Each of us can be a 'public citizen' in our response to the Y2K challenge; we can play a critical role in alerting others and helping to shape a community and national response that secures the welfare of all. We list below a number of ways that public citizens can work together to prepare for worst-case scenarios posed by this unprecedented challenge.
1. Public citizens can make sure their own workplaces, affiliated businesses, and support structures are all Y2K compliant. Public citizens should act quickly and effectively to assess their own Y2K preparedness. This means following the same assessment, remediation, and testing steps as businesses. After taking appropriate steps to assure the integrity of their own information technology, public citizens should inquire about the Y2K compliance of their partners, vendors, suppliers, and other essential organizations. In addition, public citizens should check on the Y2K compliance of their office buildings and community infrastructure systems such as electricity, transportation, and waste disposal.
Public citizens who are well along in the Y2K remediation process may also help by sharing their learning and experience with others who are just getting started. As awareness of the social dimensions of the Y2K crisis increases, there are likely to be market disruptions, particularly in foreign markets. Public citizens should be alert to such possibilities, consult with investment managers where appropriate, and be prepared to meet financial obligations without impairing their own financial condition. In taking these steps, they should act in a responsible manner that avoids contributing to a disastrous market plunge.
2. Public citizens can help to increase public awareness of the Y2K problem. Before we as a society can mobilize to react constructively, we must convince all relevant parties that the year 2000 problem is both serious and urgent. Although there have been a number of high quality Y2K conferences, many of them involve 'preaching to the converted.' And although there are a plethora of excellent Websites providing pertinent information, we must find effective means to reach the great majority of our national population that lacks computer access to the Web and relies on traditional media, especially television, for its news.
Public citizens can help by stimulating and/or providing support for in-depth treatment of the problem in newsletters, newspapers, books, movies, radio, and television. A thoughtful discussion of the problem and of the need for action on 'Oprah Winfrey' would be worth any number of conferences or pamphlets. Businesses, which use the media effectively to promote their products and services, should turn their resources and skills to the task of helping educate the public about the Y2K problem. Striking the appropriate tone so as to strongly motivate listeners or viewers without inducing panic is a major challenge.Successful business leaders enjoy considerable access to local and state officials and possess great influence among their peers. They can begin to increase public awareness simply by activating their own community networks where they are located. Engaging their boards, stockholders, and advisory committees on the social dimensions of the Y2K issue is an important step in assuring support for preparedness measures.
3. Public citizens can play a leadership role in helping to organize a social response to the Y2K problem at the national, state, and local levels. The year 2000 problem poses a set of interlocking challenges in each community. Too often, it has been addressed as a technical problem for individuals or corporations, without looking at the larger social dimension. Public citizens can take the lead in getting beyond this narrow view and in mobilizing the resources of their local and state communities to address the social dimensions of the Y2K crisis. Businesses can also help by providing key technical and fiscal support to national service organizations that can activate their networks of local chapters to prepare for Y2K.
Nobody can say with certainty at this time exactly how much social disruption and damage will be caused by the Y2K problem. But it is certainly within the realm of possible scenarios to foresee major infrastructure breakdowns and social disruption both locally and worldwide. We must begin immediately to formulate contingency plans to address some of the 'worst-case' scenarios if we hope to be able to mitigate them. Public citizens can further such community, state, and national preparedness by supporting several actions:
· Plenary sessions or special breakout sessions on Y2K at the annual conventions of their trade associations and of leading national service and relief organizations, and the publication of Y2K-preparedness articles in the newsletters of these organizations. These sessions and publications should educate and alert people that the Y2K problem requires emergency attention outside normal planning and action cycles.
· Special coordinating meetings for trade associations and national service and emergency response organizations. The purpose of such meetings would be to promote networking among key leaders in these organizations and coordinated contingency planning at the local level throughout the country.
· Public information and community organizing efforts built around churches, synagogues, schools, and other local institutions. Consider encouraging the use of these local institutions as emergency relief centers, complete with supplies of food, water, and blankets as well as backup generators and fuel so that members of the public will feel protected against freezing or starving in the event of a major infrastructure breakdown. The existence of such centers might help to prevent or minimize panicky individual hoarding and the civil disorder that could follow from an individual/exclusive rather than a community/inclusive response to infrastructure breakdowns.
· Y2K efforts of responsible community-based organizations and networks, such as groups working to protect the environment and house and feed the poor.4. Public citizens can encourage and support public interest organizations to undertake high-priority tasks. For example, public citizens could encourage and contribute funds for:
· Credible environmental public interest organizations to evaluate risks associated with failure of date-sensitive embedded microchips at U.S. nuclear power plants and toxic-waste disposal plants.
· Public health organizations to coordinate a national evaluation of the risks associated with failure of embedded chips in 'mission critical' hospital medical devices and systems, and breakdowns of the supply chain for life-preserving pharmaceuticals. In conjunction with this effort, public citizens could hold a series of healthcare conferences in major cities with the focus on ensuring hospital services to vulnerable populations.
· Finding ways to require corporations and government entities to divulge full information about their Y2K preparedness.
· Investigative journalists to determine the state of preparedness of key infrastructure components in their localities and publicize the findings in appropriate newspapers and magazines. Public citizens might encourage a reporter to investigate the transportation and fire-fighting systems in the city where they live, for example.
5. Public Citizens can encourage investigation of the most dangerous situations in other countries and support individuals and organizations interested in helping to address those situations. In today's highly interdependent global economy, it is in the best interests of us all to help people in other countries deal with urgent Y2K issues. A high priority for the world is to ensure Y2K compliance of nuclear power plants, nuclear waste storage sites, nuclear weapons systems, and other ultrahazardous systems in countries such as Russia, Ukraine, India, and Pakistan. Public citizens can also advocate for contingency planning efforts for communities in Central and Eastern Europe and developing countries that will be in desperate need of help if more serious disruptions of infrastructure occur.
6. Public Citizens can press for much more aggressive leadership at the national level to address the Y2K problem. The president and vice president have shown some leadership on this issue. In February 1998, they established the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, which coordinates the federal government's efforts and assesses Y2K preparations in key infrastructure areas. More recently, they have delivered speeches on Y2K to the Academy of Sciences and issued statements in connection with National Y2K Awareness Week. They proposed recently enacted legislation to protect companies that share information about Y2K compliance.
We need much more active leadership and a national sense of urgency to meaningfully address this challenge. Public citizens should join those who have called for the president to use his 'bully pulpit' to spark a major national preparedness effort; to form a Y2K global alliance to coordinate both national and multinational campaigns; to freeze all legislative, regulatory, and information technology changes that might divert resources from attention to the Y2K problem; and to submit an emergency Y2K budget for last-ditch efforts to repair or replace key computer systems and to implement contingency plans.
We need a Y2K center for developing and implementing a national and international Y2K strategy. We agree with the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information & Technology and other thoughtful observers that the most logical mechanism for establishing a year 2000 strategy to coordinate efforts, share information, and alert citizens to the status of Y2K preparations is the President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion. The President's Council should have its mandate expanded to include conducting a broad assessment of the nation's year 2000 readiness; identifying and assessing the risks to the nation's welfare, including the risks posed by international linkages and by the failure of critical infrastructure components; and developing and implementing necessary contingency plans for action at the national and international levels. The council's staff and budget should be dramatically increased. Public citizens should encourage such leadership initiatives at the national level.Of course, even with aggressive leadership from the president, we won't succeed with Y2K preparedness plans unless governors, mayors, and other state and local leaders also play an active role. In this regard, public citizens could support public interest groups that want to establish appropriate bench marks, monitor compliance, and publish regular report cards on the progress of specific states and cities in achieving Y2K readiness. A model for this initiative would be the report cards issued by the House subcommittee for the critical computer systems in the various federal agencies.
7. Public citizens can support the creation of a Center on Y2K and Civil Society, which would encourage public interest organizations, ordinary citizens, and their communities and institutions to work together on Y2K preparedness, reviving the ideals and practice of public citizenship. We need to further the concept of a 'civil society' in the context of the Y2K crisis. A Center on Y2K and Civil Society could encourage public interest organizations, ordinary citizens, and their communities and institutions to work together on Y2K preparedness, reviving the ideals and practice of public citizenship for the common good.
The first thing we must do, both personally and societally, is to resist the powerful urge to engage in 'us versus them' thinking and to worry only about ourselves, our immediate families, and our organizations. Some wonderful examples of communities coming together to meet Y2K challenges have begun to occur throughout the country. A Center on Y2K and Civil Society could work to raise awareness through a thoughtful media campaign and dissemination of accurate information; could support specific community planning initiatives; and serve as a clearinghouse for dissemination of checklists, best practices, and models for community preparedness. In all of our efforts, we must pay particular attention to assuring essential services for the most poor and vulnerable members of our communities.
8. Public citizens can help make response to Y2K a budgetary priority. To maximize the impact of Y2K-preparedness efforts, public citizens may wish to contribute to the creation of a one-time emergency fund for the support of organizations and activities addressing the Y2K problem.
A common fund could be jointly administered by a small staff and an advisory board or it could be part of the Center on Y2K and Civil Society discussed in section 7 above. Guidelines should be established that would allow money to be disbursed on an expedited basis to qualified individuals and organizations for the purposes described above. The fund should also consider and review unsolicited proposals from individuals and organizations that believe they have something special to contribute toward Y2K preparedness.
* * *No single group can assess the complexity of the systems threatened by the Y2K problem or where the consequences of failure might be felt. Foundations and nonprofits, local, state, and national governments, and each of us individually and working with each other must take responsibility for meeting the year 2000 challenge. The Y2K crisis requires collaboration among neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, and the federal government in a manner unprecedented in American history. We must begin to develop social responses to the year 2000 problem. We need to engage in this discourse within our organizations, our communities, and across the traditional boundaries of competition and national borders. We must understand that Y2K is a systemic, worldwide crisis that requires us to respond in the collective, humane way we would respond to the devastation caused by multiple, simultaneous earthquakes and floods. In working together to meet this formidable challenge, we can affirm our interconnectedness and common humanity.
Charles Halpern is president and CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
Paul Friedman has founded and directed both a foundation-funded public interest organization and a for-profit law firm, and has served as Deputy Associate Attorney General at the United States Department of Justice. Most recently, he has been an advisor to the Nathan Cummings Foundation on Y2K.