What Public Citizens Can Do about the Y2K Crisis

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

· 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

· 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

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

* * *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.

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