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Psychological effects of the Millennium: Briefing #2

Community readiness update (30 Dec 1999)

On the eve of the Millennium in the UK there appears to be general disbelief about the potential risks of the Millennium Bug. This confidence or apathy has been encouraged by Government re-assurances to avoid panic. In most areas in the UK potential risks have been minimised so the business as usual scenario (refer Briefing #1) seems most likely. There remains a small but significant risk that there may be real problems, overseas if not in the UK - the rough-ride scenario.

Existing contingency plans should be sufficient if there are only isolated local problems. But if there are wider problems, possibly in combination with bad weather, existing plans may not cope and communities may have to fall back on their own resources. Valuable preparation time for contingency planning with local community groups and parish councils has been lost. But the readiness proposals in Briefing #1 can still be applied in local communities if significant disruption occurs.

On latest information major systems failures in the UK seem unlikely due to extensive preparations in the public and private sectors. Smaller problems are likely to emerge gradually over days or weeks, rather than all happening at midnight on 01/01/2000. But some indications of potential problems will become available from other countries during New Year's Eve afternoon and evening (UK time).

Millennium waves

The UK has 14 hours notice of potential effects as the change sweeps around the globe starting at the International Dateline in the Pacific. Watching events during this period may give valuable warning time for communities around the world. One Internet source for the progress of international events can be found at: http://international.bug2000.co.uk/links/. [Best updates since 01/01/00 are on the Taskforce 2000 site].

During this period computers in many high risk countries eg Russia will pass into the new date zone. But practical effects may follow in several waves or aftershocks:

Public vigilance

If problems emerge in any of these waves they could start to increase public anxiety. But some of the bigger problems may not be heard about until some hours or days later if power or communication systems are affected in remote locations eg Russia. These several waves require sustained vigilance for local and international problems for at least a week. Major failures are unlikely. But small, apparently random systems failures may go unnoticed at first eg delays to delivery of supplies. For Internet information try the BBC News Online Millennium site at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/millennium_bug/bugtown/default.stm

The greatest risk of problems or accidents is the chance combination of otherwise minor Y2K systems malfunctions with other factors, e.g. bad weather, flu epidemics, staff shortages or fatigue.. Compound risks are hard to predict and can have serious consequences. Public sector contingency plans appear to be vertically organised i.e. top-down within sectors and organisations. There is area co-ordination between public services and private sector organisations (eg between local councils, emergency services and supermarkets). But there is no horizontal co-ordination (between services) at "ground level" within most local communities in the UK.

In the unlikely case of a widespread system failure eg of power supplies, communities will have to fend for themselves. This could last several days during which time vulnerable members of the community could be at significant risk. Vigilance by all members of the public on a Good neighbour basis is important, supporting vulnerable neighbours and reporting any unusual situations to central information points in organisations and local communities.

Unfortunately, since the UK public have been encouraged to expect only minimal problems (eg video dates) they are unlikely to be vigilant. Real problems may be treated as hoaxes or "wolf, wolf" warnings and ignored. Public reactions are hard to predict if significant disruption occurs in UK or overseas. People not directly involved in problems are likely to react with disbelief for several weeks and to minimise the importance of serious events for up to 3 months (e.g. public reaction to the Balkans war). People who are directly affected may react with profound distrust of subsequent Government statements in the light of repeated re-assurances over recent months. The British public is psychologically as well as physically unprepared for serious disruption.

Particular problems may arise due to tired staff. Cumulative problems may not fully develop until at least Tuesday 4th January. By then emergency services, systems experts, civil servants and politicians may have been on duty or standby for many hours. Tired and stressed people have more difficulty solving complex or unexpected problems. In this situation major decisions must be double checked to avoid serious errors of judgement. Wise organisations will schedule duty rotas for the whole of the first week to ensure that staff in strategic positions are clear-headed for solving complex and unusual problems.

Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to potential Millennium systems malfunctions. They are less likely to have checked their computer systems and may not have expert resources to solve unexpected computer problems. They are also more vulnerable to interruptions in supplies, banking systems or a down-turn in sales since they have limited financial resources. If the rough ride scenario develops many small businesses could be in serious financial problems within a month. The Government may need to act to encourage banks to extend credit facilities during an emergency period.

Community action

If local disruption occurs community readiness planning will need to be extended from local authority to local community level immediately i.e. to involve parish councils, voluntary groups and local business organisations. These will need to form local steering groups. Key contacts in each community will need to be mobilised and advised of plans and resources at higher levels.

Since these local precautions have been left until problems develop they may be harder to arrange, especially if phone systems or power supplies are affected. Local steering groups need to monitor the situation in their community throughout the first week. In most cases no action should be needed. But in areas where there are problems these groups could avoid unnecessary delays in getting support to vulnerable citizens.

Government action

The UK Government has developed extensive plans and networks that should cover many contingencies. But it is reluctant to share information and control as seen by its exclusion of local communities from emergency planning. It has also operated powerful influence over public opinion through its media management. If there are serious problems in the UK or overseas it is will be interesting to see whether the public will receive full information. But they have are offering an Internet briefing service on Millennium events at: http://www.millennium-centre.gov.uk/

If there are significant problems the Government will need to trust local authorities and the public to respond to problems on an area and regional basis. The new Assemblies are a valuable new resource and could have a significant role to play in managing problems in their regions if the rough ride scenario develops with problems lasting over 2-3 months.

The Government may also face a very unstable international situation if other countries have serious problems, or if international finance or transport is affected. Problems in high density urban areas in less developed countries could need international aid.

A combination of unstable events in the UK and overseas could put great strain on Government ministers and processes. Stress and fatigue affects the quality of strategic political decisions in Government just as seriously as it does managers and staff in other organisations.

Stress may also affect the judgement of governments on other countries e.g. in Russia. The next two months may not a good time to make major political decisions - just to stabilise current conditions in regions that may be affected by systems malfunctions.

Medium term outlook - good

This note has concentrated on managing short term responses to the rough-ride scenario in communities and government because these have been least discussed in public. But the medium term outlook is good!

If there are no significant Millennium bug problems in the UK or around the world (the business as usual scenario) there is likely to be a sense of relief and new optimism. Many commercial operations have held back on new projects until the Y2K problem is resolved. If the business as usual scenario works out it may develop into the celebration scenario anyway. This could build up steadily over 2-3 months with benefits for community morale and business confidence.

But even if there are problems in the New Year these may trigger a powerful community response in areas affected. Several disasters in the last two years have shown the amazing potential of local and international communities to respond to unexpected crisis and disasters eg the Omagh bomb and the Turkish earthquake.

Community spirit is seldom called on in affluent societies but it is a valuable human resource that can achieve remarkable results within a few weeks. This is no consolation for the distress of individuals and communities who suffer serious loss in a disaster but it is a resource as yet untapped in UK Millennium contingency planning. Government and emergency planners need to consider from Omagh's experience that the autonomy of a community coping with trauma is important to maintaining its dignity and speeding its longer term recovery.

Lastly in areas where there is significant disruption there will be medium term psychological and political reactions. These are likely to develop 6-12 months later even if the initial cause is resolved in a few weeks. These transition effects have potential for positive changes in values and attitudes for individuals and society most likely to occur later in the year 2000 - a possible transformation scenario. This is an aspect of community psychology that will be covered in later briefing papers.

Monitoring events

Eos will be monitoring actual events over the next few days and weeks. The scenarios will be much clearer by 4-5th January and we will revise our forecasts in Millennium Briefing #3. We would appreciate reports and analysis from other organisations monitoring these events around the world. These can be Emailed to Dai Williams at eosuk@btinternet.com

page written 30 Dec 1999, revised 4 Jan, links updated 25 June 2000 © Eos Career Services


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