Planning for the Worst, Bringing Out the Best? Lessons from Y2K

Planning for the Worst, Bringing Out the Best? Lessons from Y2K

Kevin Quigley (Dalhousie University, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-774-4.ch005
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Organization theorist Lee Clarke (2005) argues when policy makers plan for disasters, they too often think in terms of past experiences and “probabilities.” Rather, policy makers, when planning to protect the infrastructure, should open their minds to worst-case scenarios; catastrophes that are possible but highly unlikely. Underpinned by a precautionary principle, such an approach to the infrastructure would be more likely to produce “out of the box” thinking and in so doing, reduce the impact of disasters that occur more frequently than people think. The purpose of this chapter is to consider the utility of Clarke’s worst-case planning by examining Y2K preparations at two US government agencies, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The data concerning Y2K come mostly from official US government sources, interviews, and media analysis. The chapter concludes that the thoroughness of worst-case planning can bring much needed light to the subtlety of critical complex and interdependent systems. But such an approach can also be narrow in its own way, revealing some of the limitations of such a precautionary approach. It potentially rejects reasonable efforts to moderate risk management responses and ignores the opportunity costs of such exhaustive planning.

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