The national hangover on January 1st 2000 will be the least of our worries if millennium bug plans are not actioned promptly. Although the majority of home owners can rest assured knowing that domestic appliances, such as toasters and video recorders, will still work come 2000, it is the state of the world outside that is causing the greatest concern. There are no guarantees that traffic lights, emergency services other key areas of the national infrastructure will function normally. No one body is taking responsibility for this, and getting the various parties involved to collaborate in beating the bug remains a huge challenge.
It is a fair assumption that the government should be ultimately responsible for preventing Millennium Armageddon. But it does not want to shoulder the responsibility. "The government can't dictate to a private company how they deal with the issue. We are there to inform and offer information about how to solve the problem," a Cabinet spokesman said.
The independent, government-backed body, Action 2000, is attempting to put greater pressure on organizations -- especially those in the public sector and those which are crucial to the economy -- to be more publicly accountable in the run up to 2000. Last week, it announced that it intends to force utility and telecom regulators to issue regular statements about their preparedness and threatened those that fail to come up to scratch with a `naming and shaming' campaign. The first of these statements, from water regulatory body Ofwat, was published last week. Given the lack of time left for tackling the bug, it is a warming report. Ian Byatt, the water regulator, commented: "I am encouraged that all the companies are being active, not complacent about this serious problem." However he sounded a note of caution. "While all companies are making progress, there is still more work to be done." Getting the regulators on board to "hold the feet of the companies over the fire" is crucial if the work is to be done on time, stressed Gwynneth Flower, the head of Action 2000. She argues that the regulators, whom she describes as a `scheming bunch', need to work together more closely. To this end the National Infrastructure Forum, an initiative to c-ordinate activities between all utilities, has been set up. "We cant have this stand off. We needed to bring them all into the same room and say `sit down and sort it out'" she said.
This is a lesson that private industry must learn too. According to IDC analyst Phillip Fersht, the supply chain could prove the undoing of companies that think they are safe. "A larger company may well have done all they need to, but their suppliers may not. Each company has to look at its own sphere of influence and be entirely aware of who they are relying on," he said. If they fail to do so, the year 2000 could well see a flurry of messy litigation cases after the initial chaos, Fersht believes. For the public sector, it will be the administrators who must make sure their houses are in order and Fersht does not envy the NHS administrators. "They are looking at life or death. If a kidney dialysis machine fails, it will be their responsibility" he said. "Ultimately though, it is the government who appoint these administrators and the buck stops at the top."
Meanwhile, the government has been throwing cash at the problem -- £10 million to Action 2000 and £26 million for DfEE training packages -- but money may not be enough. The Millennium bug body's latest research reveals that 2 in 5 small to medium sized (SMEs) companies are still not doing anything about the bug and predicts they may go under as a result. This is an outcome the already fragile economy can little afford, according to Don Cruickshank, chairman of Action 2000. "Things are tough, especially in manufacturing, and there is no good reason for adding another problem to the economy" he said. To compound matters, SMEs are failing to take up the raft of training packages that are being offered by the DfEE through a Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs) across the UK, according to the DfEE. The training packs offer solutions for the millennium bug, as well as offering generalized IT re-training. In an effort to stimulate interest, the government is offering 100% grants to companies that want to retrain staff.
Many observers fear that the government's efforts are too little, too late. Robin Guenier, executive director of Taskforce 2000, the Tory initiated predecessor to Action 2000, said: "They are coming round to our agenda and it is far too late" he said. He believes that the whole issue needs to be open to public debate. "There are so many general statements. We are being treated like children," he said. But getting private sector companies to open up publicly is not going to be easy and getting them to collaborate to solve the problem may be a naïve ambition, given the free market they operate in. Just how far individual companies and organizations get in the battle to fight the bug remains to be seen. And even if the government eschews responsibility for the date-bug now, if the worst case scenario becomes reality, it will be the first to be blamed. It will have to deal with the potential economic and public crisis when its members wake up hung-over and bleary-eyed on Millennium morning.