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Bug reactions: Considering US government and UK government Y2K operations in light of media coverage and public opinion polls

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This paper considers the manner and extent to which the media and public opinion influenced the US government's and the UK government's reaction to the Y2K computer bug. The data concerning Y2K come largely from primary and secondary government documents and newspaper articles and public opinion polls from the period as well as semi-structured interviews conducted with civil servants, representatives from the IT sector, and IT journalists. The paper concludes that during the early phases of Y2K planning there was anxiety among a professional elite, which included the media, the legislatures, and private industry, and this anxiety influenced the timing and magnitude of both governments' responses. With respect to public opinion, however, the governments were more concerned about shaping it rather than following it. Both governments raised the profile of Y2K as a strategy to minimize the impact of the bug in a complex and interdependent infrastructure. After having raised awareness and anxiety levels for over a year, however, the US government, in particular, was worried that it had done too good a job, and that public overreaction became a distinct possibility. They therefore embarked on a strategy of bringing public anxiety down. As New Year's Day 2000 approached, the governments' Y2K operations were no longer in line with public perception about the risk, but in light of the potential consequences of a public overreaction, this deviation seemed acceptable.

Keywords: Y2K; information technology risk management; millennium bug; opinion-responsive government; public sector risk management

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Queen's University Belfast, UK

Publication date: 2005-09-01

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