Millennium bug immunisation has given UK technological edge

Not only did the millennium bug preparations deter disaster, they have also helped the UK strengthen its competitive edge over the US, says George Pitcher

I and a clutch of civil servants must have been the only people trying to leave Trafalgar Square at about 9.30pm last Friday night. We’d just handed over to the night shift of the media co-ordination unit at the Government Millennium Centre in the Cabinet Office and, as we were due back on duty at 8.30am on the first day of the new century, our aim was to get home against a tide of some 2 million people who had precisely the opposite intention.

After a couple of years of preparation and planning for the millennium bug, there was a different keenness to our anticipation of the new millennium. Yes, we felt celebratory. No, we weren’t apprehensive. But, yes, this midnight, which we had tracked since mid-morning GMT from the Pacific to Europe, would be the start of the real test of whether all that preparation and planning had been worthwhile.

As we and Government ministers have subsequently, if guardedly, confirmed, it was very much worthwhile. But there are those who take a different view. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to make some observations of my own regarding the millennium bug operation.

There are those, with some justification, who would say that I’m bound to take a positive view of that operation, having been a part of it myself. To which I would respectfully reply that at least mine is an insider’s view. Others may have greater benefit of objectivity, but I doubt they can offer the same degree of insight.

The principal question among millennium bug sceptics is whether the financial expenditure was worth it, both for British industry and the taxpayer. It is difficult to answer this sensibly in the face of some very strange figures – some wildly speculative estimates put the total cost to Britain at between &£25bn and &£35bn. Those can only be figures pulled out of the air – the total cost to industry is and will be quite unquantifiable.

Strange theories as well as strange figures: Cuba’s Fidel Castro claimed the millennium bug was a capitalist conspiracy to make us buy more computer software.

What we do know is that the Government spent some &£430m tackling the bug issue. I’ve heard it said that Italy spent a fraction of this and didn’t suffer unduly. Part of the answer to that is that Italy alone turned red on the screens when midnight arrived in Continental Europe – coastguards reported that ship-to-shore telecoms were down. (Incidentally, a friend tells me that, for reasons no one can quite explain, he fielded desperate calls from Italian homes at the Treasury last Monday).

But the real issue is that Britain had the best global millennium bug monitoring and tracking research resources in the world. This is proving, and will continue to prove, highly marketable abroad. It was this intelligence that secured the emergency services, the National Health Service, the utilities and the entire national infrastructure during the millennial rollover. But that’s largely a public sector issue – it was also resource that enabled Action 2000, the organisation established by the Government to advise and support industry on the bug issue, to ensure similar security applied to British business as it returned to work this week.

So my first point is this: the principal benefit of the investment was invisible, precisely because nothing happened, crisis was averted and we (or, rather, you) were able to enjoy the party. You don’t inoculate a school and then complain that there’s no diptheria. Or, as the Cabinet Office had it on New Year’s Day, things don’t go right by accident.

But this only works if the threat was real. That it was can be proved both historically and contemporarily. In the week before the millennium, Racal showed symptoms of the bug when its swipe-card systems went down – a glimpse of the kind of chaos that could have occurred had the bug got a hold. And it could have done. Some 12 months ago, research showed a sea of “red status” in British industry, the worst category for lack of preparedness.

Which brings me to my second point: British industry is in far better technological shape for the new century than it would have been without this investment. It’s not just a question of avoiding bug-related collapse. The knowledge and experience of systems security that the bug exercise has provided has put – some might say kept – British information technology at the cutting edge of developments.

Furthermore, an aspect of the process that we noted was that IT is now taken more seriously in British management than it was before the bug was treated – it’s unfair on the individuals, but IT has taken off its anorak and put on the pinstripe, which should help our competitive position with the Americans. In this context, IT has followed marketing and communications into the boardroom, further to erode finance’s old hegemony.

There is, of course, a strong case for further bug vigilance in industry as the year unfolds – February 29 is one key date. We’re not out of the woods. But, in a global context, we can take considerable pride in the manner in which Britain led so successfully on the millennium bug. As someone who was directly involved, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I didn’t have to write it down.

George Pitcher is a partner of issue management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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