By David Franke
© 1999

CongressDaily published a summary this week of a briefing on local Y2K readiness by John Koskinen, chairman of the President’s Council on Year 2000 Conversion. The last paragraph of that article is, in reality, a concise statement of the new official line on Y2K. While there are no quote marks, I have no doubt that Koskinen’s comments are portrayed accurately. CongressDaily has no ideological agenda.

Here it is:

“Koskinen estimated that close to 75 percent of counties across the nation will be prepared for Y2K problems through either compliance or contingency plans.”

Think about that statement for a moment. It has immense implications for your safety and well being.

Those of us who are concerned about Y2K have been complaining for months about the lack of precise definitions about readiness, and the use of weasel words and weasel phrases to fill the vacuum. We started out with “Y2K-compliant.” Even though there was no universally accepted definition of that term, it sounded tough and generally was applied to mean that serious tests had been met. The term made our spin-doctors a little uneasy, so it was replaced by a more pliant term: “Y2K-ready.” Heck, the drunk on the street corner is Y2K-ready. We can live with that, said the spin-doctors.

Unfortunately for those spin-doctors, some Americans still don’t buy their rosy scenarios. So now we have the new term – “Y2K-prepared” — and the new hidden assumption: “Having a contingency plan makes you prepared for Y2K.”

Folks, contingency planning is not remediation, and it does not imply that we’re in good shape.

Everyone – every individual, family, community, corporation, or other entity – should have a contingency plan. Even if you are “Y2K-compliant.” After all, you may be innocently mistaken in your belief that you are Y2K-compliant, and you certainly can be battered by forces beyond your control even if you are internally compliant. So everyone needs a contingency plan.

But a contingency plan is not a substitute for remediation, and it should not be used to lull us into continued apathy. Yet that’s how it’s being used here.

We are told that “close to 75 percent of counties across the nation will be prepared for Y2K problems through either compliance or contingency plans.” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? We’re getting there, right? But if you deconstruct that sentence you will see that it is meaningless.

It could mean that 5 percent of counties are compliant, and 70 percent have contingency plans. (That’s why the two very different terms are lumped together, of course.)

Then there’s the words “close to.” How close to 75 percent?

And the words “will be prepared.” When? December 31?

Oops – that means some 25 percent of the counties will have neither compliance nor a contingency plan. Nada. I hope I’m not living in one of those counties.

And then the term “contingency plans” is never defined, of course, any more than the other terms. Your contingency plan could be a 911 system that stands to be Y2K’s first casualty.

Actually, the idea that only 5 percent of our counties may be compliant could be close to the truth. And that’s scary. We – the president’s henchmen, the corporate flacks, the PR firms that devise these wonderful evasions, the compliant press – we don’t want you to be scared, and you don’t want to be scared, so let’s just say that “close to 75 percent of counties across the nation will be prepared for Y2K problems through either compliance or contingency plans.”

Now, repeat that until you go back to sleep. It was just a bad dream.

But I keep having these bad dreams. Even when I’m awake. This week, for example, I’m attending the extraordinary week-long Y2K conference organized by two dedicated professors at George Washington University, Paula Gordon and Stuart Umpleby. I’m on a panel with (among others) former Ambassador Harlan Cleveland, the State Department’s inspector general, and the World Bank’s Y2K program director, Joyce Amenta – who hits me a variation of this new official line on Y2K.

Read my full account in today’s lead story, “State Department official stands firm on Y2K dangers.” Read that article carefully. Some of the quotes are quite amazing. But I didn’t make them up. Honest.

Ms. Amenta says that the world has become prepared for Y2K in the past three months. She has to use that time frame because in January she told us the world was going to be Y2K toast.

How could three months make that much of a difference, I asked her, when U.S. corporations and agencies have been working on Y2K remediation for years, and still are not ready? What’s their secret? (And, incidentally, if they’re that good, why are they still “developing” nations?)

She answers that “It’s all a matter of risk. It’s true that some critical systems will not get fixed, but they have contingency plans and their risk assessment has gone down.”

Think about that. It’s not just useful-but-noncritical systems at risk, which will be a “nuisance” when they don’t work. They have critical systems that won’t get fixed.

Not to worry – they have contingency plans! No power, contaminated water, whatever, it doesn’t matter because they have a plan. None of this is going to affect the world’s economy because they have a plan. (And they’ll probably get that plan into effect around the time they get the broken systems fixed.)

But there’s more, folks! She excuses this “reassessment” of risk by noting that many U.S. agencies redefined their risk assessment by paring down the number of computer systems they labeled as “mission-critical.” You have to give her credit for putting it up front: If the U.S. can lie, why can’t these foreign nations lie? That’ll make the natives feel better when their food supply disappears.

But there’s still more, folks! In reply to another of my questions, she actually sees it as an advantage that probably less than 5 percent of the people in these developing nations have ever heard about Y2K, much less become prepared. “Maybe that’s an advantage in that there could be less panic, less stockpiling.”

Hey, the real problem is not that you’re not going to have food – but that you might store away some food if you understood this!

I couldn’t believe what I heard. I still can’t.

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