Statement by Dean Mesterharm,
Deputy Commissioner for Systems,
before the House Committee on Science, Subcommittee on Technology

May 14, 1996

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I appreciate the opportunity to discuss the Year 2000 Projetc at the Social Security Administration (SSA), and I thank you for your efforts to focus attention on a matter which urgencly needs to be addressed. In your letter of invitation you asked me to describe what we are doing to prevent breakdowns in our systems and whether Federal agencies are aware of the problem. I will begin by outlining the reasons why change is needed and what we are doing to address the problem, so that the transition to the new century is a smooth one.

Reason Change Is Needed

Mr. Chairman, a unique event will take place on January 1, 2000. On that day, we will experience the first century change since the start of the computer era. This event poses enormous challenges for the data processing community, as public and private sector organizations around the world prepare for the single largest integration feat since computers entered our daily lives.

The reason that the century change poses a problem is that many computer programs store and use only the last two digits of a year and assume that the first two digits are 19. Under this practice, computer logic operations work as long as dates are in the same century, but problems arise when it is necessary to use dates in two differenc centuries. For example, subtracting December 31, 1995, from December 31, 2005, to determine someone's age would produce the incorrect answer of minus 90 instead of the correct result of 10.

The inceraction of daces among different programs, syscems, and agencies is one of the factors which gives the Year 2000 issue such complexity. Timing considerations become very important because either the sending or receiving agency will need to convert =iles from one format to another, unless both are ready co make cheir ear 2000 changes ac the same time. For example, every employer in che United Staces with 250 or more employees must report their employees' earnings to SSA in some form of magnetic media. It is unlikely that they will all be converted at the same time. It is more likely that they will process chei reports throuh a filtering program to substitute the appropriate date format.

Labor-Intensive Process

The solution to the problem is obvious, but labor intensive, for organizations such as SSA which depend heavily on computer operations. Wherever we currencly add, subtract, compare, or sort using a two-digit year, we will need to substitute a fourĀ­ digit year.

While that sounds simple, our experience shows us that implementing it in computer systems is far from a simple task. There is no way to create a technical quick-fix to this problem. Virtually all computer systems rely on dates to some extent, but agencies such as SSA which are extremely date-sensitive are ac greater risk if the Year 2000 conversion is not done on time and properly. At SSA, there are two complicating factors in the conversion process. One is the sheer size of the task. SSA has over 30 million lines of software now in use. The other is that there is no automated way to review the software. Each line must be examined individually to see if a change is needed. Our initial estimates indicate that it will take approximately 300 workyears to make and test the necessary changes, and the entire effort throughout SSA could require many more workyears. We are currently in the process of refining our estimates of total workyears which will be needed. Regardless of the amount of workyears needed, this activity cannot be deferred. We are planning to complete this projecc with in-house resources, but that means that, if additional resources are not budgeted, the resources for this critical project will not be available to do other systems development and modernization projects that would assist in processing increasing workloads with decreasing staff.

Of course, we are not the only organization faced with this problem, or the only one involved in addressing it. Every organization in the world, including every Federal and State agency that uses computers, must address this very problem. I am proud to report that SSA is in the forefront in planning for dealing with this issue. In fact, SSA began examining the problem in 1989. We have changed the formats of dates in our major databases to include the century and have begun making changes to our application software. All of the new software we are developing is, of course, year 2000-compliant.

As part of our early efforts, we conducted pilots, involving representative programs, and studied the time required to modify them for date changes. These pilots raised the awareness of our personnel of the amount of time and complexity the entire project would entail, and gave us an indication of how to schedule the work to be done.

We will have all Year 2000 changes made by December 31, 1998. This will give us an entire year to use our millennium changes in our production systems, ensuring that our current processing is unaffected and that the Year 2000 changes also function as designed. Of course, while we are making these changes to all our systems, our other work must remain on schedule.

After all, we must have the changes working by January 1, 2000. Unlike other computer outages, with which we are all familiar, you can't simply buy a new piece of hardware or hire an expert to get the system running again. If your system doesn't work, it is not likely to work for a long time.

Scope of the Problem

The problem exists for all of the mainframe computers and personal computers (PCs) in use throughout SSA. All the PC-based codes used in our regional offices and Program Service Centers musbe examined. In addition, if any employees have written programs currently in use, the programs must be examined to determine if any changes are required. We will also need to determine when commercial software products which we use will be Year 2000-compliant.

Tools Available to Help

Although there is no automated solution, there are tools available that will help with this problem. We purchased one of these, the VIA/ALLIANCE software product from VIASOFT, in June 1995. This product helps identify dates in our computer system and tracks their flow as they are moved from field to field. We have already conducted training sessions on the use of this tool, and are in the process of using it to help us identify date fields in our programs. Use of this tool will also help with estimating resources needed to complete the project. In addition to the newly-purchased software product, our repository which houses all of our software, ENDEVOR (Environment for Development and Operations), is equipped with its own scanning tool, which helps us focus on those areas in the code most likely to contain dates. While neither of these tools avoid the necessity of looking at every line, they will make the analysis phase of this project quicker and easier.

Other Areas Affected

The conversion to a system which can handle 21st century dates affects more than lines of computer code. Many forms currently in use have a preprinted "19'' prefix in showing dates. Since preprinted forms require a long time to be revised, they must be changed as early as possible. Also, the computer screens that our employees see display only two-digit dates. Because the screens themselves are full, changing the dates to display a four-digit date would involve redesigning screens and the order in which data are displayed. As a result, we decided to continue to show two-digit years on the screens and use an algorithm to determine which century applies. We will redesign only those screens where the century cannot be determined.

Interagency Activities

I would like to briefly mention that the Office of Management and Budget asked SSA last year to lead interagency discussions designed to increase awareness of the Year 2000 issue and encourage a sense of urgency concerning the changes that will be needed. The Year 2000 Interagency Committee Chairperson is Kathleen Adams, Associate Commissioner for Software Design and Development, SSA. The Committee began meeting in November 1995 with only a few representatives attending, but the number has grown to more than 20 participants, and the number grows with every meeting.

It is important to keep in mind that each organization must find solutions that meet its unique needs, and that there is no single approach that all agencies can employ. The purpose of the interagency committee is to discuss cross-cutting aspects of the problem, such as interagency data exchanges and availability of various vendor products. Furthermore, we believe that this group is meeting its objective to raise awareness of this issue and to encourage timely action. To this end, SSA and the Year 2000 Interagency Committee will be sponsoring a Year 2000 conference for all Government agencies on May 2, 1996, in Washington, D.C. Government agencies and private sector firms will share their experiences and approaches for addressing the Year 2000 problem in their organizations. Vendors that have Year 2000 solutions will also be present to answer questions and distribute product literature.


In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, it would be impossible to overstate the importance of a smooth and timely transition of computer operations to accommodate the need to reflect 4-digit years as w enter the 21st century. There should be no question of what needs to be accomplished over the next several years, and no hesitancy in devoting the resources required to ensure timely completion of the task. I can assure you that SSA will continue to work to complete the project on time.