain open; the prison doors closed. Fresh water and waste water valves had to direct flow in the correct and desired directions.
Local first responders had to be able to coordinate communications across jurisdictional silos. Governor Gilmore was among the first to realize the importance of seamless radio traffic between Fed-State-Local law enforcement. (It still wouldn’t be fixed years later. Re: 9.11).
Lots of challenges beyond government resources. So Gilmore hired the biggest IT consulting firms on the planet and bought their solutions packages. In my weekly staff meetings I had a dozen of the smartest experts in the business. I was not one of them.
They let me think I was in control at the head of the table. And maybe so. But these consultants wouldn’t let me, a mere bureaucrat, make a mistake.
But there were some mistakes the professional tech-gurus could not save me from.
One of the first steps was to inventory hardware, software for both the public sector and those private vendors who supplied the government. Every computer and bit of software that touched the government had to be inspected and brought into a procedure for standardized compliance. Verified with a form. With signatures. Every laptop. Everywhere.
I started by reviewing the vendors for the $400 million Department of Health. It had over 11,000 suppliers.
—Easy MBA 101 stuff—
So I directed the staff to report on the number of vendors that did most of the business with us, say 80-90% of the dollar volume.
—More smarty-pants MBA inquiries—
To no one’s shock and awe, save mine, we learned that 900 vendors did 90% of the business with that government agency.
I addressed the staff. “You mean,” says I, “We have to manage over 10,000 vendors to deliver 10% of our purchase orders?” My chin thrust with smug disbelief.
“So?” the staff asked as one man.
—Shortly, know-it-all MBA would meet political realities—
I strongly suggested that we should look to consolidate some vendors and look at ways to reduce the number of transactions and paper work. Time and motion studies demonstrated that processing each purchase order cost $150. I would fix this! The efficiency of Frederick Taylor.
The staff left the room. Slowly. They knew something I did not.
But they got on the job and the machinery of government began to move. I so pride myself on getting completed staff work.
The staff saw the wisdom of my directives. The efficiency! The simplicity! The savings!
I leaned back in chair pleased with the MBA-intellect the governor hired.
The Governor would have done better to hire a politician.
In mere hours the calls came in. No, not from disgruntled vendors, but from locally elected officials representing the disgruntled vendors who were about to be shut out of government business.
No one was happy that rice bowls were going to be broken.
And the fact that this all took less than a day alerted me that back channels were working at the speed of light.
The vendors and the politicians were aided and abetted by an army of helpful bureaucrats who pushed all that paper around.
The populace clamors for efficient government as long as suppliers and jobs are cut in someone else’s backyard.
I didn’t have a chance. Nor did the citizens’ tax dollars.
This was my first rude lesson in ‘multiple points of accountability.’ In government a civil servant answers to his boss, of course. But he also must be mindful of other politicians, the press, the public, the unions, the lobbyists and peers making a grab for his budget.
The supply chain efficiency fight wasn’t worth the political capital necessary to win. There are real reasons why governments seem to be so inefficient.
My lesson learned, I quickly moved on to other battles where I had half a chance.
Virginia spent $215 million and nothing happened here or the rest of the world. There were some problems in Nigeria. We now think it was some kind of scam.
Nothing crashed. Except for that super-secret three-letter-agency satellite…and some defibrillators. Not my fault. No one died.
The lesson learned was that managing technology was the easy part. The real challenge was in managing people.
It always is.