REPORT: The first Community Conversation Meeting : LUSENET : nms notes for John K. : One Thread

Date: Sat, 12 Jun 1999
Subject: Y2K: REPORT: The first Community Conversation Meeting
From: "NewHeavenNewEarth"

The following summary comes from Lewis (last name unknown) and Bill Dunne. It was posted in the Civic Preparedness discussion list:


Hello all,

Jan Nickerson suggested that I post the observations of Bill Dunne and myself of the very first Community Conversation held on 6/7 at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. I had forgotten that many readers of this group participate by listserv only, and web access may not be universal. If this seems like an egregious waste of bandwidth, Jan has authorized me to tell you that you can blame her. ;-)

Here goes:

Lewis' impessions:

It was educational, but not terribly informative. The most important thing I learned was a fundamental lesson that I'd forgotten:

The topic of Y2K is incredibly difficult to discuss coherently, regardless of your point of view.

The more we talk, the fuzzier it gets. The fuzzier it gets, the more frustrated folks get, and the more frustrated they get the less civil they get. In an open forum such as CC, informative dialog is even harder.

It struck me last night that JK may be in the same boat Ed Yourdon is: you can only preach to the choir for so long before the lack of fresh faces in the front row makes it all seem pointless. These .gov sponsored Community Conversations will only draw the Y2K aware, IMO. (Particularly if most attendees hear of it via word-of-mouth or web as was the case here.) But I think their real purpose is not to inform the public, but to force local entities into the spotlight so they will act. An important task, but any actual information dissemination appears to be incidental.

An unfortunate side effect of the difficulty of discussion, is that anything anyone says about their Y2K status winds up sounding vaguely disingenuous. Describing problems and repairs whose nature is shades of grey in terms of black and white is incomplete and unsatisfying to all. Unfortunately, such a complex subject lacking standardized terms or metrics is doomed to breed confusion and distrust. People want an answer: "Do I have to worry about y2K or not?" Try answering that question honestly without beginning with a prevaricatory "Well,....". It's bloody hard to do.

A homegrown small-scale version of a CC, done locally with neighbors inviting neighbors, may be a useful vehicle. Hosted one myself a few weeks ago and it was a surprisingly positive experience. The moderator controls the spin, after all, and if you, after researching your area's situation, feel that a more "gloomer" spin is appropriate, construct the meeting that way. But it's a serious responsibility and you'd better do your homework.

Another obvious lesson I'd forgotten came home to me last night: Y2K really will have a wide range of impacts across the US and the world. Not all black or all white but a nasty patchwork of brushfires to contain. Hopefully contain. If the worst does come it will not come as a comet striking, but as individual fires that must be prevented or controlled before they can spread and merge into one horror.

So the details. (Note: while I recorded nearly all of the session, I have not yet had a chance to listen to it.

John Koskinen presided, and Sen. Dodd addressed the group via telephone. He was in Washington and had chosen to be present at the White House summit on Mental Health instead of in CT. Many cameras were present, but a post event discussion with one of the media people told me that it probably would not be broadcast as a one hour show, (unless perhaps on public access cable), but was likely to be used for brief 1-2 minute PSA's. In other words, the tough questions will probably never see the light of day.

The "chorus" consisted of 40-odd representatives of state and local government, bankers, civic leaders, major employers, and I think private citizens who asked or responded to questions occasionally. I'm not sure if seating was significant, but the heads of CT largest banks sat to his right and immediately behind. CT's IT Chief sat to his right.

(Digression: CT is in the midst of a controversial privatization all of it's computer operation using Texas-based EDS. The quote for this cost-saving measure just jumped yesterday from $1B to $1.5B; mostly because apparently CT has no accurate inventory of how many computer systems it owns. Certainly gives one the warm fuzzes for their Y2K efforts doesn't it? This idea is nearly as knuckleheaded as moving the Gas company headquarters and the steam plant serving downtown Hartford in the midst of their y2K work just to build a stadium for the Patriots. /digression)

Mr. Koskinen gave a lengthy introduction which left me with a positive impression of him. He seems very calm but not over confident. IMO, I think we're lucky to have him in that job. Is he trying to manage the information flow? Of course he is. If that surprise or offends you, I suggest you offer to take over for him. Forget Koskinen. That job is to be a lightning rod and anyone in it will be damned whatever they do.

The questions from the audience were mostly intelligent, receiving occasionally coherent answers. (Cf. my first point above.) It was clear to me that many, especially from the city and state governments, did not instill confidence in the citizenry. I think due to an evil mixture of poor public speaking skills, instinctive beauracratic speech patterns, cluelessness about the issue and prevaricating about the problems.

The very first exchange was so pat and such good sound-bite material that I am guilty of conspiratorial thoughts and suspect it was jiggered:

Young lady (student?): "Will I be able to take money out of the bank?"

Head of Fleet bank on JK's right: "Do you have any money IN the Bank?"

Laughter filled the room, tension was released and the reassuring words flowed. He did say that banks had a statutory requirement to be Y2K compliant by June 30. I hadn't heard that before. That date was apparently the bandwagon to be on, ridden by Aetna Insurance, Northeast Utilities, state agencies and sundry others.

More details later, but it was clear that Mr. Koskinen avoided responding to questions directly, making no effort to take the microphone awaiting anyone else. This produced a few awkward pauses. Three self avowed computer geeks in the audience (including this correspondent) brought up the most ominous issues. (How insanely complex Y2K is, What is the truth behind self reported compliance information, How no-one will have any idea what the effects will be until The Day...) but they were deflected to other members of the chorus, resulting in some peculiar non-answer answers.

Mr. Koskinen remained afterward for perhaps 20 minutes to talk with audience members and seemed candid and accessible. Media coverage on the 11:00 news amounted to an unintelligible 1-minute jumble.

Or maybe I was just tired.


Bill Dunne's observations:

Hi Lewis, it was nice to finally meet you. Here's my jumbled notes and observations on last night's event:

Format: John Koskinen and approx. 40 reps. from area business, industry, gov't, utilities, and the General of the Conn. Nat'l Guard sat on the panel, facing about 250 audience members. Phil Donahue- like moderator walked among the audience with a cordless mic. Audience members would ask a question, and a member or two of the panel would volunteer to answer. Questions were not pre-screened.

Major problem: by the time the question was answered (or deflected and not really answered), the moderator had moved on to another part of the room where another person would ask a totally unrelated question. There was no opportunity for multiple questions, follow-up, refutation, argument, etc.

For example, when I finally got the chance to ask a question, I said, "In March the Senate Y2K committee issued a report which stated, 'The fundamental questions or risk and personal preparedness cannot be answered at this time.' But on the very day that report came out, Sen. Dodd and other officials began proclaiming, 'Prepare for Y2K as you would for a 3-day snow storm.' My question is: if the fundamental question of personal preparedness could not be answered at that time, how did Sen. Dodd and others arrive at their 3-day recommendation?"

After a pause, the representative from the Red Cross volunteered to answer, and said something along the lines of, "Well, maybe he came up with that recommendation from some of our literature where we suggest that all families have a few days worth of emergency supplies on hand."

And that was it. Before I could say anything like, "But Y2K is different. It's not a localized weather event," "We have no experience with this," "Shouldn't we err on the side of caution?" etc., someone else on the other side of the room was asking another question.

Other notes:

Koskinen said he probably won't be attending all the other town meetings scheduled throughout the summer.

An organizer told me beforehand they hoped to keep the meeting to one hour in length. It actually went about 1 hr. 40 mins. before the moderator wrapped it up. The audience seemed willing to go on for a few more hours if they had allowed it.

Koskinen said the federal gov't is 93% done and the greatest risks are at the local level. (Weren't they 92% done on Mar. 31? One- percent progress in over 2 months? Unfortunately, no one challenged him on this.)

Koskinen said (on a radio interview earlier in the day) that HCFA is completely finished, and the GAO will be issuing a report next week saying so. (De Parle must be a miracle worker.) He did admit there's still work to be done with Medicare's private contractors.

Reps from Aetna Insurance, Fleet Bank, and Northeast Utilities (power co.) each said they would definitely be done-100% compliant, tested, and in production-by June 30. Atena rep noted this meant 100% internal compliance. She admitted they're very dependent on a complex, multi-layered chain of suppliers, vendors, and service providers.

During all the Q and A with the banking reps-and all the assurances about, "Everything will be fine," "You'll be able to get your money," "the Fed is printing up an extra $50 billion in currency"-the phrase "fractional reserve lending" was never mentioned.

Rep from Yale New Haven Hosp. said they tested thousands and thousands of medical devices and not a single one would have malfunctioned on 1-1-00. Some would have printed the wrong date on a report, but he claimed not a single one would have ceased to perform its critical function, and he sees no reason why anyone would want to postpone surgery.

Sen. Dodd spoke via phone from Washington at the very beginning, and went through his usual "this is serious, but we're on top of it - blah, blah - prepare like it's a 3-day hurricane" (he must've changed the type of storm because it was 98-degrees yesterday). He concluded by making it very clear that it's wise to prepare but we should avoid "hoarding" and "extreme measures."

Koskinen used the expression, "...respond appropriately" numerous times, as in, It's important that people respond appropriately to this issue. He never defined exactly what that means.

Many people who wanted to ask a question did not get the chance, and of those who did, no one had the opportunity to ask a second question. (Mine would've been: "Why is it when business and gov't stock up on critical materials it's called 'prudent,' but when individuals and families stock up it's called 'panic'?")

Summary: Unfortunately, it's the Kosky Katch-22. He walks that tightrope between raising awareness and getting as many systems repaired as possible, while making sure he doesn't wake the sleeping giant-the general public who would throw our economic production/supply system for a loop if they suddenly took this stuff seriously and began stocking up. (See GN at for a good discussion of this.)

Wishful thinking and optimism were the main attitudes for the evening. The hard questions were either not asked or danced around. (Like the concerned inner-city woman who asked about civil unrest. "Civil unrest? Why, we've had many, many meetings and that topic has never even come up. Don't worry," was the General's general reply.)

Suggestions: 1. At future meetings, if the format is the same, DON'T GIVE BACK THE MICROPHONE AFTER ASKING YOUR QUESTION. Prepare multiple follow-ups to your original question and don't let them off the hook as easily as happened last night.

2. Do what Koskinen says: badger your local officials to hold similar open meetings, but don't for a minute relax your own personal prep steps.

Your humble scribe, BD

-- Bill Dunn (, June 08, 1999.


NewHeavenNewEarth (NHNE)

send a blank message to

-- NewHeavenNewEarth (, June 12, 1999

Moderation questions? read the FAQ