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Y2K paternalism, democracy and responsible openness

It seems that the federal government and its associated networks are moving increasingly towards secrecy and public relations to deal with public Y2K fears (see "Feds Plan Y2K Spin Control"). While I can understand their position, it is a bit like not telling the kids that daddy has lung cancer. The kids will pick up the bad vibes anyway, make up their own stories about it, and become increasingly unable to talk about the problem openly and intelligently. If this happens, family life rapidly deteriorates.

On the other hand, it isn't advisable for parents to just walk into the kids playroom, announce that daddy has lung cancer and a 70% chance of dying in the next year, and walk out.

The parents would be better off sharing with their children the full situation -- including, and especially, all the positive things that could be done. They would explore what the children think they and their family should do help the situation. First off, the kids might tell daddy to quit smoking. (My own daughter got me to quit 17 years ago. It makes you wonder who's leading whom.)

Not that the feds are our parents. But since they're thinking in paternalistic terms, we might as well pursue the metaphor. The main point is that there is an untried alternative to secrecy on the one hand, and unrestrained openness on the other. We might call that alternative "empowering openness" or "responsible openness." Responsible openness involves releasing information into a context where those involved can use it creatively to deal well with the situation.

Here are a few ways federal authorities could do this:

1) Engage the media in co-creating responsible openness. A government has a hard time being responsibly open when the media report government-sourced information in ways that create public disengagement and panic. The government could call a conference of media leaders to ask for their ideas in how both government and media can practice responsible openness with Y2K.

2) Do a PR campaign -- but not about how everything's fine, because no one can guarantee that it is. Rather, tell people about all the positive, pro-active, pro-social work being done by citizens to engage creatively with Y2K. If the media environment is filled with positive possibilities and guidance about what people can do, the public will respond in positive ways to each new piece of information. And then the government can feed THOSE NEW POSITIVE RESPONSES back through the PR loop, further enhancing awareness of positive possibilities and the likelihood of further positive responses.

3) Set up public forums designed to evoke collective intelligence and community wisdom about Y2K. Poorly designed forums can result in little more than heated exchanges of rumor and mud. But more wisely designed forums can facilitate intelligent evaluation of information, expression of deep feelings and values, shared exploration of a full range of options, and the development of broadly supported visions and plans. (For further information on this approach, see The Co-Intelligence Dimension of Y2K)

Is the government going to do these things? Who are we to ask that question?! We, the people, need to keep in mind that our government will be as paternalistic as we allow it to be. It isn't likely to take initiatives like I've described unless we demand it. Our silence makes paternalism a fact. Our voices make democracy a fact. The sooner the better.


Tom Atlee