Williamson: The bug stops here

Maurice Williamson is not a happy man. If anyone in government is responsible for Y2K, it's him, and he's not about to let his colleagues let the country down. 'Departmental chiefs, as part of their management responsibilities, are clearly responsible for Y2K compliance for their agency.' Williamson says each chief has it spelled out for them in their performance agreements, as defined by their ministers.

Maurice Williamson is not a happy man. If anyone in government is responsible for Y2K, it's him, and he's not about to let his colleagues let the country down.

"Departmental chiefs, as part of their management responsibilities, are clearly responsible for Y2K compliance for their agency." Williamson says each chief has it spelled out for them in their performance agreements, as defined by their ministers.

"And every minister has been given a very clear steer by way of letters from me about what has to go in those agreements."

On top of that structure, Williamson has instituted a "whistle-blowing" system whereby any agency that falls out of line with his expectations will be contacted directly.

"I say to the minister 'hey, we've got some serious concerns at the SSC and Readiness Commission about department X, I suggest you have your chief executive in and ask the following questions.'"

Ministers themselves are ultimately responsible, Williamson concedes, and he expects to see a reversal of attitude on Y2K over the coming weeks.

"You ring them all again in a couple of weeks' time and every minister's office will have a story to tell you about their compliance programme."

One reason for this imminent change of heart is the monthly update reports each minister will be making to cabinet. As a base line, Williamson will use the Auditor-General's report on departmental readiness. Each department will be listed in a "league table" pitted one against the other.

"There will be curly questions asked of certain departments, but we'll treat this report as a snapshot of where they all were at the end of last year." Williamson fully expects departments to leap significantly from that report to the next.

"If they put some energy and effort in by the time the next report comes out in March they will have moved tremendously."

Williamson is demanding that these reports be based on independent assessments, not internal attestation.

One area Williamson could potentially have a difficult time with is local bodies - which is ironic really, since he is also Minister for Local Authorities.

"I have no power over them at all. They could turn to me and say, 'Minister, we don't want to do that', and I'd have no recourse to tell them otherwise." Williamson doesn't expect that to happen, but he does intend to make local authority compliance a priority. He concedes that some local bodies are in the danger zone, and plans to "move them to a more robust platform".

Of particular worry to Williamson is our foreign trading partners.

"The larger partners are well advanced in their programmes - Britain, Australia, the United States, but some are woefully inadequate."

He says that he brings up the issue of Y2K whenever he meets with his telecommunications counterparts, most recently during APEC meetings, and was astonished to be asked "What is Y2K?" by one high-ranking official, who had never heard of the problem.

"I would have been concerned if he'd said they were behind or just starting a programme but that was unbelievable."

Williamson is keen to push home the idea that it's not too late for either business or government to do something about Y2K, but we shouldn't take it easy, either.

"We will keep a heavy blowtorch on every agency we can. The message from government is that there's no room for complacency."

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