10 key questions for public administrators in the time of COVID-19

There will certainly be scores of studies and articles for years to come about lessons for public administrators from how our multiple levels and units of government managed the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. An important place to start is asking the right set of questions.

To assist me with this task, we have the good fortune at the Gerald G. Fox MPA program at UNC Charlotte to have Mr. Kevin Staley on our part-time faculty, who is a former Deputy Director of Emergency Management Services for Mecklenburg County, and a current member of the FEMA National Advisory Council We recently had a conversation (remotely of course) about our thoughts on the crisis at this point, and we came up with the following questions worth pondering.

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  1. How do you continue to provide government services? Regardless of who you are or where you sit, employees and citizens are impacted by the crisis and infrastructures must be established to provide essential services. For example, converting our campus dorms into field hospitals was under strong consideration. Unprecedented.
  2. How do you build relationships and partnerships in a broad enough network during good times? If you are exchanging business cards with someone you need during the crisis for the first time, you are unprepared.
  3. How do you build agility in your organization? A popular term in emergency management is “semper gumby” meaning always flexible. A highly specialized workforce can snap under pressure to change gears if they do not have a good awareness of all aspects of the organization where they suddenly need to jump in and support.
  4. How do you operate with a drastically reduced workforce, and are you prepared to move to remote worksites in rapid fashion? We have a national laboratory with this crisis as every American is facing the challenge of operating in a virtual world in every aspect of their professional and personal life. For some it has been fairly seamless, for others, especially the poor and those in rural areas, not so much.
  5. How do you master supply-chain management? Businesses are built on a “just-in-time” model, where the goal is to keep inventory as low as possible to be responsive to immediate demand. This model is not build for a crisis with a sudden upsurge in demand for goods and supplies. The Defense Production Act is designed to address this challenge by asking industries to quickly retool and ramp up production. How well does this work based on evidence from this crisis?
  6. How do you manage overreaction of the public that results in unnecessary hoarding? Fear based on misinformation can run rampant in the age of social media where anyone with an iPhone becomes an expert reporter, as seen with the irrational run on toilet paper.
  7. How do you manage mixed messages from multiple podiums and platforms? Related to the previous question, there is no central, uniform message when multiple formal and informal authorities are speaking. This speaks to the growing importance of communications and public information officers at all levels of government. Their task is herculean with not only crafting their own government’s message, but keeping up withand translating the mass assault of information in social media that elected officials and citizens are absorbing 24/7.
  8. How do we have coordinated decision-making in a governmental system designed to be decentralized? The greatest fear of our Founding Fathers was too much power and control in any one person or unit of government; this has produced separation of powers both vertically and horizontally in our system of Federalism. While a masterful way of preventing tyranny and dictatorships, the system is not so well designed for responding to a nationwide crisis in a uniform, coordinated manner. A model being promoted in emergency management circles is “federally supported, state managed, locally executed,” but does this work in a crisis such as CIVID-19 where even states making their own decisions is wildly inadequate to respond to such a fast spreading virus, and where the citizenry look to the bully pulpit of the Presidency for guidance (see question 7 on mixed messages). The very first bullet on the postcard I recently received titled “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America” states: “Listen and follow the directions of your STATE AND LOCAL AUTHORITIES.” Is this patchwork response good enough?
  9. How do we foster effective and efficient relationships between the public and private sector? The crisis is further evidence that the production capacity needed for response must come from the private sector.
  10. How do we integrate science, policy and politics? In the past three years in this country we have had at least fourteen natural disasters with a bill of at least $1 billion dollars to rebuild and recover from. This situation is unprecedented. What is science telling us about the cause of such a phenomenon, and what is science telling us about the cause and effects of this virus? How does this science translate into policies and how is science-based policy tempered by politics? More specifically in this case, who said what and when at the CDC, and how was it received and acted upon by the policymakers and the politicians?

Tom Barth is the MPA Director at UNC Charlotte. Kevin Staley is a part-time faculty member at UNC Charlotte.

This article originally was published in PATimes.org, an American Society for Public Administration media.

Tom Barth & Kevin Staley