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Y2K Public Participation Proposal

The following proposal suggests that the Federal government help the public discover the best response to Y2K. This paper has been given to John Koskinen (Clinton's Y2K Czar), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) who co-chairs the House subcommittee on Y2K, and several members of Clinton's Year 2000 Council. If you find it of interest, please spread it around to friends, representatives, media, etc.

Note: The practices described here could be applied as well at local, state, organizational or network levels. So feel free to spread these ideas to them!

Engaging the Public in a National Response to the Year 2000 Problem

by Tom Atlee

The House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight's Year 2000 Problem report of October 8, 1998 noted that "The Year 2000 problem has the potential to cause excessive anxiety and even panic in people who fear the worst.... This kind of fear is allayed by access to information and confidence in elected leadership. For these reasons, the subcommittee has repeatedly called on the President of the United States as well as the departments and agencies of the Executive branch to take a strong leadership role in addressing the Year 2000 problem." The Committee also said: "As Chief Executive, the President must play an active leadership role in moving the Nation forward on the Year 2000 problem.... The President [should] use the 'bully pulpit,' as Theodore Roosevelt called it, to explain the problem to the American people.... He has been urged to speak in a 'fireside chat' environment, similar to the approach of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s."

We heartily agree with this assessment of the Committee, with one modification: the public needs more than confidence in their elected leaders. They need a chance to develop their own best understandings of Y2K and their own best role in it. And they need a chance to evoke community leadership from among themselves.

The Year 2000 Problem will only be handled through a collaboration among all sectors of society -- in particular, through a collaboration between the highest levels of government and the grassroots communities and citizenry of America.

The Year 2000 Problem is different from any other problem we have faced as a nation.
Y2K leaves leaders in an awkward position. They must act, but any action could easily be wrong. It is impossible to know, for sure, which (if any) preparations are going to prove necessary. If leaders' intiatives prove unnecessary, they could be attacked as alarmist or wasteful. If, on the other hand, they fail to act, they will most likely be called short-sighted, and blamed for neglecting their leadership role. If they alert the public to dangers, they may generate panic. If they fail to alert the public, widespread apathy may impede vital remediation and preparations.

We can minimize the potential for blame, panic, and unpreparedness by involving the public as central players in both Y2K decision-making and Y2K action. State-of-the-art group techniques make this possible, although we may have to push the envelope of what we know and how we usually function, in order to move quickly enough.

This community-empowerment approach is in line with recent efforts by Congress to reduce federal micro-management of local affairs. From this perspective, the proper role of the Federal Government is to empower and support engaged citizens and communities. As a top officer in the Washington State National Guard told a Y2K community organizer, "We can't handle this from the top. We can only support local initiatives."

We believe the most important Y2K roles for government at all levels are:
  1. to help the public learn what they need to know about Y2K, its role in their lives, and their role in dealing with it;
  2. to evoke conversations among stakeholders that enable them to take coherent initiatives together;
  3. to call forth and inspire leadership in all sectors;
  4. to provide resources that enhance communities' ability to navigate safely through Y2K, no matter what happens -- specifically, the wherewithal for community resilience and self-reliance; and
  5. to address the larger security environment within which everyone will be dealing with Y2K. This includes diplomatic, military, legal, technological, social, economic, public health, environmental and other security conditions.

Of course, much more work needs to be done on remediation. But it is widely acknowledged that much remediation work will not be done on time. We believe it is now time to focus on the well-being of communities, which is where we all live. Further remediation -- at least that pushed by the Federal government -- should be done in that context, as part of (1)-(5), above.

We have ideas about what should be included in (4) and (5), above. However, in accordance with our emphasis on involving the public as key decision-makers, we believe those ideas should be part of the public forums outlined in (1) and (2).

So we urge the Federal Government to stimulate public dialogue and engagement with Y2K, as a priority. We suspect that that effort will prove as vital to the political fortunes of our elected leaders as it will be to the well-being of our communities and the fate of our nation.

We do not, however, advocate public discussion for the sake of public discussion. We advocate specific high-quality public dialogues capable of eliciting creativity, group learning, deep wisdom, common ground among diverse stakeholders, and engaged action. Our aim is to develop a healthy consensus based on good information, creative imagination and respectful listening. We believe that voting and compromise -- core practices in most American political efforts -- should in this case be used judiciously, so as not to leave dissatisfied minorities.

It has long been known that such thoroughly participatory consensus was possible among small groups of trusting friends. Only recently have techniques been developed which can generate such agreement in large organizations, communities, and countries. These are effective, however, only where they are not manipulated -- where no effort is made by the organizers to control the outcome. When people are given the freedom to explore, express themselves, and act in these state-of-the-art forums, they develop a deep trust of themselves, each other, and those who gave them the opportunity. They become partners with their leaders in shaping their destiny. This is exactly what is called for now.

Here are but a few of the tools available for this undertaking. Most of them are associated with organizations and/or broad networks of practitioners who could be called into service for this effort.
1) Study circles -- easily organized small groups for adult education, which are proven to inform and engage participants around community and social issues.

2) Citizen consensus panels -- jury-like panels of citizens who are professionally facilitated towards creating consensus statements on public issues. One variety of panel (the citizen policy jury) hears expert testimony and writes sophisticated policy recommendations. A second variety (the wisdom council) does not hear testimony, but gives clear voice to the deep concerns and hopes of a whole population. Citizen consensus panels are particularly useful at the state and national levels because a small group of people can bring the unconscious wisdom of a whole population into open view. When dealing with technical matters, they can keep "experts on tap, not on top" (as Frances Moore Lappe says) -- tapping the experts' know-how, but shaping it to suit community needs and values. An older, more familiar tool of this type is the Civil Grand Jury. (Because citizen consensus panels are such an important element, I offer three stories to illustrate their effectiveness, below.*)

3) Focus clarification meetings -- a simple, powerful form of town hall meeting in which citizens sort out their community issues and prioritize how to address them.

4) Open Space conferencing -- an innovative way for communities to dialogue, network and act on the issues about which they feel most strongly.

5) Dialogue circles -- a family of advanced conversational modalities that engage diverse stakeholders in collective reflection and learning.

6) Scenario work -- methods that help organizations and communities explore the many things that may happen in their shared future, so they can respond better together, no matter which possibilities materialize.

7) Story-sharing -- an approach to bridging differences, sharing experiences and promoting positive possibilities.

8) Conflict work -- a whole toolbox of techniques to deal with conflicts that arise among peers (neighbors, institutions, sectors) as they try to address Y2K in their communities. Some of these methods can be used to explore polarized issues for the benefit of citizen observers, without the rancor and irrelevant one-upmanship that characterize most debates.

9) Peer counseling and support groups -- readily replicable grassroots approaches to handling the emotions and stresses that can lead to inaction and social unrest.

10) Informational presentations -- a mix of live speakers and video presentations can be used to inform and engage the public in large events, classrooms, living room meetings, and broadcast media.

[More information on all of these methods is available on request.]

Two possible approaches to government financing of public dialogue:

I. Government could provide a list of approaches (like the 10 above) and a website providing the know-how and/or experts necessary to put them into practice -- and could authorize matching funds for any local project that uses at least four (or some other quantity) of them to help a community deal with Y2K.

II. Government could finance efforts to create integrated state or national programs. Here's a sample scenario, which includes Presidential fireside chats, as well:
(A) Y2K experts of many types -- technical, government, business, community organizers, sociologists, etc. -- are brought together in a focus clarification meeting to decide what is most important for the general public to learn about Y2K. Any major conflicts are worked through in videotaped dialogues, which are edited for use in public education.

(B) Materials are developed for a 6-week study circle "Y2K: All Together Now" based on the results of (A). These materials are distributed through numerous national networks (such as churches, unions, community colleges, etc.) and on-line (to be downloaded and copied by anyone). Their use in institutional settings is federally subsidized. A basic summary of each week's materials is distributed to all major media. (The course materials are done in several levels of simplicity, to embrace most levels of citizen study capacity -- as well as in several languages.)

(B2) Simultaneously, three national citizen policy juries are organized to study Y2K and to issue recommendations to the Federal Government.

(C) The President kicks off the campaign in Week 0 with a major televised public speech. He encourages everyone to become part of an already-organized local study circle or to start one with their friends or neighbors. He explains that he will be having a televised fireside chat each week about that week's study circle topic. He explains that if they can't join a local group, they can learn about that week's topic in their local paper or other media. He explains that citizen policy juries will be meeting during the next six weeks to develop recommendations for the government on how government and citizens can work together. He also explains that anyone who studies Y2K during this 6-week period can call a 1-800 number or send an email to volunteer for an upcoming series of state-based Y2K wisdom councils. Never before, he says, has such a level of citizen participation been invited by the federal government. He asks the American public to join him in making this a defining moment for our shift into the 21st century.

(D) The study circles, fireside chats, media coverage and consensus panels continue for the next six weeks. In the last week, the study circle materials recommend specific things people can do on an ongoing basis (e.g., "Create a weekly or biweekly group with your neighbors to discuss and act on Y2K in your community.") The citizen policy juries issue their reports, with much fanfare. People are encouraged to voice their views on the recommendations.

(E) By the 7th week, the President and Congressional leaders present their response to the citizen policy juries' recommendations. They ask for responses from each state, and formally convene the state-based wisdom councils from those who volunteered during the previous six weeks of Y2K studies.

(F) A week or so later, wisdom council results are announced in each state in the presence of its Governor and its Congressional delegation for that state. The officials announce quarterly wisdom councils in their state. All state wisdom council statements are linked interactively on the Internet, to monitor and facilitate public response to Y2K developments. The elected leaders call for broad media coverage of these councils and urge citizens to organize all sorts of other forums (1-10, above) in their communities to discuss the wisdom council statements and to keep everyone working and thinking together on this.

This program is only one possibility; it is not offered as a proposal. It shows what an integrated program might look like. It offers a glimpse of how we might help the underlying concerns of communities to surface into the public consciousness and effectively inform the political process, so citizens feel engaged, empowered and heard. The representative system can do that, over time, to the extent it is not bound to special interests. But there is little time with Y2K, and there are many special interests. Furthermore, polls -- which are often used to monitor public response -- delve only into public opinion. They reveal what people are prone to say off the top of their heads -- ignorant or not, thoughtful or not -- not what those same people would say if they were involved in a serious deliberative conversation. Opinion polls do not generate informed judgment or wise understanding, and it is exactly those things that we need to elicit from the public during Y2K. Not just once, but over and over, throughout the potential crisis.

By mid-1999 we could have in place a system whereby the public knows that their views, concerns and creativity are influencing the formulation of government Y2K policy at all levels on an ongoing basis, and through which they are able to guide their own collective efforts at the community level.

Once we have done that, we may discover that we have new skills and tools to deal with ALL the challenges of the 21st Century. Perhaps we will look back and realize that our democracy has just taken an unprecedented evolutionary leap into a better future.


* Three stories to illustrate the effectiveness of citizen consensus panels

1) Ordinary Folks Recommend Good Policy

During the winter of 1997 fifteen Boston citizens -- from a homeless shelter resident to a high-tech business manager, from a retired farmer to a recent inner-city high school graduate -- undertook an intensive study of telecommunications issues. Over two weekends in February and March, they discussed background readings and got introductory briefings. Then on April 2nd and 3rd they heard ten hours of testimony from experts -- computer specialists, government officials, business executives, educators, and interest group representatives. After interrogating the experts and deliberating late into the night (with excellent facilitation), they came up with a consensus statement recommending judicious but far-reaching policy changes which they presented at a press conference at Tufts University, covered by WCVB-TV/CNN and the "Boston Globe", among others. U.S. Representative Edward J. Markey, ranking Democrat (and former chair) of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, said, "This is a process that I hope will be repeated in other parts of the country and on other issues."

Dick Sclove of the Loka Institute (, a lead organizer of the meeting, noted that this was the first time in modern United States history that someone had successfully organized informed input from ordinary citizens -- none of whom were experts on the policy issues they were learning about nor representatives of organizations with a direct stake -- in a systematic effort to provide public guidance to shape policy on technology or any other complex issue. This was the first U.S. emulation of a European process (known abroad as a "consensus conference") for citizen-based technology assessment.

Noting that these ordinary citizens ended up knowing more about telecommunications than the average Congressperson who votes on the issue, Sclove says that their behavior contrasts with the assertion that government and business officials are the only ones competent and caring enough to be involved in technological decision-making. This lay panel assimilated a broad array of testimony, which they integrated with their own very diverse life experiences to reach a well-reasoned collective judgment grounded in the real needs of everyday people. This proves that democratizing U.S. science and technology decision-making is not only advisable, but possible and practical.

2) Canadian Adversaries Take A Break to Dream

One weekend in June, 1991, a dozen Canadians met at a resort north of Toronto, under the auspices of "Maclean's", Canada's leading newsweekly. They'd been scientifically chosen so that, together, they represented all the major sectors of public opinion in their deeply divided country. But despite their firmly held beliefs, each of them was interested in dialogue with people whose views differed from theirs. That dialogue was facilitated by "the guru of conflict resolution," Harvard University law professor Roger Fisher -- co-author of the classic "Getting to Yes" -- and two colleagues. Despite the fact that they'd never really listened to the viewpoints and experiences of others so unlike themselves and the tremendous time pressure (they had three days to develop a consensus vision for Canada), and despite being continuously watched by a camera crew from CTV television (who recorded the event for a special public-affairs program), these ordinary citizens succeeded in their mission. Their vision was published in four pages of fine print -- part of the 39 pages "Maclean's" devoted to describing their efforts (July 1, 1991 issue).

Like Congressperson Markey observed about the Loka Institute's Boston effort, "Maclean's" editors suggested that "the process that led to the writing of the draft could be extended to address other issues." Assistant Managing Editor Robert Marshall noted that past efforts -- a parliamentary committee, a governmental consultative initiative, and a $27 million Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future -- had all failed to create real dialogue among citizens about constructive solutions -- even though those efforts involved 400,000 Canadians in focus groups, phone calls and mail-in reporting. "The experience of the Maclean's forum indicates that if a national dialogue ever does take place, it would be an extremely productive process."

3) Marin Grand Jury find Marin County official Y2K optimism "unfounded"

After many months of research, the standing Civil Grand Jury of Marin County, California -- made up of 19 volunteer citizens serving one year terms -- released a report in October, 1998, entitled "The Millennium: Is Marin County Ready for this Non-Negotiable Deadline?" It stated: "The investigation revealed a high degree of unfounded optimism on the part of elected officials and department managers. The Grand Jury discovered a significant lack of understanding of the problem, ... a very significant lack of contingency planning, and little county-wide communication and coordination.... The management of, and solutions to, the problem at hand has been... effectively compartmentalized...." They recommended that a special "Year 2000 task force consisting of all major governmental agencies be formed to ensure coordination and communication between jurisdictions." Their full report can be found at

Although most Civil Grand Juries lack the professional consensus facilitation that makes the other forms of citizen consensus panel so powerful, nevertheless Grand Juries, where they exist, can play a powerful Y2K-watchdog role in their zones of responsibility.