Year 2000 problems mean more than 40 per cent of government departments will be unable to operate effectively, potentially causing a social crisis as systems for welfare payments, tax collection and transportation fail.
And, in a nightmare vision report from analysts Gartner Group, to have any chance of preventing possible social disaster the UK government must appoint a Cabinet level minister to begin contingency planning and show it is serious about the Year 2000 crisis.
"European public sector IT will not be compliant," warned research director at Gartner Andy Kyte, "To show some commitment, European governments must make Cabinet level appointments with ministerial responsibility for driving through Y2K compliance for public sector organisations."
He said there were a number of factors that meant governments were particularly vulnerable to the problem. Social security, unemployment and revenue systems were all very date sensitive.
"The failure of tax collection could lead to governments having to increase their public sector borrowings to manage their cash-flow," said Kyte.
According to Dataquest, public sector IT spending in Europe totals $54 billion. Gartner's finding is that organisations with major Y2K problems have to spend 20 percent of their IT budgets for three years to solve the problem.
"It is not evident that the budget provision has been made," said Kyte, noting that was true of the UK.
The Cabinet Office denied the Gartner report had relevance to the UK position.
"The Gartner research is a generalised statement of circumstance surrounding government IT," said a government spokesperson and cited the CCTA's work in assessment of the problem.
"Gartner maintains there has been no evidence of significant remediation work in government. In the UK on the contrary there has been significant remediation work," he added.
However, Kyte also noted that with the arrival of Maastricht, governments in Europe were actually making expenditure cuts, including in IT spending.
Along with this lack of available budget, governments are also being forced to compete for finite resources with a high-spending private sector. Government systems have also tended to have been developed by national companies, such as ICL in the UK or Bull in France.
These proprietary systems are much harder to correct than more mainstream applications such as those from IBM.
The final mountain to climb is who is responsible and who will do the work. Even if the money were available, a majority of service providers have told Gartner they will no longer be seeking to pick up government contracts, preferring to focus their resources on simpler and more lucrative private sector work.
Service providers themselves confirm the extent of the problem, one they are unable or unwilling to become further involved in.
"The big risk is not in the commercial sector. The real risk is for the unemployed, the old and the sick. Government systems will continually get left because they cannot provide the wherewithal," said Geoff Unwin, chief operating officer at Cap Gemini, speaking at Gartner Group's annual Symposium in Cannes this week.
Meanwhile as Unwin points out, the government has to compete with the financial sector for skills, which will pay what it takes to get what it needs. A source close to Cap Gemini said it was just one of the service providers that had decided not to take on any more government contracts.
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