WASHINGTON - John Koskinen, overseeing year 2000 preparations for the U.S. government, says he's performing a 'high-wire act' to spread the word that this unique problem must be taken seriously. At the same time, he's wary of creating irrational panic.
In fact, he believes it is year 2000 panic, rather than Y2K computer failures themselves, that poses a threat to the nation and the world's economic systems - particularly if people en masse disinvest in companies or withdraw large amounts of money from financial institutions.
'For a few million people, it's one thing. If 200 million people do anything different, then you've got a problem,' Koskinen said in an interview. 'We are concerned that people not assume that because it is such a critical problem, nobody can solve it and in fact it's time to head for the hills,' said Koskinen, whose formal title is assistant to the president and chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion.
He's battling economic pessimists who foresee worldwide recession. Even President Clinton's annual economic report to Congress, delivered in early February, devoted an entire section to Y2K. It said that a survey of 33 top economic forecasters found, on average, that Y2K preparations would add 0.1 percent to economic growth in 1999 and subtract 0.3 percent in 2000.
While the administration report downplayed doomsday scenarios, it also warned about the dangers of complacency. Koskinen, who's made a career of crisis management, gave his own prescription for combating complacency while trying not to spread panic:
Tell the public candidly that some things, perhaps some unexpected things, are going to fail but that good people are working hard on the problem and are developing contingency plans and emergency response plans to deal with breakdowns that do occur.
Those plans include having emergency management agencies create a coordinating center because 'it is possible that we will have a confluence of demands for assistance and response as the clock turns to Jan. 1, 2000,' he said.
In general, Koskinen's preparedness scorecard looks like this:
The federal government is making significant progress on fixing its own systems. While it won't reach the goal of having 100 percent of its 'mission critical' systems Y2K-compliant by the end of March, it will have all of them ready by year's end.
Big companies, especially in the financial and manufacturing sectors, are devoting appropriate resources to updating their systems.
The electric power grid isn't likely to shut down, but there very well could be spot outages.
Preparation lags far behind outside the United States and among small businesses.
The last point is ominous news for the automobile industry, which depends more and more on the movement of materials, goods and information across borders and which increasingly relies on a vast array of suppliers, some large, some small.
'The supply-chain problems are obviously, I think ultimately, the biggest challenge for manufacturers,' Koskinen said.
A January survey of small businesses by the National Federation of Independent Business found that about one-third of them with operations that may depend on computers or other vulnerable devices had no plans even to assess their risk.
'What we're really confronted with is people just willing to roll the dice, and as I keep telling them, it's a high-risk roll of the dice,' Koskinen said.
Despite such uncertainty, Koskinen said he remains largely optimistic. Quoting Clinton, he said, 'We can view this as the last headache of the 20th century and not the first crisis of the 21st century.'