U.S. consultants take heat over millennium bug readiness ratings

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Saturday, November 27, 1999

U.S. consultants take heat over millennium bug readiness ratings
By PAT REBER -- Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Technology consultants GartnerGroup are among the world leaders in promoting awareness of the Year 2000 computer bug, advising global corporations, foreign governments and the U.S. Senate.

It won't be long before we learn the accuracy of the country-by-country Y2K readiness ratings by the Stamford, Conn.-based company. But in the meantime, some countries are complaining the Gartner ratings have unfairly damaged their international image, perhaps even hurting foreign investment.

"GartnerGroup has a vested interest in stirring up panic," said Jamaica's government Y2K coordinator, Luke Jackson, who said he was never approached by anyone representing the company. "They're consultants. That's what they do."

Although Jackson did not specifically blame Gartner for harming his country, South African officials complained earlier this year after the international grain trader Cargill mentioned a Gartner report as influencing its decision to suspend deliveries to this country for two weeks over New Year's.

At the time, the Reserve Bank's top Y2K official, Louis Erlank, told a newspaper that Gartner clients "now see South Africa as a high risk to investment."

South Africa did fare better in a recent ranking by Britain's International Monitoring. The technology consulting group put South Africa in the category of "better prepared," one below the category of countries deemed least at risk.

And South Africa eventually received a good rating from Gartner. But the incident underscores investor jitters over just how thoroughly many developing countries have stamped out the millennium bug -- in which computer programs designed to read only the last two digits of a year mistake "00" for 1900 instead of 2000.

The Y2K bug is a costly one: More than $100 billion has been spent in the United States alone to reprogram computers so they don't cause chaos.

Gartner analysts have frequently been relied on as judges of who's ready and who's not. That's because little independent verification on Y2K fixes is available in most countries -- especially when it comes to public sector readiness. Most governments have simply not subjected their Y2K programs to outside audits.

Gartner defends its reports, saying it relies on thousands of its own clients and other private firms in judging Y2K compliance -- and think that makes it among the most qualified to judge where the millennium bug might cause failures in essential systems like phones, electricity, water and medical devices.

The technology consultants also insist that, in the interests of getting the best and most exhaustive information possible on Y2K readiness, they are obliged to keep their sources confidential.

"Oddly enough, we have not received any complaints from countries that we position with average, or better-than-average ranking," said Lou Marcoccio, a research director at Gartner, which has 4,000 employees worldwide and had annual revenues of $642 million in 1998.

Nor has Gartner received any complaints from multinational corporations or international business associations, added Marcoccio.

Nonetheless, Ecuador is still fuming over the distribution by a U.S. Senate committee of a Gartner evaluation last year that had the country lagging far behind in readiness. In Gartner's most recent report, Ecuador was shown as improving but still considered problematic.

"The conclusions of this report are inaccurate," protested Jacqueline Herrera, national coordinator of Ecuador's Y2K program. "Gartner doesn't have an office in our country. They never called me."

"One must take into account that (GartnerGroup) are in business," said Renato Orellana, a U.N. official in Chile who advises South American countries on Y2K issues. "There is some concern about their independence."

But Gartner officials say such accusations are unfair, considering the nature of what they do.

"We do not do remediation work, implementation work or provide hardware/software solutions," Marcoccio said in an e-mail. "We only provide advice."

Marcoccio and other Gartner officials consider that their efforts have encouraged software repairs that may well make the rollover to 2000 anticlimactic.

Take Gartner's latest report. It predicts that public panic and computer viruses will have more impact than the millennium bug in January.

And as for Jan. 1, Gartner predicts that "except for isolated outages, isolated terrorist events and panic in some countries, the day should be relatively uneventful in many regions." [ENDS]

-- John Whitley (jwhitley@inforamp.net), November 27, 1999

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